Giorgio De Chirico
Born: July 10, 1888 - Volos, Greece
Died: November 20, 1978 - Rome, Italy
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"To become truly immortal a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken it will enter the regions of childhood vision and dream."
Giorgio de Chirico was a pioneer in the revival of Classicism that flourished into a Europe-wide phenomenon in the 1920s. His own interest was likely encouraged by his childhood experiences of being raised in Greece by Italian parents. And, while living in Paris in the 1910s, his homesickness may have led to the mysterious, classically-inspired pictures of empty town squares for which he is best known. It was work in this style that encouraged him to form the short-lived movement, along with the painter Carlo Carrà. His work in this mode attracted considerable notice, particularly in France, where the Surrealists championed him as a precursor. But de Chirico was instinctively more conservative than the Paris avant-garde, and in the 1920s his style began to embrace qualities of Renaissance and Baroque art, a move that soon drew criticism from his old supporters. For many years afterwards, the Surrealists' disapproval of his late work shaped the attitude of critics. The artist's reputation was also not helped by his later habits of creating new versions of his Metaphysical paintings and of backdating his work, as if those pictures had been created back in the 1910s. In recent years, however, his work of that period has attracted more interest, and it was certainly influential on a new generation of Italian painters in the 1980s.
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The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon (1910)
The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon is the first painting in de Chirico's Metaphysical Town Square series, and the first painting in which he settled upon the style and imagery for which he is now famous - quiet, enigmatic, strangely simplified scenes of old towns. It is also the first in a number of canvases that he titled with the word "enigma." We may speculate that the enigma in question is the relationship between the real and the unreal, as this picture was painted after the artist felt a revelation in Florence's Piazza Santa Croce in which the world appeared before him as if for the first time. The painting depicts a portion of that square in a simplified fashion. It has many of the features that would become hallmarks of his work: a desolate piazza bordered by a classical facade, the long shadows and deep colors of the city at dusk, and a stationary figure, here a statue. The sail visible in the distance may have been inspired by de Chirico's memories of visits he made as a youth to the harbor of Piraeus in Greece.
Oil on canvas - Peggy Guggenheim collection
Giorgio de Chirico was born in Volos, Greece to Italian parents. His father was an engineer working on the construction of the Greek railway system and his mother was a noblewoman of Genoese origin. His parents encouraged his artistic development, and from a young age he took a strong interest in Greek mythology, perhaps because Volos was the port the Argonauts were supposed to have set sail from to retrieve the Golden Fleece. However, he was troubled by intestinal disorders in his youth, and it has been speculated that this contributed to his melancholic outlook.
From 1903 to 1905, de Chirico studied at the Higher School of Fine Arts in Athens. Upon his father's death in 1905, the family visited Florence before moving to Munich the following year. De Chirico enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts there and developed a strong interest in Symbolist artists like German Max Klinger and particularly the Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin.
He left Munich before graduating to rejoin his family in Milan in March 1910. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Florence and, via Italian writer Giovanni Papini, began to study German philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Otto Weininger. De Chirico attempted to relate the work of these men to his painting, seeking to transcend the banal appearances of everyday life and uncover the reality that he believed was concealed beneath.
There were historical, mythological and philosophical themes in de Chirico's paintings throughout his career. He began his Metaphysical Town Square series with Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon (1909) painted in Florence. During this period, which lasted until 1919, there are reoccurring references to memory, loss, mystery, the passing of time, and architecture - particularly arches and towers - in desolate, melancholic squares and cityscapes. They appear to be images of depopulated Mediterranean cities, in a time beyond history - where everyday life is imbued with mythology.
De Chirico and his mother moved to Paris to join his brother in July 1911, passing through Turin along the way. He had been interested in the city as it was the place where Nietzsche had displayed his first signs of madness in 1889. The architecture of the piazzas and archways made a considerable impact on him, and locations in the city can be spotted throughout his paintings from this period.
In May 1915, de Chirico and his brother were enlisted into the Italian army to fight in World War I. Based in Ferrara, de Chirico continued to paint, with the arcades and shop windows of the city appearing in his works. He had begun to use mannequins in pictures he painted in Paris, and these became more frequent in his Ferrara paintings.
