The Artist as Enigma
|“Le Vaticinateur” (1915). © ADAGP, Paris 2009|
What could be more recognizable than a Giorgio de Chirico painting? A large stretch of empty space; lonely, featureless human figures or a statue; an architectural element here and there; perhaps an easel or a fish mold; a faceless mannequin; an X-shaped biscuit, an easel. The same iconography returns over and over again in the artist’s early work, in both the empty spaces of the street scenes and the claustrophobia of object-packed interiors.
Even before he was adopted as a Surrealist by André Breton, for whom the dream was omnipotent, De Chirico had developed his own style and founded the Metaphysical School along with fellow Italian painter Carlo Carrà. His metaphysical paintings are so haunting that they seem to be reminding us of something, perhaps one of our own half-forgotten dreams, but as mysterious as they are, De Chirico’s metaphysics were very much rooted in everyday life and objects “There is much more mystery in the shadow of a man walking on a sunny day,” he wrote, “than in all religions past, present and future.”
As we learn from the retrospective “Giorgio de Chirico: La Fabrique des Rêves” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, De Chirico soon renounced the evocative, hard-edged style and dream iconography of his early years and turned to a more florid, painterly style and more classical themes (to the great dismay of Breton, who disowned him for it), although his favorite symbols continued to pop up at times. He even turned to copying the works of historical painters (ranging from Michelangelo to Courbet), while always giving them his own personal twist.
We can understand why an artist would not want to keep repeating himself, but what is rather disappointing is to discover that later in his long life (1888-1978), De Chirico began to paint copies of his own early works (he called them “self-forgeries”) when he realized how popular and lucrative they had become, both as a way of making money and thumbing his nose at critics of his later work.
Aside from the early Metaphysical and Surrealist works, some of the most intriguing pieces in this mega-exhibition (170 works are on show) are the wonderful portraits and self-portraits, which he painted throughout his career. Most of them eschew the symbols and flourishes of the post-Surrealist paintings and capture their subjects (De Chirico, his mother, his brother) with an unsentimental yet affectionate eye. In a 1922-24 self-portrait, for example, De Chirico looks out from the canvas in a three-quarter view, while a statue of himself shown in profile stares at his image dolefully. He never spares himself as he documents his aging face and (sometimes nude) body.
Whether he liked it or not, De Chirico’s early works are the ones that have left a lasting mark (only a few days after seeing the show, I have a hard time visualizing the post-Surrealist works, full of gladiators and horses, accomplished as they may have been in painterly terms) and have become imprinted on the collective unconscious, influencing everyone from filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni to video game designer Fumito Ueda.
In 1937, André Breton credited De Chirico with changing “the visual representation of man,” but in the end, he seems to have remained as enigmatic – a word that is constantly applied to both the man and his works – as his early paintings.
A filmed interview playing in the exhibition shows De Chirico to be a man with a sly sense of humor and is worth watching.
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris: 11, avenue du Président Wilson, 75116 Paris. Métro: Alma-Marceau or Iéna. Tel.: 01 53 67 40 00. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thursday until 10 p.m.). Closed on public holidays. Admission: €5.00. Through January 4. www.mam.paris.fr
© 2009 Paris Update
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