Writing in 1960, at the age of 72, Giorgio de Chirico contemplated his long career in art with complete satisfaction. Looking back he saw only, “consistent progress, a regular and persistent march towards those summits of mastery which were achieved by a few consummate artists of the past”.
To achieve this – indeed, even to comprehend it – de Chirico noted it was necessary, over and above his own “exceptional intelligence as far as true painting is concerned”, also to possess his “mighty personality”, his courage, not to mention his “ardent desire for truth”.
A new exhibition at the Estorick Collection, North London, will explore one aspect of his late works: the statuettes which he made in his 60s and 70s, based on figures in his earlier paintings. However, not everybody agreed with de Chirico’s ecstatic assessment of his own accomplishments.
In the early Thirties, the painter Max Ernst declared his perplexity at the manner in which, as he saw it, de Chirico’s art had declined in “a very mysterious way”. Some people tried to explain this on the basis of old age – de Chirico was around 40 at the time – or physical disability, but Ernst was not persuaded by either explanation.
Ernst described a visit he had paid to de Chirico’s studio, in company with Giacometti and the poet André Breton, leader of the Surrealists. De Chirico showed this Surrealist deputation a series of pictures of Venice, “which had been done in the lowest post-card style”. After looking at a number of these, Breton suddenly exploded, and insulted de Chirico “most horribly”.
The latter didn’t seem to mind at all, remarking that if Breton didn’t like the paintings of Venice, he had some others of Naples that he could show him. Ernst suspected, surely correctly, that de Chirico took pleasure in driving Breton – a despotic character dubbed the “Surrealist pope” – into paroxysms of fury.
This was the enigma of Giorgio de Chirico, as the Surrealists, and – on the whole – posterity have seen it: why did one of the most original artists of the 20th century abandon his early manner, and spend over half a century producing fuzzy, academic pictures, copies of old masters and endless tired repetitions of the masterpieces of his early phase, sometimes deliberately misdated? Ernst’s own answer was that he was practising a form of deliberate artistic self-destruction, undertaken out of despair at the human condition, “a very slow self suicide which included not only his own life, but his work too”.
If so, it must be said that de Chirico disguised it very well, apparently sailing on until the age of 90 in the belief that everybody who disagreed with him was wrong – particularly the Surrealists, whom he described as “that group of degenerates, hooligans, spoilt brats, loafers, onanists and wastrels”.
He also denounced Cézanne, modern art, and attacked the Italian Fascists on the unexpected grounds that they were “modernists enamoured of Paris”. He signed one self portrait, ”Pictor Optimus”: the best painter. If this was all an ironic put-on, as some revisionist art historians have claimed, it was extremely well sustained.
By nature and upbringing, de Chirico (1888-1978), was doubly an outsider. From the point of view of Parisian avant-garde, which he encountered in the years before the First World War, de Chirico did not fit in because he was wealthy and aristocratic. He was also, effectively, born in exile: of an Italian family but in Volos, Greece, where his father Evaristo de Chirico was working as an engineer building the railway lines of Thessaly. (He also had shares in the company.) Giorgio and his younger brother Andrea, who later became an artist under the pseudonym of Alberto Savinio, were brought up in Greece.
De Chirico studied art in Athens, Florence and Munich. By 1910 at the age of 22, he had already absorbed the late Romantic style of Arnold Böcklin, with its air mysterious, dreamlike melancholy. At this point, he claimed to have had an epiphany while sitting in the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence, one autumn afternoon.
He was convalescing, he recalled, from a long “intestinal illness”. As he looked at the square and the autumnal sun on the statue of Dante, he felt that the whole world, including the marble of the square, seemed “to be convalescing”. It also felt strange, as if he “was looking at these things for the first time”.
Like most moments of sudden revelation, this was one that de Chirico had been primed to experience, not only by paintings such as Böcklin’s, but also by reading the German philosophers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, who argued that man was an outsider in a godless world of alien and senseless things. He had also begun to encounter the Parisian avant-garde, after moving to the French capital in February, 1910.
The sensation of all-pervading strangeness he experienced in Piazza Santa Croce, de Chirico termed “inexplicable”, and – a favourite word – an enigma. It was the foundation of the paintings he began to exhibit at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1912. These typically feature deserted classical squares, with Renaissance arcades, pervaded by a sense of eerie waiting. These were often the setting for juxtapositions of incongruous objects: a headless marble statue of a nude women and a pile of bananas, for example.
Such pictures struck the youthful Surrealists with the force of revelation. When, in the early Twenties, René Magritte first saw de Chirico’s Song of Love from 1914, featuring a marble head of Apollo flanked by a rubber glove, he felt tears come into his eyes.
Effectively, de Chirico had invented Surrealist painting a decade before Surrealism itself was officially founded. Magritte spent the rest of his life producing pictures of just such strange combinations of objects as he had seen in the Song of Love. It is not surprising that, for a while, the Surrealists regarded de Chirico as a heroic forerunner.
There was almost literally a honeymoon in 1923, when Ernst, the poet Paul Eluard and his then wife Gala (later married to Salvador Dali) visited him in Rome. In a typical Surrealist spirit, they promptly invited him to join them in what the tabloids would call a four-in-a-bed romp. De Chirico agreed, though he later claimed not to have been keen on the idea. He also painted Eluard and Gala, dedicating the portrait to “My friends forever and wherever”.
These cordial relations did not last. In 1919, de Chirico had had another epiphany, this time in the Borghese Gallery, Rome: while looking at a Titian he “saw tongues of fire appear” and had “a revelation of what great painting was”. In the magazine Valori Plastici, he proclaimed “Pictor classicus sum”: I am a classical painter.
he more the Surrealists saw of the work he did in this new spirit, the more aghast they became. He was given marks producing a bizarre work of fiction entitled Hebdomeros in 1929 (hailed by the writer Louis Aragon as “interminably beautiful”), but in the long run he was cast out as an apostate.
On the whole, they were right. De Chirico’s work of the Twenties retained some quality, but overall his long career shows a loss of that early, poetic inspiration. Perhaps there is nothing enigmatic about this after all. Many major artists have a phase of brilliance, followed by a decline. The ones who sustain an epic career – the Picassos and Matisses – are the exception.
After a decade of great achievement, de Chirico started to lose it. But of course he could not admit that, even to himself.
Originally published in the Daily Telegraph