From Robert Hughes
"Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists"
"The case of Giorgio de Chirico is one of the most curious in art history. An Italian, born in 1888 and raised partly in Greece - where his father, an engineer, planned and built railroads - he led a productive life, almost Picassoan in length; he died in 1978. He had studied in Munich, and in his early twenties, under the spell of the Symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin, he began to produce a series of strange, oneiric cityscapes. When they were seen in Paris after 1911, they were ecstatically hailed by painters and poets from Picasso to Paul Éluard; before long de Chirico became one of the heroes of Surrealism.
"This phase of his work - the so-called pittura metafisica - lasted until about 1918. Thereafter, de Chirico changed. He wanted to become, and almost succeeded in becoming, a classicist. He imagined himself to be the heir of Titian. Rejected by the French avant-garde, he struck back with disputatious critiques of modernist degeneracy; for the next sixty years of his life, he remained an obdurate though not very skillful academic painter. He even took to signing his work "Pictor Optimus" ("the best painter"). The sheer scale of his failure - if that is the word for it - is almost as fascinating as the brilliance of his early talent. Naturally, a great deal of both has been hidden by the polemical dust, and last week [note - this essay was originally published in 1982] New York's Museum of Modern Art unveiled its effort to stabilize and make sense of de Chirico's reputation with a show organized by William Rubin, the museum's director of painting and sculpture.
"For the past seventy years, de Chirico's city has been one of the capitals of the modernist imagination. It is a fantasy town, a state of mind, signifying alienation, dreaming and loss. Its elements are so well known by now that they fall into place as soon as they are named, like jigsaw pieces worn by being assembled over and over again: the arcades, the tower, the piazza, the shadows, the statue, the train, the mannequin.
"Many of its traits are drawn from real places in which de Chirico lived. Volos, the Greek town where he grew up, was bisected by a railway, and the glimpse of a train among the houses - which look so strange in de Chirico's paintings - must have been a fact of his childhood memory. But the richest sources of imagery were Turin, which de Chirico visited briefly as a young man, and Ferrara, where he lived from 1911 to 1918. Turin's towers, including the eccentric nineteenth-century Mole Antonelliana, regularly appear in his paintings. Another favorite site there, piazza Vittorio Veneto, is surrounded on three sides by plain, deep-shadowed arcades; these serried slots of darkness are the recurrent motif of de Chirico's cityscapes. He may have grasped their poetic opportunities through looking at Böcklin's paintings of Italian arcades, but no painter ever made an architectural feature more his own.
"That de Chirico was a poet, and a great one, is not in dispute. He could condense voluminous feeling through metaphor and association. One can try to dissect these magical nodes of experience, yet not find what makes them cohere. In The Joy of Return, 1915, de Chirico's train has once more entered the city; its black silhouette is plumb in the center of the looming gray facades; a bright ball of vapor hovers directly above its smokestack. Perhaps it comes from the train and is near us. Or possibly it is a cloud on the horizon, lit by the sun that never penetrates the buildings, in the last electric blue silence of dusk. It contracts the near and the far, enchanting one's sense of space. Early de Chiricos are full of such effects. Et quid amabo nisi quod aenigma est? ("What shall I love if not the enigma?") - this question, inscribed by the young artist on his self-portrait in 1911, is their subtext.
"Morbid, introspective and peevish, de Chirico belonged to the company of the convalescents: Cavafy, Leopardi, Proust. The city was his sanatorium, and as a fabricator of images that spoke of frustration, tension and ritualized memory, he had no equal. No wonder the Surrealists adored his early work and adopted its strategies wholesale. The "illusionist" painters among them, Dali, Ernst, Tanguy and Magritte all came out of early de Chirico, and in the 1920s George Grosz and other German painters used de Chirican motifs to express their vision of an estranged urban world.
