Giorgio de Chirico (10 July 1888 — 20 November 1978) was an Italian painter of the Metaphysical school of visual art, which he founded with Carlo Carrà in the early half of the twentieth century.
The following two essays and selected poems by Giorgio de Chirico offer a window into his realm of “Metaphysical art,” allowing us to better understand his paintings by looking at them through the insight of his mind’s eye. Unlike much of the banal and commodified “product” that the art establishment attempts to impose on the world today, Giorgio’s body of work defies being pigeonholed into any easy categories, nor can his paintings be limited to the perception of being strictly objective or subjective—indeed, like all the great artists of history, every new viewing of his work offers greater and more thoughtful insight than previous occasions. Holding true to Nietzsche’s dictum that life is that which must be overcome again and again (“And life itself told me this secret: ‘Behold,’ it said, ‘I am that which must overcome itself again and again.”—Thus Spake Zarathustra), Giorgio’s paintings call out to be understood as a contemplation of timeless infinity, an eternally recurring attempt to create newer and more radical, more precise meaning out of life as a resistance against the inevitability of oblivion.
Meditations of a Painter, 1912
What will the aim of future painting be? The same as that of poetry, music, and philosophy: to create previously unknown sensations; to strip art of everything routine and accepted, and of all subject matter, in favor of an aesthetic synthesis; completely to suppress man as a guide, or as a means to express symbol, sensation, or thought, once and for all to free itself from the anthropomorphism that always shackles sculpture; to see everything, even man, in its quality of thing. This is the Nietzschean method. Applied to painting, it might produce extraordinary results. This is what I try to demonstrate in my pictures.
When Nietzsche talks of the pleasure he gets from reading Stendhal, or listening to the music from Carmen, one feels, if one is sensitive, what he means: the one is no longer a book, nor the other a piece of music, each is a thing from which one gets a sensation. That sensation is weighed and judged and compared to others more familiar, and the most original is chosen.
A truly immortal work of art can only be born through revelation. Schopenhauer has, perhaps, best defined and also (why not) explained such a moment when in Paerga und Paralipomena he says, “To have original, extraordinary, and perhaps even immortal ideas, one has but to isolate oneself from the world for a few moments so completely that the most commonplace happenings appear to be new and unfamiliar, and in this way reveal their true essence.” If instead of the birth of original, extraordinary immortal ideas, you imagine the birth of a work of a art (painting or sculpture) in an artist’s mind, you will have the principle of revelation in painting.
In connection with these problems let me recount how I had the revelation of a picture that I will show this year at the Salon d’Automne, entitled Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon. One clear autumnal afternoon I was sitting on a bench in the middle of the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. It was of course not the first time I had seen this square. I had just come out of a long and painful intestinal illness, and I was in a nearly morbid state of sensitivity. The whole world, down to the marble of the buildings and fountains, seemed to me to be convalescent. In the middle of the square rises a statue of Dante draped in a long cloak, holding his works clasped against his body, his laurel-crowned head bent thoughtfully earthward. The statue is in white marble, but time has given it a gray cast, very agreeable to the eye. The autumn sun, warm and unloving, lit the statue and the church façade. Then I had the strange impression that I was looking at all these things for the first time, and the composition of my picture came to my mind’s eye. Now each time I look at this painting I again see that moment. Nevertheless the moment is an enigma to me, for it is inexplicable. And I like also to call the work which sprang from it an enigma.
Music cannot express the non plus ultra of sensation. After all, one never knows what music is about. After having heard any piece of music the listener has the right to say, and can say, what does this mean? In a profound painting, on the contrary, this is impossible: one must fall silent when one has penetrated it in all its profundity. Then light and shade, lines and angles, and the whole mystery of volume begin to talk.
The revelation of a work of art (painting or sculpture) can be born of a m=sudden, when one least expects it, and also can be stimulated by the sight of something. In the first instance it belongs to a class of rare and strange sensations that I have observed in only one modern man: Nietszsche. Among the ancients perhaps (I say perhaps because sometimes I doubt it) Phidias, when he conceived the plastic form of Pallas Athena, and Raphael, while painting the temple and the sky of his Marriage of the Virgin (in the Brera in Milan), knew this sensation. When Nietzsche talks of how his Zarathustra was conceived, and he says, “I was surprised by Zarathustra,” in this participle—surprised—is contained the whole enigma of sudden revelation.
