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De Chirico and the metaphysics of pop

De Chirico resorts to deception, first with paintings from his family childhood and then in his metaphysical canvases, where he always talks about himself. In the very first years of the decade, Picasso notices him when he is barely twenty. In some way, since 1913, he is kept under observation by Guillaume Apollinaire, an equally saturnine and shrewd genius. Thus, the myth of de Chirico was immediately born, with his contradictions and mysteries.

Of great interest is the unique world created by the artist, that metamondo inhabited by the thoughts of philosophers, by the condition of modern poets; that Stimmung of which he often speaks and writes and which leads him to create what he himself enunciates right from the start: the enigma. It is the mystery that is felt in some moments, it is a modern gaze made only of shadows, something arcane that is about to happen but has not yet happened in that intelligent suspension that de Chirico puts on stage with perspectives, but also true Hitchcockian shots. With his usual sensitive lucidity, Jean Cocteau captures this disturbing duplicity of the image very well: “Some of de Chirico’s works smile at us with their sky, the military headdresses, the fishing floats. If we turned, we would discover a revolver pointed at the canvas and he would tell us in a threatening tone: “Smile or I will shoot”. That is why these smiling works give us an anxious look.

As if a new Orpheus were to turn back along the impervious path, on his way back, as he advances: de Chirico looks to the past as he proceeds in a salvific way. He loves his roots as much as the present and progress, represented by stations factories. He is able to shift from the recovery of cinematographic sources, even popular ones, to Thomas de Quincey, creating a reality that is so primal and lies between metaphysics and the invented world of Jules Verne’s novels, which he loved to read as a child.

De Chirico is a forerunner. When, in the post-war period, the line drawn by Valori Plastici invites to go back to the primitives, he is already beyond: he has already widely quoted Giotto in the Ferrara years. He has laid the foundations for the future surrealism and now he is ready for the real painting, the palpitating one of the twenties, populated by archaeologists, mannequins, horses galloping on chalk beaches and interiors full of objects. The world of de Chirico is inhabited by gladiators, engaged in fake fights, with bodies deformed like molten rubber, hypertrophic necks, games between prehistoric animals and Martians who huddle and cheat one another: they are the antithesis of that sort of stigmatisation that someone wanted to see in an Italic and fascist de Chirico.

Lot 15. Giorgio De Chirico (Flight 1888 – Rome 1978), Fruit in a country, 1962, Mixed media on paper, 30 x 40 cm. Estimate €10,000 – 15,000

In the autumn of 1915, de Chirico left for Ferrara: “one of the most beautiful cities in Italy […] inspired me in the metaphysical world I was working in at that time”. In October, the two Argonauts reunited in the Emilian city, where once again the centauress had promptly joined them and “had rented a small furnished flat; one could […] during free hours, think a little about those things of Art and thought that had always been the supreme goal of our life. I started painting again”. The experience of a new aesthetic, artistic and social reality, that of Ferrara in the years of the first war, leads de Chirico to accentue the dimension of dream, of vision, in a word the metaphysics of images. Ferrara is by vocation a place of the metamondo, also due to […] some fatal topographical dispositions: so, that marvellous Via Giovecca that ends in the mountains to the east […] the metaphysical sense of Via Giovecca dies in the nostalgia of the railway station, between the tangle of the tracks and the noise of the trains”.

Thus, de Chirico reiterates his fascination for the world that revolves around the railway, travel, running trains and his father’s work. Here, in Ferrara, le peintre des gares is maturing an umpteenth expressive evolution, inspired by that city where madness seems to be at home and clearly reveals “the dark and corroded psyche of the monk’s ram-profile bile [Girolamo Savonarola]”; here, where Ludovico Ariosto published his songs on the madness of Orlando (1516). The madness of the people of Ferrara is even scientifically justified by the presence of intensive cultivation of hemp: “[…] this abnormal state of the people of Ferrara is due to the exhalations of hemp […]. It seems that hemp exhalations have a particular influence on the human organism”, a thesis supported by Baudelaire’s Little poems in prose.

But mainly, Ferrara has an extraordinary metaphysical potential: […] a city that is as metaphysical as ever […] solitary and geometrically beautiful”. Ferrara is the result of the vision of his lord, Ercole I d’Este, who created a marble city, according to orthogonal axes, over “[…] drained ditches and rubble”: the Addizione Erculea designed by Biagio Rossetti is the first urban intervention in modern Europe. In 1919, de Chirico gave the prints a fundamental geographical awareness that “[…] a first conscious manifestation of great metaphysical painting was born in Italy. In France this could not happen”. That same Ferrara that his brother lived in a visual and psychological compression, which is translated into the dechirican rooms: always a mirror of that city that had already known the studiolo estense, a closed place where each object is assigned its own place, “studied at the table”, sometimes with a play of mirrors and overturning.

