Progression of Art
The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon
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
The Child's Brain
The Child's Brain was a favorite of Surrealism's founder André Breton, who bought the painting reportedly after it caused him to get off his bus when he saw it hanging in a gallery window. One can appreciate its impact on Breton, for almost a decade before the Surrealists had begun to speak about the power of dreams and the unconscious, de Chirico was painting images such as this that spoke about exactly these themes. Breton said that in conversations with de Chirico, the painter revealed that the man depicted in this image was his father. The bookmark inserted into the book on the table symbolizes his parents' lovemaking - the bookmark positioned so as to represent the phallus. On another level, the man in the painting, whether modeled upon de Chirico's father or not, is meant as a portrait of the young, sexually ambivalent and virile Dionysus. Breton and the Surrealists had interpreted de Chirico's work through their readings of psychoanalysis, but Freud was unknown to de Chirico until the 1920s.
Oil on canvas - Moderna Museum, Stockholm
Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure)
Not to be confused with a 1917 painting simply entitled The Melancholy of Departure, the present work, Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure), was dubbed an "architectonic masterpiece" by Robert Hughes. The presence of the architecture is central to its power, yet it is the way de Chirico treats the architecture that is so innovative; it is not intended to represent a particular place, or environment, but instead it is like a theatrical set - an unreal backdrop for unreal events. It is typical of the artist's work of the 1910s in its use of multiple vanishing points, deep colors, and elongated shadows of dusk. The clock tower and departing train possibly foreshadow his imminent departure to join the Italian army in the First World War. Trains are a familiar motif in de Chirico's work, functioning as a symbol of life and youthful expectation.
Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Disquieting Muses
The muses are another recurring motif in de Chirico's paintings. He believed they inspired the artist to see beyond mere appearances and look into the metaphysical - the realm of memory, mythology and truth. This was originally painted while he was living in Ferrara, around 1917; the city's Castello Estense can be seen in the background. It would later become an inspiration for a Sylvia Plath poem of the same name. Once again, de Chirico disregards the true scale of architecture, and seems to represent it almost as a miniature model in which he can place the symbolic objects of an uncanny still life. At least 18 copies of this painting exist, which were backdated by the artist to suggest that he had painted them in the late 1910s, just like this picture. The practice of producing such copies and backdating them was partly an attempt to profit and, in part, a means of taking revenge on the critics who attacked his later works.
Oil on canvas - Private collection
Great Metaphysical Interior
This is one of a series of "metaphysical interiors" painted by de Chirico in the later part of this period, while he was living in Ferrara. Like other works in the series, it features a room cluttered with a diverse set of objects, including other framed images, and was influenced by his walks through the city's arcades. The contents of the room are fairly suggestive, but the fact that food features commonly in de Chirico's work from this period has led to the suggestion that the baguettes lying in a coffin-like box are perhaps a reference to his intestinal problems.
Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York
This is an example of the many self-portraits de Chirico painted in the 1920s. It presents him as a visionary (heroic) figure, and is reminiscent of self-portraits by Mannerist painters from the 16th century. As de Chirico's work became more conservative in the 1920s, he became increasingly interested in older painting techniques. Here he shows himself contemplating his own image as it would appear in a Classical bust. But the artist is looking beyond the earlier influence, looking at the viewer with a knowledgeable expression displaying his intent in taking his art further.
Oil on canvas - Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio