in Profiles | 30 SEP 14
Featured in
Issue 3

Museum of Strangeness

Giorgio de Chirico's influence of the 20th-century imagination

in Profiles | 30 SEP 14

‘Pictor Classicus sum’ (‘I am a Classical Painter’). With duly Latin gravitas, the artist Giorgio de Chirico thus declared his Classical bona fides in 1919. Having created images that would reshape pictorial and architectural space for decades to come, the Greek-born Italian painter turned his brush to ever-more archaic imagery, disavowing the several years he spent as a fellow traveller of the Parisian Avant-garde. To the chagrin of the French Surrealists (who later adopted him as their aesthetic forebear), De Chirico recoiled from the Modernism that so keenly inflected his painting of the 1910s — perspectival plunges that rear up into flattened swatches of paint; elliptical narratives marked by formal aporias — and set about copying Old Master paintings and his own early work alike. Indeed, if history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, De Chirico’s intermittent resuscitation of his early style over the course of five decades — from his controversial self-copies in the 1920s to the neo-Metaphysical compositions of the 1970s — appears undecided as either earnest reprisal, pastiche or cynical stratagem. The artist’s conservatism formed a convenient piece with his stubborn adherence to figurative painting, perhaps the most willfully retardataire of media in later 20th-century aesthetics. Art histories that mourn the death of the ‘heroic’ Avant-gardes unsurprisingly cast De Chirico as an abiding Judas.

Nonetheless, De Chirico’s influence has echoed to surprisingly diverse corners of the art world, surfacing in a range of media from photography to installation to abstraction. Even the arch Avant-gardist Marcel Duchamp noted early on that the painter’s notorious, conservative volte-face was less straightforward than it seemed, while Andy Warhol (perhaps Duchamp’s most important postwar successor) found himself drawn to De Chirico’s almost serial replication of his own images. Of course, the latter’s investment in painterly ‘craft’ diverges from Warhol’s depersonalized enterprise. But even the work of Mike Bidlo — whose ‘Not De Chirico’ series (1989 – 90) features, in a Warholian vein, outright copies of Metaphysical canvases — reveals a conceptual complexity intrinsic to De Chirico’s paintings themselves (not to mention their subsequent, frequent replication by the artist himself). Often deemed ‘proto-postmodern’ in its insouciant crossing of iconographies and epochs, Metaphysical imagery confuses the clockwork of the Avant-garde rupture with history. While critics have long examined the temporal upshot of that anachronism, the spatial dimensions of De Chirico’s work — and how they bear upon subsequent artistic practices — have received less attention.

In his earliest manuscripts from before World War I, De Chirico expresses his affinity for the display of statues on low plinths, such that ‘some marble men seem to be on a level with the passers-by and seem to walk beside them’. The conflation of the real and the simulacral, the organic and the artificial, marks the range of his paintings from this period, in which bananas flank plaster busts, and trees or shrubs appear consigned to the further frame of paintings within paintings. The same Parisian notebooks articulate many of the theoretical and philosophical principles animating his imagery, particularly the professed intention to ‘understand the enigma of things generally considered insignificant. To perceive the mystery of certain phenomena of feeling […] To live in the world as if in an immense museum of strangeness.’ The assault upon the museum — and all the conservatism that it represented — was reaching its fever pitch in Paris before World War I. Strewn about the city, and confusing pedestals with everyday, banal spaces, De Chirico’s objects seem to partake in that same assault, even as they remain faithful to aspects of academic representation.

‘The lyrical or rational transformation of things is being replaced by the things themselves.’ In an article titled ‘The Circle is Closing’, published in the Florentine journal Lacerba a century ago, the Italian critic, philosopher and editor Giovanni Papini thus fretted about the state of contemporary aesthetics. Writing during the heyday of collage and responding to the recent emergence of the readymade object in Avant-garde Paris, Papini registers an anxiety about the shifting ontology of contemporary art. Real sequins pasted on painted dresses; an actual absinthe spoon inserted into a sculpted bronze glass; a bottle rack displayed as nothing other than itself … Even for the critic sympathetic to the Modernist revolution (as was Papini), the boundaries between art and mere objecthood appeared increasingly, and worryingly, blurred. If ‘the method gains hold and should push forward to its logical consequences’, he writes, ‘it would turn out that the best painting of a still life would be a furnished room’. In the wake of installation art and relational aesthetics alike, such a conjecture has proven strikingly prescient. Of course, in its consignment to painterly representation, De Chirico’s work essentially dodges such confusion. Yet André Billy, an associate of the influential poet Guillaume Apollinaire, dismissed De Chirico early on as a ‘hypochondriacal furniture-mover’, attesting to the primacy of displaced objects in his images’ sense of dislocation.

