Squaring the ancient and the modern: The art of Giorgio de Chirico

Claudia Pritchard hails the warped classicism of artist Giorgio de Chirico

Between the lengthening shadows of a deserted town square in the afternoon reclines a classical figure, neither human nor merely an object. Feminine and fluid, it lolls towards the viewer on its plinth, one massive knee cocked under the tumbling folds of a long robe, the upper arm tucked over the head, the other supporting an appreciable weight. The Soothsayer’s Recompense, painted in 1913, is distinctively the work of Giorgio de Chirico, one of the Piazze d’Italia series that forged a new visual language, parsing modernity with classicism.

On closer inspection, the scene is not all it seems. The perspective, apparently true to life, is actually contradictory, with several vanishing points, rather than a single one. Light pours in through an archway too slender to support itself, and huge areas are plunged into shadow, while the clock stands at only ten to two, when the sun is still high. No surprise, then, perhaps, that the same artist would, in time, make his classical figures – here, Ariadne, waiting for Dionysus, but it could have been one of many characters from classical mythology – step out of the picture and on to the gallery floor.

De Chirico was born in 1888 to Italian parents in Greece, at Volos, the port from which, in Greek mythology, Jason and the Argonauts set sail on their quest for the Golden Fleece. Growing up largely in Italy after the early death of his father, a railway engineer whose work had kept his family on the move, the  artist relished the duality of his classical background, and his invented Italian squares were based in part on the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence with its colonnades, deep recesses and shafts of sun between slabs of impenetrable shade. The squares represent probably the most praised period in his long career, and their success was, not least, commercial.

Years after they were painted, de Chirico would hint, in a conversation in the 1950s with Eric Estorick, founder of the collection where Giorgio de Chirico: Myth and Mystery opens shortly for three months, that he was not above supplying a hungry market. “If they want those, I’ll give them those,” was the gist of his admission, and, says director of the Estorick  Dr Roberta Cremoncini, he was not above creatively re-dating work, either: “He was very shrewd. Possibly not a very nice person.”

Like so many artists, de Chirico was drawn to Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, but he did not fit in with the Picasso and Braque crowd and was more attracted to the theories of Nietzsche and to exploring the world of the subconscious. While the Paris set was flattening the image in its Cubist still lifes, de Chirico, drawing on antiquity, was creating invented spaces of almost giddying perspective. From around 1910 to 1914 the city squares became increasingly dream-like, dotted with the apparently unconnected and out-of-scale objects that delighted the early Surrealists, who later boycotted a de Chirico show when he reverted to a more classical style. Giant fruit and vegetables or a single glove got into the picture, while, as in The Soothsayer’s Recompense, a steam train often puffed by in the background. In many cases there were more logical explanations for his subjects than appeared at first glance, so the steam train that chugs along on the horizon is a reference to de Chirico’s dead father, while the sails that bob up in the far distance hint at Volos and Jason’s quest. Meanwhile both train and boat may suggest his own preparedness to travel into the inner mind.

The remarkable sculptures that walked out of the Piazze d’Italia are at the heart of Myth and Mystery, revealing a side of the artist that is often overlooked. De Chirico began sculpting in the 1960s, when he was in his seventies: one of the most striking pieces in the show, Disquieting Muses, was made in the year of his 80th birthday, and its mirror-smooth finish is typical of this work. De Chirico favoured silvered or gilded bronze, which produced a dazzling, almost gaudy lustre. Disquieting Muses has the featureless mannequin heads that are a feature of the paintings, classical allusions in the graceful folds of Hellenic drapery, architectural references and a mask-like shield. But de Chirico instils in these apparently faceless automatons a touching humanity by giving the standing figure a modest tilt of the head, and the seated one a head that is too tiny and a hollow in the torso, suggesting vulnerability.

While many such sculptures stand only a few centimetres high, Il Gran Metafisico (undated) towers over the viewer, dominating the room. De Chirico, who wrote prolifically about his theories of art, had firm views about the relationship between artwork, viewer and gallery. He observed that we relate differently to statues, depending on whether they are placed on the façade of or on top of a building, or in a public space where, as he wrote in 1927, they seem “to merge into the swirling of the crowd and of everyday town life”. “In a museum a statue looks different, and in it is its phantom appearance that strikes us, an appearance like that of people suddenly noticed in a room we had at first thought to be empty.”

The ambiguity of the inanimate object made to represent a living thing also intrigued him. “As regards the mannequin,” he wrote in 1942, “the more human it looks, the colder and more unpleasant it becomes. The mannequin is disagreeable to our eyes because it is a sort of parody of a human being … A statue does not aspire to life ….” Thus, his eyeless, quizzical heads and pedimented torsos are easier to relate to than the shop dummy with its waspish waist and staring eyes.

De Chirico believed the sculptor was like a water diviner, detecting and drawing out that which is already there. “What will emerge is already inside, asleep; like the marmot in its burrow, during the winter months,” he wrote in 1940. “It is all a matter of knowing where to begin, what bells to shake to awaken the sleeping animal.”

‘Giorgio de Chirico: Myth and Mystery’ is at the Estorick Collection from 15 Jan to 19 Apr 2014 (www.estorickcollection.com)

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'