When on the other hand a revelation grows out of the sight of an arrangement of objects, then the work which appears in our thoughts is closely linked to the circumstance that has provoked its birth. One resembles the other, but in a strange way, like the resemblance there is between two brothers, or rather between the image of someone we know seen in a dream, and that person in reality; it is, and at the same time it is not, that same person; it is as if there had been a slight transfiguration of the features. I believe that as from a certain point of view the sight of someone in a dream is a proof of his metaphysical reality, so, from the same point of view, the revelation of a work of art is the proof of the metaphysical reality of certain chance occurrences that we sometimes experience in the way and manner that something appears to us and provokes in us the image of a work of art, an image, which in our souls awakens surprise—sometimes, meditation—often, and always, the joy of creation.
Mystery and Creation, 1913
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.
Profound statements must be drawn by the artist from the most secret recesses of his being; there no murmuring torrent, no birdsong, no rustle of leaves can distract him.
What I hear is valueless; only what I see is living, and when I close my eyes my vision is even more powerful.
It is most important that we should rid art of all that it has contained of recognizable material to date, all familiar subject matter, all traditional ideas, all popular symbols must be banished forthwith. More important still, we must hold enormous faith in ourselves: it is essential that the revelation we receive, the conception of an image which embraces a certain thing, which has no sense in itself, which has no subject, which means absolutely nothing from the logical point of view, I repeat, it is essential that such a revelation or conception should speak so strongly in us, evoke such agony or joy, that we feel compelled to paint, compelled by an impulse even more urgent than the hungry desperation which drives a man to tearing at a piece of bread like a savage beast.
I remember one vivid winter’s day at Versailles. Silence and calm reigned supreme. Everything gazed at me with mysterious, questioning eyes. And then I realized that every corner of the palace, every column, every window possessed a spirit, an impenetrable soul. I looked around at the marble heroes, motionless in the lucid air, beneath the frozen rays of that winter sun which pours down on us without love, like a perfect song. A bird was warbling in a window cage. At that moment I grew aware of the mystery which urges men to create strange forms. And the creation appeared more extraordinary than the creators.
Perhaps the most amazing sensation passed on to us by prehistoric man is that of presentiment. It will always continue. We might consider it as an eternal proof of the irrationality of the universe. Original man must have wandered through a world full of uncanny signs. He must have trembled at each step.
THE SONG OF THE STATION
Little station, little station, what happiness I owe you. You look all around, to left and right, also behind you. Your flags snap distractedly, why suffer? Let us go in, aren’t we already numerous enough? With white chalk or black coal to let us trace happiness and its enigma, the enigma and its affirmation. Beneath the porticoes are windows, from each window an eye looks at us, and from the depths voices call to us. The happiness of the station comes to us, and goes from us transfigured. Little station, little station, you are a divine toy. What distraught Zeus forgot you on this square—geometric and yellow—near this limpid, disturbing fountain? All your little flags crackle together under the intoxication of the luminous sky. Behind walls life proceeds like a catastrophe. What does it all matter to you?
Little station, little station, what happiness I owe you.
THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH
The steeple clock marks half past twelve. The sun is high and burning in the sky. It lights houses, palaces, porticoes. Their shadows on the ground describe rectangles, squares, and trapezoids of so soft a black that the burned eyes likes to refresh itself in them. What light. How sweet it would be to live down there, near a consoling portico or a foolish tower covered with little multicolored flags, among gentle and intelligent men. Has such an hour ever come? What matter, since we see it go!
What absence of storms, of owl cries, of tempestuous seas. Here Homer would have found no songs. A hearse has been waiting forever. It is black as hope, and this morning someone maintained that during the night it still waits. Somewhere is a corpse one cannot see. The clock marks twelve-thirty two; the sun is setting; it is time to leave.
They were not many, but joy lent their faces a strange expression. The whole city was decked with flags. There were flags on the big tower which rose at the end of the square, near the statue of the great king-conqueror. Banners crackled on the lighthouse, on the masts of the boats anchored in the harbor, on the porticoes, on the museum of rare paintings.
Towards the middle of the day they gathered in the main square, where a banquet had been set out. There was a long table in the center of the square.
The sun had a terrible beauty.
Precise, geometric shadows.
Against the depth of the sky the wind spread out the multicolored flags of the great red tower, which was of such a consoling red. Black specks moved at the top of the tower. They were gunners waiting to fire the noon salute.
At last the twelfth hour came. Solemn. Melancholic. When the sun reached the center of the heavenly arch a new clock was dedicated at the city’s railroad station. Everyone wept. A train passed, whistling frantically. Cannon thundered. Alas, it was so beautiful.
Then, seated at the banquet, they ate roast lamb, mushrooms, and bananas, and they drank clear, fresh water.
Throughout the afternoon, in little separate groups, they walked under the arcades, and waited for the evening to take their repose.
That was all.
African sentiment. The arcade is here forever. Shadow from right to left, fresh breeze which causes forgetfulness, it falls like an enormous projected leaf. But its beauty is in its line: enigma of fatality, symbol of the intransigent will.
Ancient times, fitful lights and shadows. All the gods are dead. The knight’s horn. The evening call at the edge of the woods: a city, a square, a harbor, arcades, gardens, an evening party; sadness. Nothing.
One can count the lines. The soul follows and grows with them. The statue, the meaningless statue had to be erected. The red wall hides all that is mortal of infinity. A snail; gentle ship with tender flanks; little amorous dog. Trains that pass. Enigma. The happiness of the banana tree: luxuriousness of ripe fruit, golden and sweet.
No battles. The giants have hidden behind the rocks. Horrible swords hang on the walls of dark and silent rooms. Death is there, full of promises. Medusa with eyes that do not see.
Wind behind the wall. Palm trees. Birds that never came.
THE MAN WITH THE ANGUISHED LOOK
In the noisy street catastrophe goes by. He had come there with his anguished look. Slowly he ate a cake so soft and sweet it seemed he was eating his heart. His eyes were very far apart.
What do I hear? Thunder rumbles in the distance, and everything trembles in the crystal ceiling; it is a battle. Rain has polished the pavement: summer joy.
A curious tenderness invades my heart: oh Man, Man, I want to make you happy. And if someone attacks you I will defend you with a lion’s courage and a tiger’s cruelty. Where do you wish to go; speak. Now the thunder no longer rumbles. See how the sky is pure and the trees radiant.
The four walls of the room broke him and blinded him. His icy heart melted slowly: he was perishing of love. Humble slave, you are as tender as a slaughtered lamb. Your blood runs on your tender beard. Man, I will cover you if you are cold. Come up. Happiness will roll at your feet like a crystal ball. And all the constructions of your mind will praise you together. On that day, I too will commend you, seated in the center of the sun-filled square, near the stone warrior and the empty pool. And towards evening, when the lighthouse shadow is long the jetty, when the banners snap, and the white sails are as hard and round as breasts swollen with love and desire, we will fall in each other’s arms, and together weep.
THE STATUE’S DESIRE
“I wish at any cost to be alone,” said the statue with the eternal look. Wind, wind that cools my burning cheeks. And the terrible battle began. Broken heads fell, and skulls shone as if they were of ivory.
Flee, flee toward the square and radiant city. Behind, devils whip me with all their might. My calves bleed horribly. Oh the sadness of the lonely statue down there. Beatitude.
And never any sun. Never the yellow consolation of the lighted earth.
It loves its strange soul. It has conquered.
And now the sun has stopped, high in the center of the sky. And in everlasting happiness the statue immerses its soul in the contemplation of its shadow.
There is a room whose shutters are always closed. In one corner there is a book no one has ever read. And there on the wall is a picture one cannot see without weeping.
There are arcades in the room where he sleeps. When evening comes the crowd gathers there with a hum. When the heat has been torrid at noon, it comes there panting, seeking the cool. But he sleeps, he sleeps, he sleeps.
What happened? The beach was empty, and now I see someone seated there, there on a rock. A god is seated there, and he watches the sea in silence. And that is all.
The night is deep. I toss on my burning couch. Morpheus detests me. I hear the sound of a carriage approaching from far off. The hoofs of the horse, a gallop, and the noise bursts, and fades into the night. In the distance a locomotive whistles. The night is deep.
The statue of the conqueror in the square, his head bare and bald. Everywhere the sun rules. Everywhere shadows console.
Friend, with vulture’s glance and smiling mouth, a garden gate is making you suffer. Imprisoned leopard, pace within your cage, and now, on your pedestal, in the pose of a conquering king, proclaim your victory.