Giorgio de Chirico at Hunter College

Giorgio de Chirico

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The exhibition Giorgio de Chirico and America originated as part of the Curatorial Studies program at Hunter College, and it is impressive and good looking. Professor Emily Braun and graduate students in art and art history have mounted a show that devotees of modern art and, in particular, Surrealism will find of interest. De Chirico and America takes as its basis the critical fortunes of Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) as they have played out in the United States. De Chirico’s standing as “The Father of Surrealism” rests on his early work, the “Metaphysical” paintings created roughly between 1910 and 1918, and there has been an almost unanimous critical consensus that it does, indeed, constitute his finest period and true achievement. His later paintings, however, are usually dismissed as an embarrassing descent into self-parody. Take into account de Chirico’s repudiation of the Metaphysical paintings and subsequent forgeries of them for financial gain, and you have one of the more curious careers—and characters—in twentieth-century art.

It is surprising, then, to learn that early de Chirico was practically unknown in the United States until 1935. His initial renown stateside came in 1928 with an exhibition at the Valentine Gallery in New York with work that postdates the Metaphysical paintings. (Alfred Stieglitz had a group of de Chirico paintings as early as 1914 but failed to find an audience for them.) It comes as something of a shock to learn that paintings now commonly regarded as inferior should have been enthusiastically acquired by important collectors such as Albert Barnes, A. E. Gallatin, and Katherine Drier. De Chirico and America sets out to document the artist’s critical (and literal) journey to America and, in the end, questions the received wisdom about early versus late de Chirico. Braun and her students argue that the late work has been unfairly maligned and is in need of reevaluation. Challenging the received wisdom is healthy, of course, but sometimes the standard line has a basis in fact. “De Chirico and America” thwarts its own intentions by documenting all too convincingly the Surrealist’s slide into schlock.

The exhibition begins with a trio of Metaphysical paintings—Self-Portrait (1912– 13), The Duo or The Mannequins of the Rose Tower (1915), and Metaphysical Composition (1914)—as an opening act, if you will, for the work to come. While the early paintings are physically outnumbered by the late work, those who value de Chirico’s painting as painting will find that these three pictures dominate the exhibition. Looking at the examples of de Chirico’s later work—with their rubbery muscle men, cluttered compositions, and enervated paint-handling—it is a wonder how anyone can take it seriously, especially with a painting as clinically enigmatic as Metaphysical Composition sharing the same gallery. A wall label informs us, however, that “since the 1980s de Chirico’s later work, with its ironic strategies of appropriation, stylistic pastiche, and replication have come into favor with the postmodern generation of American artists.” Postmodernist celebrations of lousy art are nothing new, although it is sobering to learn that people take them as seriously as they do. (I must hang out with the wrong crowd.) The attempted postmodernist resuscitation of de Chirico’s late work tells us more about our own culture’s narcissism (and shortcomings) than it does about the paintings themselves.

Professor Braun thinks otherwise, of course, and asks if the late paintings can “be reevaluated as a deliberate transgression against elitist, modernist principles, as an unparalleled subversion of authentic aura?” Braun, who I would hazard to guess has never met a transgressor she didn’t like, does fret momentarily over de Chirico’s forgeries, but ultimately finds them less cynical than strategic and to be applauded. She even concludes that de Chirico’s copies are more “radical” than the artistic legacy of Marcel Duchamp. (Talk about heresy!) For Braun, de Chirico’s fakes are not crass attempts at cashing in on one’s masterpieces, but “the genuine simulacrum of the similacrum [sic] of genuine culture that is kitsch.” It is difficult to know whether to respond to such cant with frustration or boredom. Truly, such gobbledygook is beyond the scope of even the most savvy of satirists.