Metaphysical imagery presents a fundamental paradox: the apparent generosity of its open spaces stands at odds with its intended exclusivity. Even as the painter expanded the domain of aesthetic revelation (the corner of a portico, a biscuit glimpsed in a shop window, mere scraps of wood), he imagined its profundity to be seized upon only by a select few. In other words, the ‘immense museum’ promised in De Chirico’s imagery implies not a democratic opening up of aesthetics (into a site of phenomenological exploration), but rather one still arbitrated by the artist’s visionary selections, and their further transubstantiation into paint. Wilfully embracing real time and rejecting the hieratic work of fine art, 1960s artists passed over De Chirico’s legacies (not to mention his contemporary production) in favour of radical avant-garde precedents like Dada and Constructivism. Even so, despite a rigid devotion to the institution of painting, De Chirico has influenced artistic practices that skirt — and, in some cases, openly attack — the pre-eminence of the framed canvas.

Certain aspects of Metaphysical theory anticipate elements of Minimalism, particularly De Chirico’s displacement of meaning from the material surface of his painted spaces to a more rarefied, conceptual plane. ‘The metaphysician’s studio’, he wrote in 1918, ‘possesses something of the astronomical observatory, the inland revenue, the portolano’s cabin. Every uselessness is suppressed. The bare minimum. Just those tiny grids of canvas and squares of wood that suffice for the expert artist to create the perfect work.’ The concealment of labour in both Metaphysical painting and Minimalist sculpture stems from a shared avoidance of ‘style’, an attempt to evade the inevitable obsolescence that plagues Avant-garde experiment. Just as De Chirico’s cityscapes seem, in the words of Philip Guston, ‘never to have been painted’, Minimalist works seem never to have been assembled (and often, in fact, were not crafted by the artist’s hand but rather fabricated by factory contractors). Though rarely noted as such, Minimalism’s spatial interventions reflect De Chirico’s example, taken up by post-Minimalist practices like Arte Povera to somewhat different ends.

The conceptual artist Daniel Buren once described the work of artist Jannis Kounellis — in which substances like wool and coffee appear with almost ritual staging — as ‘De Chirico in three dimensions’. Kounellis’s Arte Povera colleague Giulio Paolini pursued that affinity even more consistently. Many of his works feature empty and derelict frames, thus invoking De Chirico’s self-reflexive paintings of canvas stretchers and supports, even as Paolini distances his work from the conventions of painting itself. Arte Povera’s founder and mouthpiece, Germano Celant, insisted upon his artists’ ‘rediscovery of the floor, the corner or the beam that joins the floor and ceiling of a room’ — precisely the kind of spatial revelation undertaken in De Chirico’s images, if not (yet) in real time: ‘We who know the signs of the Metaphysical alphabet’, De Chirico writes in 1919, ‘are aware of the joy and the solitude enclosed by a portico, a street corner or the angle of a room, on the surface of a table.’ More recently, New York-based artist Adam Putnam has drawn upon De Chirico’s porticos and geometries in installations ranging from architectural constructions, (Untitled, 2012) to cast shadows (Sundial, Magic Lantern, Arch [Eclipse], 2007), lending — like his Arte Povera predecessors — a further, phenomenological dimension to Metaphysical spaces. Other artists like Nina Beier, Dan Rees and Luca Vitone have staged installations in De Chirico’s former residence in Rome (now the Fondazione Giorgio e Isa de Chirico), displacing and rearranging actual domestic objects in ways that draw upon the (il)logic of De Chirico’s imagery.

Homages to De Chirico’s legacy have been authored by artists associated with Nouveau Réalisme (Mimmo Rotella), Pop (Tano Festa, Lucio del Pezzo, Mario Schiffano) and Performance Art (Luigi Ontani), each surely inspired by De Chirico’s status as one of the few early 20th-century Italian artists to have secured a substantial following abroad. (He got himself in trouble with Benito Mussolini, in fact, by calling Amedeo Modigliani and himself the only Modern painters ‘of any talent’ that Italy had produced). Even the enfant terrible of Italian cinema and stage in the 1960s, Carmelo Bene, made recourse to Metaphysical painting in his iconoclastic film, Capricci (Caprices, 1969), in which bottles and other objects are moved in and out of an empty canvas stretcher, set off against De Chirico’s trademark arcades. One of the least classifiable artists of the Italian postwar, Gino de Dominicis, owes something of his installations’ rebus-like play to De Chirico’s work, as does his abiding dedication to painting alongside conceptual forays.

