Giorgio de Chirico  

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"I have selected an early painting from Giorgio de Chirico’s so-called metaphysical period, “The Song of Love,” as The Seduction of Unreason’s graphic template. In many respects, the painting’s imagery is germane to the theme implied by my title: that “unreason” has an uncanny power to fascinate and seduce."--The Seduction of Unreason (2004) by Richard Wolin

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Giorgio de Chirico (10 July 1888 – 20 November 1978) was an Italian artist. In the years before World War I, he founded the scuola metafisica art movement, which profoundly influenced the surrealists. After 1919, he became interested in traditional painting techniques, and worked in a neoclassical or neo-Baroque style, while frequently revisiting the metaphysical themes of his earlier work.


Life and works

De Chirico was born in Volos, Greece, to a Genoan mother and a Sicilian father. After studying art in Athens—mainly under the guidance of the influential Greek painters Georgios Roilos and Georgios Jakobides—and Florence, he moved to Germany in 1906, following his father's death in 1905. He entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, where he read the writings of the philosophers Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer and Otto Weininger and also studied the works of Arnold Böcklin and Max Klinger.

He returned to Italy in the summer of 1909 and spent six months in Milan. At the beginning of 1910, he moved to Florence where he painted the first of his 'Metaphysical Town Square' series, The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon, after the revelation he felt in Piazza Santa Croce. He also painted The Enigma of the Oracle while in Florence. In July 1911 he spent a few days in Turin on his way to Paris. De Chirico was profoundly moved by what he called the 'metaphysical aspect' of Turin: the architecture of its archways and piazzas. It was the city of Nietzsche. De Chirico moved to Paris in July 1911, where he joined his brother Andrea. Through his brother he met Pierre Laprade, a member of the jury at the Salon d'Automne, where he exhibited three of his works: Enigma of the Oracle, Enigma of an Afternoon and Self-Portrait. During 1913 he exhibited paintings at the Salon des Indépendants and Salon d’Automne; his work was noticed by Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire, and he sold his first painting, The Red Tower. In 1914, through Apollinaire, he met the art dealer Paul Guillaume, with whom he signed a contract for his artistic output.

At the outbreak of the First World War, he returned to Italy. Upon his arrival in May 1915, he enlisted in the army, but he was considered unfit for work and assigned to the hospital at Ferrara. He continued to paint, and in 1918, he transferred to Rome. From 1918 his work was exhibited extensively in Europe.

De Chirico is best known for the paintings he produced between 1909 and 1919, his metaphysical period, which are memorable for the haunted, brooding moods evoked by their images. At the start of this period, his subjects were still cityscapes inspired by the bright daylight of Mediterranean cities, but gradually he turned his attention to studies of cluttered storerooms, sometimes inhabited by mannequin-like hybrid figures.

In autumn, 1919, De Chirico published an article in Valori Plastici entitled "The Return of Craftsmanship", in which he advocated a return to traditional methods and iconography. This article heralded an abrupt change in his artistic orientation, as he adopted a classicizing manner inspired by such old masters as Raphael and Signorelli, and became an outspoken opponent of modern art.

In the early 1920s, the Surrealist writer André Breton discovered one of De Chirico's metaphysical paintings on display in Guillaume's Paris gallery, and was enthralled. Numerous young artists who were similarly affected by De Chirico's imagery became the core of the Paris Surrealist group centered around Breton. In 1924 De Chirico visited Paris and was accepted into the group, although the surrealists were severely critical of his post-metaphysical work.

De Chirico met and married his first wife, the Russian ballerina Raissa Gurievich in 1925, and together they moved to Paris. His relationship with the Surrealists grew increasingly contentious, as they publicly disparaged his new work; by 1926 he had come to regard them as "cretinous and hostile". They soon parted ways in acrimony. In 1928 he held his first exhibition in New York City and shortly afterwards, London. He wrote essays on art and other subjects, and in 1929 published a novel entitled Hebdomeros, the Metaphysician.

In 1930, De Chirico met his second wife, Isabella Pakszwer Far, a Russian, with whom he would remain for the rest of his life. Together they moved to Italy in 1932, finally settling in Rome in 1944. In 1948 he bought a house near the Spanish Steps which is now a museum dedicated to his work.

