The Disruptive Art of Giorgio de Chirico

De Chirico, Piazza with Apollo and Ariadne, c. 1913 (top); Sleeping Ariadne, a Roman copy after a Greek original (bottom left); Apollo Belvedere, detail of face (bottom right)

Giorgio de Chirico (1888 – 1978) was a Greek-born Italian surrealist painter. His father was an Italian nationalist who moved to Greece for his job as a railway engineer. Coupled with the family’s support of a new Italy was a heavy immersion into Greek culture that began in de Chirico’s childhood. Growing up, De Chirico was surrounded by antiquities as well as the modern Greece that contemporary writers were trying to reconcile to an ideal Hellenistic Greece that they felt wasn’t worthy of the modern Greeks. De Chirico rejected the classicist ideals of his time and was uneasy with industrialization and urbanization. He went to Paris and was part of the surrealist group there for some time, until he was rejected from the group due to various conflicts. The split was so bad that Andre Breton and another surrealist published a work in a surrealist magazine called Here Lies Giorgio de Chirico, the center of which was de Chirico’s famous nearly ubiquitous tower. Dead and buried to the surrealists, de Chirico moved to Turin and made a series of piazza paintings. His works often have a train in the background, as you can see here. The train may have a dual-symbolism, in that it may represent his deceased father (a railway engineer) and/or modernity and industrialization. Also prevalent in de Chirico’s works are architecturally confused towers, which may or may not be based off of existing towers in Italy and which vary greatly in architectural form. The towers are said to be a symbol for de Chirico himself. Two classical sculptures also often make appearances in de Chirico’s work: Ariadne is a constant presence (de Chirico was obsessed with this sculpture and her form often changes shape and levels of plasticity) and the Apollo Belvedere, which for de Chirico symbolized everything he disliked about modern classicisizing artistic culture and its Winckelmannian ideals.

The painting above is a perfect example of the sense of enigma that de Chirico purposefully infused into his work. His work has always left me uneasy and unsettled, not in the way that Dali leaves me unsettled — lost in a sort of strange dream land that is strictly out of Dali’s imagination — but rather because de Chirico borrows famous classical forms and places them in absurd situations, places, and climates. Why is Apollo imprisoned in this building as if in the stocks? Is he Apollo, or is he a plaster cast? How does Ariadne relate to him? She’s more free and open, but why? Are the two men (in contemporary dress) related to her? Are they enacting a business deal? Is Ariadne a real marble, perhaps for sale or for public view, or is she, possibly like Apollo, a cast? What can be said of de Chirico’s looming presence over this scene via the tower? And his father’s — via the train? And if the train is a symbol of urbanization and modernity, does it relate to the two men shaking hands? Are the humans in the picture — modern humans, urban humans — responsible for the chaining up of classicism and the release of other types of classicism? Perhaps Apollo is symbolic of Winckelmannian ideals and he  is being kept at bay, while Ariadne represents a different type of classicism, able to be open and freely experienced and practiced. And finally, what of the box or cube at the front right of the painting (of which many make appearances in these piazzas) — is it a bench to invite us in, or is it a stumbling block, letting us stumble over and over again through this painting?

These are the things that unsettle me with de Chirico. There is no end to Why? and to curiosities. Do I even want to know the answers to these questions, or would knowing the answers make the work even more disruptive and disturbing to my art historical consciousness?

Perhaps De Chirico himself provides a clue into his shocking imagery that disrupts chronology and aesthetics:

“Why for instance are the houses in France built in a certain style and not in another? There is no use citing history and the causes of this and of that; this describes, but it explains nothing for the eternal reason that there is nothing to explain, and yet the enigma always remains.”

Perhaps enigma is the central meaning and function of de Chirico’s work.