However, De Chirico’s influence on the 20th century reached well beyond the Italian peninsula. The artist’s death in 1978 saw his legacy reprised almost immediately by a fresh investment in figurative painting. The 1980s witnessed the resurgence of figuration as a privileged mode of expression (and collection) in the United States and Europe. This renewed taste for painting reacted in part against artistic tendencies of the preceding two decades: the aridity of Minimalism, the rarefaction of Conceptualism and the objectless duration of Body and Performance art. Yet it also undeniably formed a piece with the climate of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s respective administrations; as the utopic defiance of the neo-Avant-gardes gave way to barefaced neo-conservativism, notions of artistic authorship, originality and individual genius gained currency once again. Whereas a critic like Benjamin H.D. Buchloh denounced this return to the craft of painting as ideologically reactionary, the Italian critic Achille Bonito Oliva celebrated it as a healthy resucitation of cultural heritage. In the name of Bonito Oliva’s Transavanguardia, painters such as Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi proudly flouted the logic of Modernism’s stoic forward march, cutting back across various epochs, sampling from the past even as they claimed to push painting in new directions.

To be sure, the Transavanguardia’s uses of De Chirico’s work to that end were more notional than formal; like their contemporary Neo-Expressionist painters in the United States and Germany, they favoured agitated brushwork over an austere economy of space. Other groups in Italy and abroad, however, appealed to the compositional premise of Metaphysical imagery — evacuated cityscapes, incongruous objects isolated for display — as a means to stage new pictorial revelations and anachronistic juxtapositions. Stefano Di Stasio, Paola Gandolfi and other Anacronisti painters (notably promoted by De Chirico scholar Maurizio Calvesi), appealed to the temporal ambivalence of Metaphysical spaces, while Fabrizio Clerici turned to De Chirico’s images (as well as to those of the latter’s early inspiration, Arnold Böcklin) in a more emphatically archaic vein, flirting with the kitsch of De Chirico’s later work. Rendering the Metaphysical city an advertisement for Dole bananas and McDonalds fast food, the painter Pierluigi Cesarini injects into De Chirico’s imagery the lowbrow, popular culture that his haughty piazzas so proudly disavow, even as they, too, draw upon the urban everyday.

Exhibited at New York’s P.S.1 in 1984, the painting Pataphysical Man (1984) by Australian artist Imants Tillers reworked De Chirico’s The Archaeologist (1927) — depicting a supine individual with classical ruins in place of entrails — into a sprawling, multi-panel work on canvas boards. Rhyming with much Postmodernist work in his unabashed appropriations, Tillers (who continues to engage with De Chirico in his most recent work) redoubles the self-conscious re-use of art history in his practice by appealing to the artist’s later, post-Metaphysical work, which already recycles its own classical forms. A leading proponent of the same 1980s return to figuration, the American artist David Salle excerpts a late Metaphysical painting in his Salami (2001) — perhaps a belated acknowledgement of De Chirico’s importance to his own explorations. Next to some flattened, Dayglo foliage, the citation of De Chirico’s still life here departs, in its discreet and spare juxtaposition, from the layered superimpositions of Salle’s best known work. Salle’s former professor at CalArts, the Conceptual artist John Baldessari, likewise makes use of De Chirico’s precedent in his series ‘Double Bill’ (2012), setting familiar Metaphysical motifs (wayward artichokes, plain yellow books) into compositions by other Modern masters. Baldessari has long made use of found imagery in his work; with ‘Double Bill’ he turns that appropriative gesture to the history of Western art itself, suggesting the consequence of De Chirico’s precedent for various Postmodernist practices. Along with its sampling of particular motifs, the casual crossings of ‘Double Bill’ — De Chirico with Paul Cézanne and Jacques-Louis David; Fernand Léger, Morris Louis and Francis Picabia — draw more fundamentally upon the insouciant hybridizations of Metaphysical imagery: modern chimneys and ancient galleys, classical statuary and contemporary urbanism. Even in their superficial archaism, De Chirico’s cityscapes bespeak a particularly modern sense of alienation.

It thus comes as little surprise that De Chirico’s painting informs the work of several contemporary painters, who consistently figure the pleasures and disaffections of urban and suburban spaces: Dean Monogenis and Daniel Rich in the United States, Marco Petrus in Italy and Petra Trenkel in Germany, to name a few. Meanwhile, a few photographers — notably Francesco Pignatelli in his series ‘Reversed Cities’ (2004) and James Welling in his deeply saturated, evacuated spaces — suggest an assimilation of Metaphysical sensibilities, notwithstanding De Chirico’s opposition to photography as a medium of aesthetic expression. A master of the photographically morbid, Joel-Peter Witkin reproduces a cross-section of Metaphysical themes in his montage Waiting for De Chirico in the Artist’s Section of Purgatory, New Mexico (1994), all of which appear, by virtue of obliging shadows, miraculously to occupy the same fictional space. Baldessari, Tiller and Witkin’s feats of pastiche set into relief strategies already intrinsic to De Chirico’s early imagery. They suggest the legacy of that style is not reducible to an iconographic repertoire but, rather, comprises a living, pictorial idiom, even when it seems to court pictorial inertia.