Taking Giorgio de Chirico’s picture ”Metaphysical Interior with Large Factory” as a starting point, owned by itself, the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart presents a comprehensive show in cooperation with the city of Ferrara, where the painting was created 100 years ago, that explores the influence of de Chirico on the European avant-garde.
The concept of the exhibition is limited to the period of de Chirico’s work until the end of World War I, skipping his controversial late work, in order to examine its importance for the development of Dadaism, Surrealism and Neue Sachlichkeit. Artists as different as Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Oskar Schlemmer, George Grosz and Kurt Schwitters got under the spell of Pittura Metafisica, adapting it for their individual style.
Giorgio de Chirico was born in Greece in 1888, where he grew up and studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Athens parallel to a training as an engineer. His strong bonds to mythology of ancient times and the mediterranean way of life were shaped already there. The impulses decisive for his artistic work, however, he obtained in Munich, where he studied painting at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts from 1906 to 1909. The neoclassical architecture of the Bavarian metropolis, especially the arcades of the Hofgarten, were to recur again and again in his later work, de Chirico’s stay in Munich was the incubation period for his metaphysical pictures, that he created in Ferrara later on, thus revolutionizing the art of the avant-garde. In Munich de Chirico also discovers the work by Arnold Boecklin in the Schack Gallery, which captivates him and won’t let him go for the rest of his life. De Chirico transfers the melancholic prevailing mood in the work by Boecklin into the industrial era of the 20th century. Especially the deserted looking enshrouded figures such as in the paintings ”Villa by the Sea” or ”The Isle of the Dead” will recur on de Chirico’s vacant Italian squares.
They are oscillating in the field of tension between animation and freezing, finally turning into the statues themselves, they seem to communicate with. The philosophical foundation for his pictures is delivered by the writings by Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, whose description of disturbingly vacant squares in Turin surrounded by arcades provides the literary template. In his biography de Chirico relocates his own metaphysical awakening to the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence, where he is haunted by a vision in front of the Dante monument on a clear autumn day in October 1909. ”Then I had the strange impression, as if I saw those things for the very first time.”
Giorgio de Chirico was the first to succeed in expressing the inner disruption of modern man in his art.
In 1911 Giorgio de Chirico travels to Paris to meet the leading representatives of the European avant-garde. While Pablo Picasso picks out the outer disruption between the human individual and reality as a central theme of his work of Cubism, de Chirico visualizes the inner disruption thus becoming a counterpole to Picasso. In the psychoanalytical approach of Surrealism this contrast to the constructivist schools within the avant-garde was to become even more obvious. In this regard Guillaume Apollinaire becomes a source of inspiration and an intellectual mentor for the Surrealists.
After the outbreak of World War I de Chirico settles in Ferrara in northern Italy in 1915 to fulfill his military service, but in contrast to many of his friends in Paris he is spared serving at the front. In Ferrara he meets Carlo Carrà along with his brother Alberto Savinio, laying the theoretical foundations of the Scuola Metafisica together. Giorgio Morandi as well soon joins in the artist group to try the metaphysical principles on his work. The architecture of Ferrara has a significant influence on the work by de Chirico, the Castello Estense of the d’Este family under which Ferrara experienced a glamorous blossoming, recurs on numerous paintings as an architectonical backdrop, amongst others in the “Disquieting Muses”.
At the height of his art de Chirico turns away from Pittura Metafisica in order to reinvent himself in ancient mythology.
Through the art magazine ”Valori Plastici” many of the works by de Chirico become well-known in the European hot spots of art and establish his fame as a pessimistic innovator of an entire era. In the short period until the end of World War I de Chirico’s creative and innovative power reaches dizzy heights, like in a feverish delirium he creates his most important works, the visionary appeal of which he never was to achieve again.
Desperately he tries to reinvent himself in the 1920ies by turning towards ancient times and mythology, but his Surrealist friends around André Breton turn away from his new direction deeply disappointed. The limitation to the presentation of the work until the end of World War I proves to be a coherent exhibition concept, that confronts the pictures by de Chirico and the ones of his close companions Carrà and Morandi with works of Dadaism, Surrealism and Neue Sachlichkeit. The leading figures of Surrealism are represented by Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Man Ray and René Magritte. Just one protagonist of the Surrealist movement was ignored by the curators of the exhibition unfortunately: Yves Tanguy. Though especially he found his way to painting through the fortunate encounter with the picture ”The Child’s Brain” by Giorgio de Chirico, continuing the principles of the Scuola Metafisica in his later work with his anthropomorphic conglomerates of objects and adding another pioneering facet to the history of metaphysical painting.
