by Roderick Conway Morris

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Under an Italian City's Spell

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA, Italy 25 November 2015
MoMa, New York, Giorgio de Chirico ADAGP 2015
''The Amusements of a Young Girl'' (1915).



When the painter Giorgio de Chirico arrived in Ferrara in June 1915 he found himself 'assailed by revelations and inspirations' — as he wrote to his dealer Paul Guillaume in Paris — and soon came to believe that fate had brought him to this intriguing Renaissance city so that he might fully realize his artistic destiny.

De Chirico's presence in Ferrara was indeed fortuitous. In 1912 he had been called up as an Italian citizen to do two years' military service, but to avoid the draft had decamped from Turin to France, where he began to make his mark as an artist.

After the declaration of war, amnesty was offered to deserters if they returned home to volunteer, and he went back to Italy. Because he had an extremely sensitive disposition, de Chirico was classed as medically unfit for service at the front, and was assigned a desk job in Ferrara, where he returned to painting in his spare hours. The result was a series of Metaphysical pictures, produced over a period of three years, which were to have a major impact on the course of 20th-century art.

The centenary of the artist's arrival in the city is being celebrated at Palazzo dei Diamanti with 'De Chirico in Ferrara: Metaphysical Art and the Avant-garde.' This exemplary exhibition, curated by Paolo Baldacci and Gerd Roos, is a landmark in deciphering the intricate symbolic complexities of de Chirico's Metaphysical paintings and tracing their longer term influences.

Not only does it bring together from numerous public and private collections (including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome) more than 30 of de Chirico's most significant works from 1915 to 1918, but also key pieces by other artists affected by them, including Filippo de Pisis, Carlo Carrà, Giorgio Morandi, Max Ernst, René Magritte and Salvador Dalì. The show continues in Ferrara through Feb. 28 and travels on to the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart from March 18 through July 3.

The cultural and psychological origins of de Chirico's Metaphysical art can be traced to his upbringing in Volos, Greece, where he was born in 1888, into a multilingual Levantine family, with Italian, Greek and Turkish lineages, and his subsequent travels in Europe. After his father's death in 1905, the family journeyed to Italy and Germany so that he and his brother Andrea could pursue their artistic, literary and musical interests.

In October 1909 while visiting Rome and Florence, de Chirico had the first of a series of revelations, as recorded in his 'Memoirs' of 1945, in which places, buildings and objects around him appeared as mere physical manifestations of more profound worlds and hidden meanings. This inspired him to try to create analogous painted images, in the artist's own words, 'to make visible that which cannot be seen' and to capture 'the eternal present,' a concept the artist had derived from his reading of Nietzsche. The enterprise gave rise to a series of strangely lit canvases of mysterious empty city streets and squares, with porticoes, classical statuary, fountains, blank walls, towers and distant passing steam trains.

By 1915, he had made around 100 of these elusive images — 'The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon' and 'The Enigma of the Hour,' for example — that had no evident artistic forerunners and which the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, a friend in Paris, described in an article in 1913 as 'metaphysical.' De Chirico's arrival in Ferrara marked the end of this first phase of his Metaphysical paintings — essentially imaginary compositions synthesized from memory — and the beginning of a distinctly new series with similar aims.

In Ferrara, the artist narrowed his focus, using everyday objects to create almost trompe l'oeil still-lifes — which included examples of typical Ferrarese bread rolls and local confectionary seen in shop windows — and clearly identifiable backdrops of the city's monuments, notably the looming mass of its Renaissance Castello. The new focus is illustrated by the first of these Ferrara paintings, 'The Amusements of a Young Girl,' of late 1915, which opens the exhibition.

As the subsequent sections of the show unfold, these initial tableaux develop into a series of images of strange, claustrophobic rooms, inhabited by faceless dummies, maps, geometrical instruments, diagrams, painters' easels and other anomalous objects.

As elucidated by the invaluable commentary provided by the curators in the exhibition and the catalog, hidden among these seemingly haphazard conglomerations of lumber room junk are hermetic elements derived from de Chirico's assiduous studies of classical, Judaic and Christian symbols. Other arcane emblems include disembodied eyes and illusionistic pictures within pictures, motifs that in due course resurface as powerfully suggestive components in the works of Ernst, Man Ray, Magritte and Dalì, as illustrated by the examples of their work on display here.

In 1917 de Chirico's uncertain mental state and apparently the intervention of influential local friends led to his being relieved of his office duties and sent to rest from the spring until mid-summer at the Villa del Seminario, a military psychiatric hospital near Ferrara. The chief of the institution assigned the artist a room as a studio, where he embarked on his extraordinary series of 'Great Mannequins,' brought together here in the last room of the exhibition for the first time in nearly a century.

These robotic creatures have a science-fiction quality and achieve an eerie expressivity, in which their enigmatic Ferrara-inspired architectural settings play a vital part.

Unexpectedly touching is 'Hector and Andromache,' representing the Trojan hero tenderly parting from his wife, bound for his last battle, from which he will not return. The work powerfully evokes a scene repeated countless times during the cataclysmic conflict that was then still raging in Europe, but was scarcely reflected in de Chirico's pictures of that period.

Yet, while knowledge of his remarkable paintings spread rapidly, especially in France and Germany, through articles and illustrations in progressive periodicals, when de Chirico finally exhibited his works in May 1918 in Rome, they were met with total incomprehension and universal hostility by the Italian critics. So devastated was he by this response that he abandoned Metaphysical art altogether and turned to more conventional forms of art, until his so-called neo-Metaphysical period in the late 1960s and early '70s, toward the end of his life.

De Chirico's Metaphysical paintings from the period before and during World War I were among the most original works of their epoch and the most influential on later modern art, not only on such movements as Dada, Surrealism and the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), but also individual artists as diverse as Morandi and George Grosz. Yet the historical importance of de Chirico's art of his metaphysical period is still not widely understood, making this revealing exhibition a welcome and timely event.

De Chirico in Ferrara. Metaphysical Art and the Avant-Garde. Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrara. Through Feb. 28. Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart. March 18 through July 3.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023