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.
Malek Gallery (9 works)
Olga's Gallery (bio and 17 works)
Ciudad de la pintura (201 works) (ES)
Wikipedia (bio and 4 works)
CGFA (4 works)
MOMA (14 works)
Philadelphia Museum of Art (4 works)
Artycyclopedia (links and museum listings)
10 Replies to “Giorgio de Chirico”
Art history is so often told as a ‘straight line’. As if it all happened consequetively.
And an artist’s work is so often only appreciated in the context of that ‘line’. De Chirico seems a great example of that : his ‘pre-surealism’ came too soon and his ‘realistic’ work came too late.
How silly. It makes established art history look like nothing more than the sequential recording of art fashion and hype at a given time.
So keep on bringing these great articles on the little stories that happened in the margins of the art historic line!
thank you for bringing the spotlight on Giorgio De Chirico, he is quite popular in Italy but I found out that even what we consider his most renowned works do not have much recognition beyond the Alps.
Giorgio De Chirico was also a talented writer, especially his memoirs are wit, funny and full of a strong, personal point of view on the European art of the early 20th century.
I don’t want to sound chauvinist but De Chirico was Italian and not Greek: he was born in Greece by Italian parents, and came back to Italy in his teens.
I suggest to visit the Giorgio De Chirico Foundation in Rome http://www.fondazionedechirico.it, created by his wife Isabella Far in the house where they lived.
Erik, Thanks for the comment. I think some of the most interesting aspects of art history (and often some of the most interesting artists) often fall through the cracks.
Other readers should check out Erik Bongers online portfolio, which features drawings and graphics as well as pages from “Cocoon”, an in-progress grahic story.
Thanks for the information about the foundation and the correction about De Chirico’s nationality. I’ve added an addendum to the post.
Other readers can find Marco Bresciani’s blog here.
Charley- informative and interesting as always. As mentioned above, art history is too often narrated as a linear progression and too many important figures that don’t fit the narrative are ignored or minimized.
Nice little essay and good thoughts on an important artist.
i love the idea of self-forgeries! and the idea of a movement that can officially invite people to join it. these guys were so wonderfully weird. and “disquieting” is a fantastic name for this stuff.
I don’t know if this was true, but my painting instructor told me that De Chirico broke with surrealism because his wife wanted him to paint things people would buy. She restricted his access to alcohol until he came up with something that would sell.
She fancied horses. Once again, questionable veracity here.
I wonder if Chirico’s metaphysical paintings have anything in common with WW1.
For those interested in owning a piece of art from De Chirico himself visit us today. We have a collection for sale of his lithographs and etchings.
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