De Chirico created the stage for the dreams of the Surrealists, where they could enter their own subconscious.
Characteristic of the art of Surrealism is the ambition to resolve the contradiction between the real and the unreal, between logic and the subconscious and to reconcile them in a superior surreality. Some artists of the Surrealist movement tried to unearth the submerged images of the subconscious by means of automatic techniques, whereas others used visions of dreams in a well-directed way.
By blending the inner and the outer world in a metaphysical way, thus revealing the unconscious, the essence of objects contradictory to the logic of rationality, de Chirico became a guiding light for the Surrealists, who opened the door to the subconscious. On the painting ”A Friends’ Reunion” by Max Ernst de Chirico is therefore portrayed as a marble monument among the group of Surrealists. De Chirico developed a concise vocabulary for his metaphysical visual language, that recurs on all of his paintings of this creative period and evokes their magic aura. In front of the viewer an irresolvable exciting suspense between familiarity and alienation, as well as tranquillity and anxiety emerges, with multiple spatial stages questioning the rules of the perspectively correct illusion of space.
On a thin line the depicted objects permanently run the risk of being turned into their opposite. And like behind a curtain it is concealed from the viewer who or what is pulling the strings, that is manipulating the manichinos like string puppets. An invisible demiurge seems to direct the viewer into the realm of his own dreams. The stage is the revolutionary image invention by de Chirico, he puts his absurd world theater into scene on. The vanishing lines of his image spaces create a chaos that dissolves the world into tectonic mysteries, leaving the viewer caught in a perspective maze like in a tesseract. Whereas in Cubism is was the body that disintegrated into its parts, in Pittura Metafisica it is the space that surrounds it. Nothing isn’t anymore as it seemed to be, the logic and laws of mathematics are suspended. The scattered geometric instruments represent one last defiant struggle of the intellect, a desperate cry for help to logical reasoning, but they don’t work anymore like signs devoid of meaning left by a perished civilization.
Suppressed childhood memories come alive in the mysterious still lifes of Pittura Metafisica.
Mysterious objects taken out of context coalesce in new combinations and take on a spooky life of their own in the twilight. One thinks to have seen all these trivial discarded things before as a child in some attic. De Chirico’s spark of genius is in his power to address archetypical childhood memories, forgotten and pushed aside long ago in the subconscious and to bring them back to light: the experience of darkness in unknown rooms, crammed with magic objects that arouse imagination, fascination and anxiety at the same time. These unrelated things are tied to each other in collective silence, despite their isolation they are all caught in the same prison and add a whole new dimension to the idea of a still life. De Chirico was the first to create the oneiric stage, the dissecting table, the Surrealists could make the chance meeting of a sewing-machine and an umbrella make happen on.
Based on the achievements of the Renaissance to use architecture and its correct depiction by means of central perspective as trompe-l’oeuil, de Chirico makes deliberate use of particular architectural elements in order to design his spatial stages. His deserted Piazze d’Italie refer directly to the ”Ideal City” by Piero della Francesca or the rotunda on the picture ”Marriage of the Virgin” by Perugino. De Chirico prefers the motif of the arcades, inspired by his stays in Munich and Turin, that surround the squares and separate inside and outside. Black shadows are cast from blind backdrops, Potemkin villages, that form the frame for his ghost towns like reminders of the time made stand still, close enough to touch in the sharpness of their contours, and yet beyond comprehension. Windows like black holes multiply the dimensions of space, with mysterious light emanating from where it’s actually impossible, thus enhancing the disturbing atmosphere.
Like a seismograph de Chirico reacts upon the commotions of World War I and creates metaphors of the heralds of the industrial age.
In front of raised horizons monuments, defence towers and smokestacks shape a sytem of space coordinates, which puts the carelessly discarded equipment into a new context. After the progress euphoria of the beginning of the 20th century had endet in the apocalypse of World War I, the world is sinking in silence. De Chirico expresses the human yearning for a retreat into the cocoon of his own inner world, in order to lock out the furor of the over-engineered anonymized world, that has become too complex and unmanageable for the human individual.