Lot 20. Giorgio De Chirico (Flight 1888 – Rome 1978), Prancing Horses near a Castle, 1953, Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm. Estimate €35,000 – 40,000

In Ferrara, he developed a metaphysical place that lost all urban connotation and became a vision of the enigma that de Chirico had been searching for since 1911 – for Francesco Arcangeli he was already searching for it in Munich – to build a mental city, where Ercole d’Este had made his dream of stone three-dimensional. The humanist Ferrara is a stone ship in the middle of nowhere: at times in Ferrara it feels “a sense of a maritime place”, even like […] a semicircular construction, similar to the stern of a ship, overhanging the pelagus of the Romagna countryside and giving the city a sense of maritime and port”.

And the Dechirican Muses of 1918 are disturbing because they are surprised in the square: “With Le muse inquietantiand with the Trovatore, these characters, formally rigorous, become the silent interpreters of the surreality of Dechirican dreams”. Suspended in a perspective vertigo and defined with a new colour palette, muses and the troubadour share that process of dehumanisation of the subject translated into another time: the muses in an increasingly distant mythology and the troubadour in a courtly past.

Neometaphysics is a splendid yet ambivalent invention. After all, since the 1920s, de Chirico has been redoing de Chirico and replicating his most successful paintings – the small sequence of Le muse inquietanti is an example in this exhibition – as well as some creatively dated Italian Piazzas, sometimes irreverent, sometimes impossible, which have literally wreaked havoc not only among the philologists of art history but, worse still, in the market itself. De Chirico totally frees himself of the weight of the strict dating and reposes himself lucidly and extraordinarily not of his past, but of his visionariness. Neo-metaphysics is a new world that presents one of the faces of the faceted crystal of dechirican inventions but in a completely free key, with a clear painting, just as bare, strong as a black drawing, almost as if de Chirico were dreamily returning to the great metaphysical inventions and his most enlightened games. From here, he began a tight production not only of his most popular themes, which he freely reinterpreted in a sort of d’après, and which came out even more lucid, more brilliant and crystalline, just like a daydream. After all, as he likes to say: “my idea is my idea, and the year I succeed it doesn’t matter”. But today at last, after years of misinterpretations of this painting, we find instead his new great re-inventions, just the great suns on the stand, the moons, the knights who find their castle again, the baroque volutes that are distributed like marble germs in impossible landscapes. Figures that detach themselves and come out renewed from the imaginary that was already in nuce in the Calligrammes and that come back to life in an interesting production, the work of a master who is never tired, who performs almost sans-gênshidden sculptures, crowds of men in redingote, horses that no longer belong to any manual of zoology and visions from the colours to the limit of psychedelic.

Lot 36. Giorgio De Chirico (Flight 1888 – Rome 1978), Rearing Horse, 1943, Oil on canvas, 21 x 15 cm. Estimate €15,000 – 20,000

Those who have seen in the dechirican reruns a lazy market operation are wrong. They correctly interpret Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco when he still reads it as a Nietzschean operation. However, it is certainly the operation that makes him the “copy theorist par excellence” before Andy Warhol who is bewitched by leafing through the catalogue of the 1982 MoMA exhibition where, on a double page, the different versions of the Muse Inquietanti were published.

De Chirico is an artist who – as Giuseppe Marchiori rightly noted in 1976 – cannot be repeated with the canonical means of painting: and Warhol’s great intuition lies precisely in resorting to something else, his serigraphs. De Chirico and Warhol, as in a photograph by Ugo Mulas, face each other in a game of mirrors, they are the two fathers of a curious fusion and improbable as much as contemporary, that is, the metaphysics of pop.

The paintings of this last period show de Chirico’s tireless desire to play with his inventions, to update them with the new sources on which he feeds: they bring together, in a very high chant, all the invention and mystery of one of the greatest painters of the 20th century.

The text is taken from the exhibition catalogue, de Chirico, curated by Luca Massimo Barbero, Milan, Palazzo Reale 25 September 2019 – 19 January 2020, Venice, Marsilio Editore 2019 – Milan, Electa 2019.

Lot 37. Giorgio De Chirico (Flight 1888 – Rome 1978), Knight shooting, first half of the 1960s, Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 cm. Estimate €35,000 – 40,000