I’ve tried in a number of previous posts to look at some of the predecessors of Impressionism, making a point of showing that styles of art progress from previous influences. Like Impressionism, and most other schools or movements in art, Surrealism also didn’t spring full-flowered from the minds of those most closely associated with the movement; it had antecedents both immediate and historical.
One of the key immediate precursors of Surrealism was actually a slightly older contemporary of the Surrealist artists, Greek painter Giorgio de Chirico; who they admired to the point of inviting him to join the movement officially, which he did for a time.
De Chirico’s “metaphysical painting” had a profound influence on better-known painters like Max Ernst, Rene Magritte and Salvador Dalí, whose styles show the obvious adoption of may of his visual inventions. Yves Tanguy, in fact, wrote that his chance encounter with a De Chirico painting in a gallery window was the spark that inspired him to pick up a brush for the first time and become an artist.
It’s hard to view the past in sequence sometimes, but if you look at De Chirico’s work, and then look at the early work of these and other Surrealist painters, and compare dates, you’ll see how influential he was on the visual style we associate with Surrealism.
De Chirico himself was influenced by Max Klinger, Arnold Böcklin and possibly other Symbolists, many of them artists who the Surrealists later adopted as “official precursors” (they were quick to hang the Surrealist sign of approval on artists they felt embodied their ideals).
De Chirico’s work was first noticed in Paris art circles by Pablo Picasso and poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and it was Apollinaire who introduced him to art dealer Paul Guillaume and later to the Surrealist writers and painters. (Surrealism was both a literary and visual art movement, and the literary component was actually primary.)
De Chirico played with the conventions of painting to unsettling effect, intending to create enigmatic images that bridged the chasm between rationality and metaphysics. Perspective was one of his primary tools for this, and he would often make the ground plane “point” well above the horizon, play with the relative size of objects in the distance and set the edges of structures at impossible angles.
In his metaphysical paintings, shadows, sometimes in directions indicating impossibly conflicting light sources, lay across deserted plazas surrounded by colonnades and rows of arches, spaces filled with the kind of haunting, echoing silence that feels almost like a physical thing, and emphasizes the emotional emptiness (leading some to draw comparisons to Hopper’s later paintings).
De Chirico would also place odd mannequins and other enigmatic objects in his compositions, juxtaposing them in odd relationships and sizes, often using overt triads of colors like yellow red and green to reinforce their iconic presence, as in The Disquieting Muses (above).
De Chirico’s metaphysical painting period was relatively short, basically ten years. Preceding it were less overtly enigmatic works, often straightforward portraits and scenes of Mediterranean towns, but sometimes with mythical themes. He eventually broke with the Surrealists and went back to more realistic painting, but never with the same success or critical praise of his metaphysical works.
He subsequently came to resent this, feeling that his later works were better and more deserving of recognition; and at one point created “self-forgeries”, paintings in his older style with false dates, both out of disdain for the critics and for the higher profit they brought him.
Inspiration, like the dreams the Surrealists chased, can itself be an ephemeral enigma.
Addendum: Thanks to Marco Bresciani for informing me about the Giorgio and Isa de Chirico Foundation (in several languages, English version here), which has lots of information about De Chirico and the De Chirico House Museum, adjacent to the Spanish Steps in Rome (which I unfortunately was unaware of when I visited a few years ago).
Marco also points out that, though I describe him as a Greek painter (as he is often referred to), De Chirico was actually Italian, born in Greece to Italian parents, in much the same way that Alfred Sisley was English, though born in Paris.