The heralds of the new era, which will change man, can be detected behind the horizon, mostly hidden behind walls and draperies. The silhouettes of railways and sails of ships appear like mirages behind architectonical enclosures. They symbolize arrival and departure, just like the ships by Caspar David Friedrich. However, the smother of the railways, an allusion to the father of de Chirico, the railway engineer, and the waving flags on the towers at the horizon are just an illusion. In reality time stands still, long shadows blacken the pavement like the hands of a sundial, the star of which has started to die, putting the evacuated cities under a greenish sky in a gloomy twilight between day and night, life and death.
The fear of empty squares and closed rooms can be felt in the metaphysical pictures, with the manichinos expressing the loss of human individuality.
The emptiness of the Piazze d’Italia testifies to an acute agoraphobia, that gives way to a disturbing claustrophobia in the metaphysical interiors by de Chirico, due to the constricted room in his studio in Ferrara, which forced him to reduce the sizes of his pictures. In hermetic rooms conglomerates of walls displaced diagonally generate a mazelike spatial setup, with window cutouts revealing an unreal outside world. Mysterious artifacts are caught inside, piling up to useless fragile structures. Mostly they consist of things that had been used by humans or mirror human physiognomy, such as busts, gloves, set squares and pastries, a seemingly random selection pointing to the absence of man.
Man outside on the square, at the beginning still reminding of the figures by Boecklin seeming lost, is merged with his own cast shadow or frozen to a statue in an interim state between life and death long ago. Anything human has vanished from his face, apathetically he resigns to his fate he is sharing with the other inanimate objects. With the invention of the manichino, a faceless dress form and a cross between dehumanized human and animated robot, de Chirico expresses his discomfort with the loss of human individuality. The manlike automaton used to be a popular theme in the Schauerroman of the 19th century, de Chirico transforms it into the manichino, thus already anticipating the machine world of the movie ”Metropolis” by Fritz Lang.
After the encounter with Giorgio de Chirico Carlo Carrà gives Futurism up to dedicate himself to slowness.
To see man as a mere exchangeable production workforce and as cannon fodder for the enforcement of claims to power, was the dark side of the enthusiasm about technology, that escalated before World War I and was to pave the way for fascism later on. The blind belief in progress resulted in Futurism, also Carlo Carrà succumbed to as many other artists. But the turmoil of World War I makes also him start to revise his thinking, his encounter with de Chirico induces him to renounce Futurism and to participate in the formulation of the principles of the Scuola Metafisica. The thrill of speed of that time he contrasts with a deliberate slow-down. He uses a similar visual vocabulary as de Chirico, but modifies it slightly. His version of the manichino frequently is a figure with tennis racket, that appears like an ironical allusion to the promises of the futuristic cult of movement. The iridescent light effect in the pictures by de Chirico Carrà tones down by a coloration preferring earth colors. Giorgio Morandi, who joins the group of de Chirico and Carrà shortly afterwards, focuses on still life as a preferred genre. In almost monochrome pictures reduced in color, creating an atmosphere of tranquility, he explores the mutual effect of outline and three-dimensionality using abstract basic geometric bodies, which he arranges in a classical way.
After the discovery of works by de Chirico in the art magazine ”Valori Plastici” Max Ernst and René Magritte change their style fundamentally.
Through the magazine “Valori Plastici” Pittura Metafisica was quickly spread into the art capitals of France and Germany. In the Munich bookshop Goltz Max Ernst discovered a copy of the magazine in 1919 and was deeply impressed by the reproduced pictures by de Chirico. De Chirico was the source of inspiration for Max Ernst, still in the middle of his dadaistic period, he had been searched for to give his proto-surrealistic visions a new direction. In the graphic suite FIAT MODES ars pereat, a dadaistic pun, he pays homage to his great role model de Chirico. In his painting “Aquis submersus”, one of the first ones of his surrealistic period, he quotes the typical attributes of Pittura Metafisica, reinterpreting them at the same time: the raised horizon, the stage with architectonical elements as boundary, which is replaced by a swimming pool as a symbol of the immersion into the own subconscious, and the manichino-like figure in the foreground.