In 1939, he adopted a neo-Baroque style influenced by Rubens. De Chirico's later paintings never received the same critical praise as did those from his metaphysical period. He resented this, as he thought his later work was better and more mature. He nevertheless produced backdated "self-forgeries" both to profit from his earlier success, and as an act of revenge—retribution for the critical preference for his early work. He also denounced many paintings attributed to him in public and private collections as forgeries.

He remained extremely prolific even as he approached his 90th year. In 1974 he was elected to the French Académie des Beaux-Arts. He died in Rome on 20 November 1978.

His brother, Andrea de Chirico, who became famous as Alberto Savinio, was also a writer and a painter.


De Chirico won praise for his work almost immediately from the writer Guillaume Apollinaire, who helped to introduce his work to the later Surrealists. De Chirico strongly influenced the Surrealist movement: Yves Tanguy wrote how one day in 1922 he saw one of De Chirico's paintings in an art dealer's window, and was so impressed by it he resolved on the spot to become an artist—although he had never even held a brush. Other Surrealists who acknowledged De Chirico's influence include Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, and René Magritte. Other artists as diverse as Giorgio Morandi, Carlo Carrà, Paul Delvaux, Carel Willink and Philip Guston were influenced by De Chirico.

Chirico's style has influenced several filmmakers, particularly in the 1950s through 1970s. The visual style of the French animated movie Le Roi et l'oiseau, by Paul Grimault and Jacques Prévert, was influenced by de Chirico's work, primarily via Tanguy, a friend of Prévert. The visual style of Valerio Zurlini's film The Desert of the Tartars (1976) was influenced by De Chirico's work. Michelangelo Antonioni, the Italian film director, also claimed to be influenced by De Chirico. Some comparison can be made to the long takes in Antonioni's films from the 1960s, in which the camera continues to linger on desolate cityscapes populated by a few distant figures, or none at all, in the absence of the film's protagonists.

Writers who have appreciated De Chirico include John Ashbery, who has called Hebdomeros "probably...the finest [major work of Surrealist fiction]." Several of Sylvia Plath's poems are influenced by De Chirico. In his book Blizzard of One Mark Strand included a poetic diptych called "Two de Chiricos:" "The Philosopher's Conquest" and "The Disquieting Muses."

The box art for Fumito Ueda's PlayStation 2 game Ico used in Japan and Europe was strongly influenced by De Chirico. The cover art of New Order's single "Thieves Like Us" is based on de Chirico's painting The Evil Genius of a King.


In the paintings of his metaphysical period, De Chirico developed a repertoire of motifs—empty arcades, towers, elongated shadows, mannequins, and trains among others—that he arranged to create "images of forlornness and emptiness" that paradoxically also convey a feeling of "power and freedom". According to Sanford Schwartz, De Chirico—whose father was a railroad engineer—painted images that suggest "the way you take in buildings and vistas from the perspective of a train window. His towers, walls, and plazas seem to flash by, and you are made to feel the power that comes from seeing things that way: you feel you know them more intimately than the people do who live with them day by day."

In 1982, Robert Hughes wrote that De Chirico

could condense voluminous feeling through metaphor and association ... In The Joy of Return, 1915, de Chirico's train has once more entered the city ... 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.

In this, he resembles his more representational American contemporary, Edward Hopper: their pictures' low sunlight, their deep and often irrational shadows, their empty walkways and portentous silences creating an enigmatic visual poetry.