In 1917, a nervous condition forced him into an Italian hospital, where he continued to work, producing pictures mainly featuring cluttered interiors in the Metaphysical style. In the hospital he met Carlo Carrà, and through their exchanges Metaphysical art, or pittura metafisica, was born. In early 1919, de Chirico had his first solo show at the Galleria Bragaglia in Rome.
De Chirico's later period of work is usually said to start in 1919 and lasted until his death in 1978. In 1919, soon after his first solo show, he had a revelation while contemplating a Titian painting at Rome's Galleria Borghese. He wrote 'The Return of Craftsmanship,' an article that advocated a return to traditional methods and iconography, while simultaneously launching an outspoken campaign against modern art. Previously de Chirico had not taken much interest in technique. Despite his training, his early figurative work revealed an underdeveloped knowledge of anatomy. He sought to remedy this while in Rome, particularly between 1919 and 1924, where he worked on his technique and was inspired by the Old Masters.
During these years, de Chirico's work was also branching into other mediums. In 1924, he worked on designs for a ballet in Paris based on a short story by the Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello. He made lithographs for a reproduction of Guillaume Apollinaire's book of poems Calligrammes in 1929. In the same year, he wrote his only novel, Hebdomeros. Despite his artistic change of direction, the book's dream-like collection of impressions and situations functions as a literary companion to his metaphysical paintings. By this time De Chirico had distanced himself from the Surrealists, yet Hebdomeros is still considered one of the finest examples of Surrealist literature.
He continued with similar ventures until very late in his life. In the late 1960s, he began creating small bronze sculptures, in which some of the figures were borrowed from his earlier paintings, including the mannequins from his Ferrara period. Throughout the rest of his career he would routinely create and sell copies of paintings from his Metaphysical period, passing them off as originals. The practice was in part an attempt to profit from the popularity of his early work, and in part a means of taking revenge on the critics who heaped praise on it and attacked the styles of his later periods.
Although de Chirico's career spanned seventy years, his early metaphysical works are his most significant. He was a major influence on the Surrealists. André Breton claimed that de Chirico was one the main torchbearers of a new modern mythology. For a time he was happy to be courted by the Surrealists, but he later referred to them as "the leaders of modernistic imbecility." Nevertheless, he was also inspirational for later French avant-garde groups such as the Lettrists and Situationists, particularly in relation to their interest in urbanism. These two groups consider de Chirico an architect as much as a painter, seeing in his enigmatic piazzas and towers visions and plans for future cities. Besides the art world proper, de Chirico's influence can be seen on everything from the Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni's shots of desolate cityscapes and urban anomie to the environments and packaging for the videogame Ico for the Playstation 2. And the novelist V.S. Naipaul has borrowed the title of one of his paintings, The Enigma of Arrival (1911-12), for one of his own books.
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on Giorgio De Chirico
| Giorgio de Chirico: A Metaphysical Journey |
By Gerd Roos, Giorgio de Chirico
| The Art of Enigma: The de Chirico Brothers & the Politics of Modernism |
By Keala Jane Jewell
| The Memoirs Of Giorgio De Chirico |
By Giorgio de Chirico
| Hebdomeros with Monseiur Dudron's Adventure and Other Metaphysical Writings |
By Giorgio de Chirico, John Ashbery
| Fondazione Giorgio e Isa de Chirico |
Official Foundation Website
| MoMA: Giorgio de Chirico |
Organized by Giverny government
| The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Giorgio de Chirico: Ariadne || The J. Paul Getty Museum: Modern Antiquity |
Exhibition features work by Giorgio de Chirico
| Great Works: The Uncertainty of the Poet, 1913 (106x94cm) Giorgio de Chirico |
By Michael Glober
| Enigma in Giorgio de Chirico's art |
By Brenda Dionisi
| De Chirico: Painting landscapes of the mind |
By Roderick Conway Morris
| An Ambitious Effort to Praise de Chirico's Later Works |
By Michael Kimmelman
| Ico, Playstation 2 Game |
Environments inspired by de Chirico's painting The Nostalgia of the Infinite(1911)