In 1923 a reproduction of the painting ”The Song of Love” catches the attention of René Magritte, which results in a profound change in his work as well. De Chirico’s picture-in-picture motif, that represents a window to an unreal outer world, is further developed by Magritte into a visual picture puzzle of painted reality and illusion. Common perceptions of the viewer are fooled on the false bottom of his image spaces appearing philosophically absurd like in the picture ”The Assassination”. Salvador Dalí as well uses the picture-in-picture motif in his painting ”Illumined Pleasures”, which marks the beginning of his heroic surrealistic period. Dalí relocates the desolate squares by de Chirico to his homeland of Catalonia, the vast plain of Empordà, which serves as backdrop for his obsessive visions.
An important motif in the image vocabulary of de Chirico is the eye directed to the inner world as symbol of the own subconscious. From this point of view the eyes missing on his faceless manichinos bear an even deeper complex meaning. The Surrealists interested in the exploration of their own ego gratefully adopted the motif of the eye. Man Ray, who revolutionized the view onto the unconscious through the eye of the camera, mounted the photography of an eye on a metronome to create the feeling of being watched during the act of painting. The movement of the eye put Man Ray in a mood of trance and set the speed of the brush moving over the canvas. By setting the pace, the eye disabled ratio and triggered an automatic creative process according to the principles of Surrealism.
In Germany the artists of Neue Sachlichkeit use the metaphysical vocabulary to express their socially critical messages.
In opposite to the french avant-garde, where the Surrealist group was established by André Breton in Paris, the artists in Germany still were strongly influenced by Dadaism. After the traumatic experiences of World War I they were struggling to get back to the normal, the trends of abstraction and fragmentation of the prewar time were replaced by a stronger reorientation towards the objective reality. The garish colors of Expressionism gave way to subdued colors and an unemotional emphasis on the outline.
Kurt Schwitters gets inspired by de Chirico’s backdrop-like spatial constructions to the design of his walkable sculpture ”Merzbau”, whereas George Grosz as satirical critic of the society of the Weimar Republic uses the motifs of Pittura Metafisica as socially critical metaphors. The artists of Neue Sachlichkeit generally prefer a sociocritical realism to the psychological mystification of the visual content, that’s why Carrà and Morandi have a stronger influence on them than de Chirico within the Scuola Metafisica. While the shop-windows of the 1920ies are entered by the mannequins of the fashion designers and the wooden heads of the milliners, the streets of Berlin are populated by mutilated war invalids with missing limbs.
Both George Grosz and Gottfried Brockmann, Rudolf Schlichter, Anton Raederscheidt and Niklaus Stoecklin use the manichinos of the Scuola Metafisica to further develop them in the context of Neue Sachlichkeit, picking the dehumanization of the individual as a central theme. The architectural elements borrowed from the Renaissance by de Chirico are replaced by the drab facades of high-rise buildings in exploding cities. Alexander Kanoldt showcases chillingly aseptic still lifes with harsh contours that express the new spirit of clarity and purity, a dangerous mindset, that was on the verge of turning into the racial fanaticism of the National Socialists.
The central message of Oskar Schlemmer’s social utopia is the unity of man and architecture, which he formulates at the Bauhaus.
With many figures of Neue Sachlichkeit denouncing the living conditions of their time, Oskar Schlemmer is interested in visualizing the phenomenon of the anonymous mass society by creating an abstraction of the human physiognomy. Germany could look back upon a long tradition as breeding ground for social utopias, coming along with respective social experiments. Through the typification of man, falling back on the teaching of proportions by Leonardo da Vinci, Oskar Schlemmer tries to design the prototype of modern man at the Bauhaus in Weimar. In his picture “Relaxation Room” he seeks to illustrate the harmonious unity of man and architecture as expression of creativity in a humanistic sense. Although the main work by Giorgio de Chirico was created within just one decade, it had a fundamental influence on the diverging art schools in Europe during and after World War I. His paintings remain fascinating and have lost none of their topicality also in the 21st century. Just like “The Great Metaphysician” man is accumulating heaps of knowledge getting higher and higher and knows less and less at the same time what to do with it, why at all he is using his metric instruments created by himself.
In a period, that is about to drag the very last mysteries of the world into the glaring limelight and to sacrifice them on the altar of profit greed, with art trying to curry favor with the entertainment industry, one is longing for spiritual mystification, for the logically inexplicable. While the images of the present are drowning in the digital flood, the black shadows by de Chirico are persisting like the hands of a clock brought to a halt.
18.03. – 03.07.2016 Staatsgalerie Stuttgart