Selected works

  • Flight of the Centauri, Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon and Enigma of the Oracle (1909)
  • Ritratto di Andrea de Chirico (Alias Alberto Savinio) (1909–1910)
  • Enigma of the Hour (1911)
  • The Nostalgia of the Infinite (1911), or 1912-1913
  • Melanconia, The Enigma of the Arrival and La Matinée Angoissante (1912)
  • The Red Tower, Ariadne, The Awakening of Ariadne, The Uncertainty of the Poet, La Statua Silenziosa, The Anxious Journey, Melancholy of a Beautiful Day, Le Rêve Transformé, and Self-Portrait (1913)
  • The Anguish of Departure (begun in 1913), Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire, The Nostalgia of the Poet, L'Énigme de la fatalité, Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure), The Song of Love, The Enigma of a Day, The Philosopher’s Conquest, The Child's Brain, The Philosopher and the Poet, Still Life: Turin in Spring, Piazza d'Italia (Autumn Melancholy), and Melancholy and Mystery of a Street (1914)
  • The Evil Genius of a King (begun in 1914), The Seer (or The Prophet), Piazza d’Italia, The Double Dream of Spring, The Purity of a Dream, Two Sisters (The Jewish Angel) and The Duo (1915)
  • Andromache, The Melancholy of Departure, The Disquieting Muses, Metaphysical Interior with Biscuits (1916)
  • Metaphysical Interior with Large Factory and The Faithful Servitor (both began in 1916), The Great Metaphysician, Ettore e Andromaca, Metaphysical Interior, Geometric Composition with Landscape and Factory and Great Metaphysical Interior (1917)
  • Metaphysical Muses and Hermetic Melancholy (1918)
  • Still Life with Salami and The Sacred Fish (1919)
  • Self-portrait (1920)
  • Italian Piazza, Maschere and Departure of the Argonauts (1921)
  • The Prodigal Son (1922)
  • Florentine Still Life (c. 1923)
  • The House with the Green Shutters (1924)
  • The Great Machine (1925) Honolulu Museum of Art
  • Au Bord de la Mer, Le Grand Automate, The Terrible Games, Mannequins on the Seashore and The Painter (1925)
  • La Commedia e la Tragedia (Commedia Romana), The Painter’s Family and Cupboards in a Valley (1926)
  • L’Esprit de Domination, The Eventuality of Destiny (Monumental Figures), Mobili nella valle and The Archaeologists (1927)
  • Temple et Forêt dans la Chambre (1928)
  • Gladiatori (began in 1927), The Archaeologists IV (from the series Metamorphosis), The return of the Prodigal son I (from the series Metamorphosis) and Bagnante (Ritratto di Raissa) (1929)
  • I fuochi sacri (for the Calligrammes) 1929
  • Illustrations from the book Calligrammes by Guillaume Apollinaire (1930)
  • I Gladiatori (Combattimento) (1931)
  • Milan Cathedral, 1932
  • Cavalos a Beira-Mar (1932–1933)
  • Cavalli in Riva al Mare (1934)
  • La Vasca di Bagni Misteriosi (1936)
  • The Vexations of The Thinker (1937)
  • Self-portrait (1935–1937)
  • Archeologi (1940)
  • Illustrations from the book L’Apocalisse (1941)
  • Portrait of Clarice Lispector (1945)
  • Villa Medici - Temple and Statue (1945)
  • Minerva (1947)
  • Metaphysical Interior with Workshop (1948)
  • Fiat (1950)
  • Piazza d’Italia (1952)
  • The Fall - Via Crucis (1947–54)
  • Venezia, Isola di San Giorgio (1955)
  • Salambò su un cavallo impennato (1956)
  • Metaphysical Interior with Biscuits (1958)
  • Piazza d’Italia (1962)
  • Cornipedes, (1963)
  • La mia mano sinistra, (1963), Chianciano Art Museum
  • Manichino (1964)
  • Ettore e Andromaca (1966)
  • The Return of Ulysses, Interno Metafisico con Nudo Anatomico and Mysterious Baths - Flight Toward the Sea (1968)
  • Il rimorso di Oreste, La Biga Invincibile and Solitudine della Gente di Circo (1969)
  • Orfeo Trovatore Stanco, Intero Metafisico and Muse with Broken Column (1970)
  • Metaphysical Interior with Setting Sun (1971)
  • Sole sul cavalletto (1972)
  • Mobili e rocce in una stanza, La Mattina ai Bagni misteriosi, Piazza d'Italia con Statua Equestre, La mattina ai bagni misteriosi and Ettore e Andromaca (1973)
  • Pianto d’amore - Ettore e Andromaca and The Sailors’ Barracks (1974)

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