"But to treat de Chirico solely as a dream merchant, precursor of Surrealism, does his early work some injustice. The show's argument is that he survives as a painter within a specifically modernist framework, whose values and standards were generated in the thirty years before 1914 in Paris. That was "the city par excellence of art and the intellect," as de Chirico wrote, where "any man worthy of the name of artist must exact the recognition of his merit." Paris took young de Chirico, as it took young Chagall, and turned him from a naive provincial fabulist into a major painter. His "metaphysical" constructions, such as The Jewish Angel, 1916, certainly influenced Max Ernst. just as certainly, they came out of the Cubist sculpture de Chirico saw all over Paris studios after 1912.
"De Chirico is often said to have used Renaissance space in his pictures, but as Rubin points out, this is a myth. De Chirican perspective was not meant to set the viewer in a secure, measurable space. It was a means of distorting the view and disquieting the eye. Instead of one vanishing point in his architectonic masterpiece, The Melancholy of Departure, 1914 there are six, none "correct." This cloning of viewpoints acts in a way analogous to Cubism. It jams the sense of illusionary depth and delivers the surface to the rule of the flat shape, which was the quintessential modernist strategy. In color, in tonal structure and in its contradictory lighting, Rubin argues, de Chirico's style up to 1918 "was as alien to its supposed classical, fifteenth-century models as it was dependent on the Parisian painting of its own moment."
"This view of de Chirico as formalist fits the evidence and rids the artist of a great deal of accumulated "poetic" waffle. It also helps one distinguish, in a way that makes sense, between de Chirico's real achievements and the long slide into mediocrity after 1918. Authentic pre-1918 de Chiricos are few, and most of them are on the Museum of Modern Art's walls. On the other hand, copies and "later" versions - a euphemism for self-forgeries - are everywhere. (One of them, from the Cleveland Museum of Art, dubiously identified as a 1917 Metaphysical Interior, has crept into the show and should creep out.) Italian art dealers used to say the Maestro's bed was six feet off the ground, to hold all the "early work" he kept "discovering" beneath it. In a spirit of pardonable malice, Rubin reprints in the catalogue eighteen versions of The Disquieting Muses, 1917, all done between 1945 and 1962. Many of these facsimiles, backdated, were sold as original pittura metafisica.
"What made him do it? In part, revenge; if modernist critics and the collectors they influenced were going to make capital from his youth while insulting his maturity, then let them eat fake. Why should he not profit from the fact that early de Chiricos fetched ten or twenty times the price of late ones? He believed he got better as he got older. He would have had to be a saint of humility not to think so. The worst insult you can offer an artist is to tell him how good he used to be. No wonder de Chirico rejected everything that was written about his early work and refused to agree that it had any fundamental connection with modernism. Only thus could he rationalize his belief that he was the same artist after 1918 as before: the difference between him and other members of that stupendous generation of the 1880s was that he alone had stepped out into the light of classicism, leaving Picasso and the rest behind in their "primitive" darkness and willful modernist regression.
"A constant theme of de Chirico's early work is the loss of his father, the railroad engineer commemorated in those white statues, phallic smokestacks, cannons, towers and trains. Perhaps he consoled himself by embracing the most paternal of all styles - the ultimate authority of Greco-Roman archaeology as transmitted by the Renaissance, a classicism one could approach only from outside. Waking this sleeping father became another obsessive project: after 1920 de Chirico is always quoting classical models, allegories, iconographies. The one thing he could not do was paint with the measure and certainty appropriate to classical art. He could invoke, but never convincingly evoke, that great still frame of agreement. Consequently his paintings after 1920 teeter on the edge of an absurd defensiveness; they mean less than they seem to. They are not about nostalgia, as the early work was. They are nostalgic, and flatly so.
"Today, determined efforts are being made - though not by the Museum of Modern Art - to rehabilitate late de Chirico. Dealers need product, of course, but there is more to it than that. De Chirico's queer, starved relationship to the classical past closely resembles the way many young painters now look back on the prime energies of modern art; his "postclassicism," unconsciously camp, is uncle to the pastiches of "postmodernism." Of course, that does not make the late paintings much more interesting; they are still not bad enough to look good. The Pictor Optimus could only stump about like a man at a masquerade, tangled in the mantle of Titian. The de Chirico this show gives back to us was so much less encumbered, so precise and knowing in his hard-won awkwardness."
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