De Chirico’s Metaphysical paintings— with their roving architecture, shards of antiquity, and skewed spaces—are staples of art history and have weathered over-familiarity and numerous interpreters remarkably well. Unlike the imagery of, say, Salvador Dali, de Chirico’s Surrealist dreamscapes have not become clichés of the unconscious, mainly because they defy easy interpretation. His paintings are less narratives than non-narratives, and the mysterious relationships between his objects give the paintings their tension and intrigue. By “intrigue” I don’t mean anything as mundane as the desire to parse their meaning (puzzles rarely make for good art). Rather, that the work’s pitiless nostalgia conveys a melancholy that is not uninviting. De Chirico’s ruminations on culture and anomie are grave and deeply romantic. The plaster casts, egg, smoke stacks, and flutelike object in Metaphysical Composition are certainly pieces of a larger story—if “story” is the right word—but if their whole is not to be found in the painting’s narrative, it is supplied by the painting’s structure. De Chirico’s Metaphysical paintings constitute a tangible, if baffling, world with its own inherent cohesiveness. And that cohesiveness depends on de Chirico’s gifts as a painter.

Having said that, it must be admitted that de Chirico was the most perfunctory of painters. We don’t go to his mute tableaux for nuanced or bravura brushwork. He may have been “The Father of Surrealism,” but he was also content to fill in between the lines, and his line serves as a bare bones indicator of shape. (To describe the contour that defines the artist’s profile in Self-Portrait as “limp” gives it too much character.) This results in the cartoonish, faux-naïf clunkiness of his paintings, a clunkiness that was an affectation. In describing a small 1937 self-portrait, included here, Braun mentions Ingres, and this is no lapse into curatorial hoopla. In comparison to the draftsmanship seen in the paintings, Self-Portrait is startling in its sensitivity. De Chirico’s maladroitness as a Surrealist painter may have been an attempt to buy into the notion that the untrained artist’s vision is “purer” than that of the artist who has been schooled in painting and drawing. This is a myth, of course, and I suspect de Chirico was wise to it. But given how badly the more polished Surrealism of René Magritte and Yves Tanguy has fared who can say that de Chirico was wrong?

What truly marks de Chirico as an artist of consequence is the spare, piercing light that envelops his imagery and emanates from his paintings. More so than his vaunted spatial ambiguities, it is this light that distinguishes de Chirico’s brand of Surrealism. It has something of an autumnal flavor, so that while a cool bluish-green may serve as a backdrop for The Duo, the painting nevertheless has a warm, and warming, tonality. The chromatic subtleties and the (sometimes intense) glow this light elicits sharpens de Chirico’s dead-end romanticism. His mood lighting has dramatic and psychological heft, and without it the paintings would merely be weird and sentimental illustrations.

De Chirico’s light is desperately missed in the later work. Turning from the three Metaphysical paintings to Furniture in a Valley (1927) is to experience a fall in magic that is nothing if not precipitous. With the post-Metaphysical paintings, de Chirico’s theatricality becomes a compositional ploy rather than a fantastic scenario given life. Gone is the almost manic sense of space and unifying coloristic tonality. Instead, we are given an insipid fuzziness—the late paintings often feel as if they were overlaid with a sheet of cheesecloth dyed yellow ocher. While de Chirico’s imagery becomes more packed in the late work, it also loses its evocative density. With Metaphysical Composition, de Chirico created a world; with The Nobles and the Shopkeepers (1933), we are given an inventory. The late paintings are not without interest—his fashion sketches for Vogue are likable enough—but they lack artistic presence. How can we believe the dream if it lacks any conviction?

By the time we reach The Mystery of Manhattan (1973) and Metaphysical Vision of New York (1975), de Chirico can no longer be passed off as, in Braun’s phrase, kitschman. Such a moniker suggests something campy, perhaps fun, but would that we were so lucky. The Mystery of Manhattan, in particular, with its inert brushwork and oh-so-dry surface, is simply a pathetic pastiche—if the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome truly wants to enhance de Chirico’s reputation they should lock it up in storage and throw away the key. By placing their bets on postmodernist generosity, the organizers of “De Chirico and America” attempt to pass off the artist’s late paintings as major art. But place even the best of de Chirico’s “flatulent ‘Renaissance’ classicism” (to borrow John Ashbery’s definitive description) next to Metaphysical Composition or, for that matter, MOMA’s The Song of Love (1914) and it will simply wither. The figure that finally emerges from De Chirico and America is a sad one. De Chirico’s Metaphysical works will continue to be hallmarks of modernist painting. But this is one exhibition that won’t warrant a rewriting of art history.

© 1996 Mario Naves

Originally published in the November 1996 edition of The New Criterion.


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