Artist of the Month

October 2020

GIORGIO de CHIRICO

(1888-1978)

Giorgio de Chirico. Place of Italy, 1913

Giorgio de Chirico's early twentieth-century city is a fantasy town, a state of mind, signifying alienation, dreaming and loss. Its elements are so well known that they fall into place as soon as they are glimpsed, like jigsaw pieces: the arcades, the tower, the piazza, the shadows, the statue, the train, the mannequin.

Over a century later as Covid-19 empties many town centres and public transport of people the impact of de Chirico's images expresses in graphic terms what many people are experiencing, and redefines our images of urban centres.

Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (right) is one of Giorgio de Chirico’s best-known images of deserted public space. The title is a metaphor for many city centres around the world in the days of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

 

The painting represents an encounter between two figures: a small girl running with a hoop and a statue that is present in the painting only through its shadow.

 

The girl is moving towards the source of bright light coming from behind the building on the right and illuminating intensively the arcades on the left. The bright yellow corridor stretched up to the horizon separates two zones: light and darkness.

 

De Chirico intentionally used two contradictory vanishing points (a point in the picture plane that is the intersection of the projections (or drawings) of a set of parallel lines), thus destroying any resemblance to reality. All of the lines of the fully illuminated building on the left meet slightly above the horizon; the alignments of the dark building meet at a point where the truck roof touches the yellow of the ground.

 

One last detail concerning the perspective is a truck, lit by a light coming from nowhere. This juxtaposition of light sources and perspectives enabled de Chirico to create a mysterious and impossible universe where spaces will never converge and the girl will never reach the statue.

Giorgio de Chirico intentionally subverted city squares bordered by arcades or brick walls, to create an enigmatic experience and refute reality.

 

In this painting de Chirico addressed the question: What can an empty town square tell us about the human condition? 

 

His works in the early 20th century (1911-1917) were unlike anything else being made in Europe at the time, resembling nothing like the abstractions then being produced by Cubists in Paris or the colourful experiments with motion being made by the Futurists in Italy. 

Giorgio de Chirico, Mystery and Melancholy, 1914

About de Chirico

De Chirico was born in Volos in Greece in 1888 . His family left Greece in 1906 due to the ongoing war with Turkey. He lived in Germany, France and Italy.

 

Although claiming his Italian identity, his family like many other mobile middle-class families from the urban centres of the Ottoman Empire was of mixed racial origins. 

 

His father, a railway contractor, was born in Istanbul, where his family had lived for more than a century and a half. His mother, from Smyrna, was of Italian, Greek and Turkish lineage.

 

Giorgio's and his brother Alberto's knowledge of Greek, Italian, French and German made them cosmopolitan and able to mix with ease.

 

But Giorgio especially suffered from the long-term sensation of never truly belonging anywhere.

This sense of a migrant informs much of his work, particularly his cityscapes.

His career took off in Paris after befriending the influential art critic Guillaume Apollinaire.

Giorgio de Chirico, The Enigma of the Hour, 1914

An Artist of Our Time - Melancholic Street Scenes

De Chirico produced his cityscapes at a time when the established world was at unease with what was to come. Revolution, mechanised warfare, and the social upheaval it brought, would drastically alter the world’s trajectory during the 1910’s — ultimately rendering the perpetual and seemingly indestructible malleable and finite. Covid-19 appears to be doing the same. 

 

The visual compatibility of de Chirico's cityscapes and the current empty public spaces and squares of the Covid-19 lockdown is clear from the London images on the right. 

 

The distance and isolation, the experience of seeing somewhere with new insight, captures the experience of our new reality. 

 

The measures implemented to combat the worst excesses of this pandemic have embalmed public life. Society and the spaces it utilises are on pause as if de Chirico’s imagination was made real in cities like London. 

 

This is why de Chirico is an artist for our time. 

 

His work has evoked notions of alienation and isolation for over a century and his stilted squares now exist across the world. 

 

They are all united under a suffocating shroud of uneasy quiet.

Giorgio de Chirico, Gare Montparnasse ( The Melancholoy of Departure) 1914.

Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza d'Italia, 1913