De Chirico and the classic dream of Modernity

Giorgio De Chirico, The Enigma of a Day, 1914. MAC-USP


Of the many paradoxes and contradictions that permeate De Chirico's artistic project, the most fundamental is perhaps that of the builder of pictorial modernity

The work of Giorgio De Chirico (1888-1978) can be considered, along with Picasso, Braque, Matisse, among other innovative masters, as one of the fundamental moments in the evolution of modern painting. His work drives an entire strand of painting and modern art that has Surrealism, as an artistic movement, one of its most structured expressions and whose influence survives the disappearance of Surrealism as an aesthetic doctrine and programmatic practice.

A selection of five works by the Italian painter, from the collection of the USP Museum of Contemporary Art, was presented in a brief exhibition at Cidade Universitária. Are they: One Day Riddle, oil on canvas, 1914 (work exhibited in Venice in the great exhibition celebrating the centenary of the painter's birth); Gladiators with their Trophies, painted in 1927; Gladiators from 1935; Horses by the Sea, 1932-33; is Dead nature of the early forties. The ensemble constitutes a restricted but still important sampling of one of the most controversial and influential artists of the XNUMXth century.

Of the many paradoxes and contradictions that permeate De Chirico's artistic project, the most fundamental is perhaps that of the builder of pictorial modernity, through the influence of his work in the first decades of the XNUMXth century, as a cultivator of an essential timelessness (Nietzsche). It should be noted that, alongside the contradictions, a profound coherence is outlined in the trajectory of his painting, or rather, in the motives and individualized forces that drive it. We can even say that in the controversy that soon pitted De Chirico against the Surrealists, after the initial celebration of the genius of the Italian painter by André Breton and his followers, both sides, each in their own way, were right.

For André Breton, De Chirico's initial work is, and will remain despite the subsequent violent controversy, a "lighthouse" pointing the way to an entire poetic dimension of the waking dream, to an unknown land of the spirit and modern culture that the poet French had a premonition in his investigations and literary experiments, and in the outline of artistic programs, but whose concrete form is presented or revealed to him, since for Breton it is exactly the shock of a revelation, in the painting of the young and still unknown Italian artist who came to Paris in 1911.

For De Chirico, on the other hand, the coincidence of his thematics and his poetic vision with that of the surrealists, with whom he shared close interests in principle, will soon be revealed to be the result of a misunderstanding on the part of his initial admirers. This great individualist, formed in Munich at the end of the century, in the reading of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, rebels against the use of his creations, or the reading of them, by the surreal device that was projected as one of the faces of artistic modernity in his definition essential.

As W. Schmied observes,[1] De Chirico is, by circumstances but also by profound inclination and conviction, a outsider. Born in Greece to Italian parents, educated in Germany and Italy, living in Paris, he soon produced an individualized synthesis of his personal and cultural experiences, against the background of the classical atmosphere, the landscape of his childhood reworked in the Germanic connection of philosophy of Nietzsche, which we can call “transclassical”, with pagan and mythological Greece. It is good to remember that Nietzschean poetics also includes a romanticized vision, so to speak, of the Mediterranean and Italian cities.

On the other hand, Greece is reflected in German art and culture at the end of the XNUMXth century in the painting of mythological themes by Feuerbach and mainly by Böcklin, which unites a narrative imagination with a virtuosic realism of drawing and color, reaching , at times, to a vigorous symbolism, at other times to a literality and even a certain bourgeois vulgarity in the “realistic” treatment of classical and mythological themes.

Riding between cultures and even between different historical and spiritual epochs, between Paris, the heart of modernity, and Munich, whose conception of the modern is still rooted in many aspects in the XNUMXth century, De Chirico initially reaches a “classicizing” synthesis, the utopian conciliation , momentarily happy, of conflicting impulses at the very center of the Modern Painting project.

After the phase called Metaphysical Painting, with its characteristic desolate transfigurations of urban spaces and Italian architecture, of spaces that are at the same time discontinuous and unified, of the contiguous relationship of objects and fragments of an interior or interiorized architecture, the “classicizing” themes gain prominence in the painter's work, who is then accused of betraying the modern cause and his own early vision. Of this evolution, the works exhibited at MAC were able to present, albeit summarily, evidence. The conception of an artistic rupture in De Chirico's work will prevail in the historiography of modernism.

On the other hand, we can also observe that the signs of Metaphysics, Memory, Dream and Symbolism often, or even systematically, collate in De Chirico the misunderstanding as one of his fundamental traits that always refers, in this same way, to a deep, subtle and disturbing irony as the other side of Symbolism and Meaning, attached to the silent and active surface of the painting. In this sense, Dechirian solipsism reveals itself as a possible greater and more coherent fidelity to one of the faces, obscured and fundamental, of modernity itself. De Chirico would thus be, as a provocateur, buffoon, eccentric and madman, the most consequential surrealist.

*Marcelo Guimaraes Lima is an artist, researcher, writer and teacher.


[1] W. Schmied. L'art Metafisica di Giorgio De Chirico in his relationship with Tedesque Philosophy: Schopenhauer, Niezstche, Weininger, In: De Chirico in the Centenario della Nascita, cura di M. Calvesi, Venezia, Museo Correr, 1988.

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