The Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), acclaimed by the surreallists as a forerunner of their movement, founded the school of metaphysical painting.
Giorgio de Chirico was born on July 10, 1888, in Volos, Greece, the son of an engineer from Palermo. The family settled in Athens, where De Chirico studied art at the Polytechnic Institute. His earliest works were landscapes and seascapes.
After the death of his father in 1905 De Chirico, attracted by the German neoromantic school of painting, moved to Munich. There he saw the paintings of Arnold Böcklin and discovered the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, which exercised a great influence on him.
The attraction of Böcklin for De Chirico is best understood from the artist's own words: "Böcklin knew how to create an entire world of his own of a surprising lyricism, combining the preternaturalism of the Italian landscape with architectural elements." De Chirico also spoke of the metaphysical power with which "Böcklin always springs from the precision and clarity of a definite apparition." These statements describe the characteristics of De Chirico's own art.
In 1909 De Chirico went to Italy. The following year he began to execute the paintings that became characteristic of his style, such as the Enigma of the Oracle and the Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon. This style he developed further in Paris between 1911 and 1915, where he worked in isolation and in poor health. When he exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1913, Guillaume Apollinaire called him "the most astonishing painter of his time."
De Chirico had to return to Italy for his military service and was stationed in Ferrara (1915-1918). The architecture of that city, with its far perspectives, deepened his sense of the mysterious. In 1917 he met the painter Carlo Carrà at the military hospital in Ferrara, and they launched the metaphysical school (Scuola Metafisica) of painting, which attempted to create a new order of reality based on metaphysics. Giorgio Morandi, Ardengo Soffici, Filippo de Pisis, Alberto Savinio (De Chirico's brother), and Mario Sironi soon became members of the circle.
Characteristics of His Art
The art of De Chirico centers upon the antithesis between classical culture and modern mechanistic civilization. These two elements are locked in a desperate struggle, and the tragic quality of this situation exudes an aura of melancholy of which De Chirico is a prime exponent. The iconographic elements of his early art—modern railways and clock towers combined with ancient architecture—are to be sought in the artist's childhood memories of Greece. For the strange visual images in which De Chirico cast his mature works (1911-1918), he used an airless dreamlike space in his townscapes with an exaggerated perspective artificially illuminated, with long sinister shadows, and strewn about with antique statues. There is an elegiac loneliness too (the Delights of the Poet, 1913) and the disturbing juxtaposition of such banal everyday objects as biscuits and rubber gloves with those of mythical significance. And De Chirico's new man has no face; he is a dummy (Hector and Andromache, 1917).
A favorite amusement of ancient Greece was the composition of enigmas. In De Chirico's art they symbolize an endangered transitional period of European culture. From the enigma to the riddle presented by one's dream life is but a short step.
De Chirico moved to Rome in 1918, and on the occasion of an exhibition that year he was hailed as a great avant-garde master. A year later he became one of the leaders of Valori Plastici, a group of painters espousing traditional plastic values which dominated the artistic scene in Italy at that time. In 1919 an exhibition of De Chirico's works in Berlin made a deep impression on the central European Dadaists. Between 1920 and 1924 his art underwent numerous fluctuations.
In 1925 De Chirico returned to Paris, where the French proclaimed him one of the masters of surrealism. He, however, had quarreled with the Dadaists and surrealists (he corresponded intensely between 1920 and 1925 with Paul éluard and André Breton) and had left this stage of his development far behind.
In Paris, De Chirico designed scenery and costumes for the Ballets Suédois and the Ballets Monte Carlo and began to paint a series of ruins, wild horses, and gladiators. After 1929, the year in which he published a strange dream novel, Hebdomeros, he changed his style entirely, renounced his adherence to the modern movement, and from then on, living in Rome, became not only a fierce critic of modernism but an academic painter of neoclassic character. He died in 1978.
Further Reading on Giorgio de Chirico
James Thrall Soby, Giorgio de Chirico (1955), is a searching and comprehensive study of De Chirico's life, work, and philosophy. Isabella Far, Giorgio de Chirico (1953), has a text in Italian and English. See also James T. Soby and Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Twentieth-Century Italian Art (1949), and Massimo Carrà, ed., Metaphysical Art (1970). De Chirico's novel, Hebdomeros, is discussed in J. H. Matthews, Surrealism and the Novel (1966).