Section 1 - A Single multitude: the Self-portraits
This exhibition retraces de Chirico’s entire career. While dedicating pride of place to themes and icons in Metaphysical Art, it also showcases his Böcklinesque beginnings and his “Classical”, “Baroque” and Neo-metaphysical periods.
Going back through the cyclical resurgence of themes and subjects dear to the artist’s heart (his Self-portraits, Italian squares, mannequins and mysterious baths...), there can be no doubt that his undervalued artistic activity after the 1920s includes authentic masterpieces.
The exhibition opens up with de Chirico’s self-portraits, of which he would paint more than a hundred, all of them the same and yet all different. These paintings and the various masks that distinguish them allow us to identify a veritable pathway through his work.
Just as the figure of the artist changes in all of the self-portraits at the start of this exhibition, so it does in the famous 1945 nude self-portrait that symbolically closes it, along with his pictorial style, constantly evolving and disorienting many art critics.
Section 2 - Prologue
De Chirico’s earliest work, Lotta di Centauri (1909), ), is a double homage: to his native land, Thessaly, the mythical homeland of these fabulous beings; and to Arnold Böcklin, who evoked spectral, enchanted atmospheres. Almost to the letter, de Chirico reproduces the Swiss painter’s attitudes and predilections in a composition on a similar theme.
The figure framed in a window in Ritratto della madre (1911) is a solution de Chirico used many times, opening onto an indefinite space evoking a sense of indeterminacy and mystery, imbuing the painting with “greater metaphysical value”.
Even in a realistic genre like portraiture, de Chirico inserts details that allude to enigmatic manifestations of reality. He had an experience of this in real life the previous year, one autumn afternoon in Piazza Santa Croce in Florence when, in a state of heightened sensitivity, things appeared to him in an unprecedented and arcane light, as if he were seeing them for the first time. This was the revelation behind Metaphysics.
Section 3 - Metaphysics and its echoes
De Chirico’s metaphysical painting occupied a central place in the European artistic panorama during the first half of the twentieth century. After moving to Paris in 1911, the artist began working on his famous Piazze d'Italia series.
In his subsequent paintings, the artist rendered his detonation of the perspective system ever more evident, and he came up with his first mannequins: Il trovatore, Ettore e Andromaca and masterpieces such as Le chant d’amour, L’enigme de la fatalité (of which faithful copies are on display later).
Compared with other artistic avant-garde movements, works by the metaphysical painters who later drew inspiration from de Chirico’s insights are characterized by order and compositional clarity. The evocative power of these metaphysical puzzles may at least in part be ascribed to a sort of revelation in which the world appears completely “other” to us, yet all the while remaining itself. It was not by chance that de Chirico felt the need to “discover the demon in everything,” that Carrà spoke of “reality arrested,” de Pisis of the “mystery of things”, and Savinio, using an oxymoron, of “spectral naturalism”.
Section 4 - “Classicism” and the expansion of Metaphysics
Immediately after the First World War, the Italian cultural scene hankered after order and sought restoration; artists began drawing inspiration from the most authentic and original sources of the country’s artistic heritage. Whereas in Paris, de Chirico’s paintings had been lauded by the Surrealists, back in Italy, de Chirico felt the need to start anew. He went back to studying the Renaissance masters, reworking his metaphysical atmospheres into new forms. While he laid out the theoretical premises of metaphysical painting in a long series of writings, in his paintings he filtered his style through classicism, maintaining a sense of enigma and mystery in new compositions now drawn from the heritage of the finest creators in art history.
One of de Chirico’s most significant results during this period was Lucrezia, a work from 1921 that was actually dated and signed in 1922; as has been noted, this is an extraordinary pictorial collage in which the artist merges and resolves numerous inspirational sources, from classical statues through to Dürer.
Section 5 - The Second Metaphysics
In the late 1920s, de Chirico returned to Paris and renewed the themes of Metaphysical Art, translating them into visions that were more nostalgic yet at the same time more ironic and lightweight.
In his “Second Metaphysics” period, that of Mobili in una valle and the Paesaggi nella stanza, mysterious images of decontextualized objects and places appear as the painter builds up a new sense of enigma by focusing on the exchange between outside and inside; in his cycles of Gladiatori and Archeologi, he reworked his mannequins.
At this time, he fell out with the Surrealists: although they had initially acknowledged him as their precursor, they were unhappy with the results of his latest work. He was not concerned: art critics had long since confirmed his international importance, placing his name alongside Picasso as a leading light in twentieth-century art.
Section 6 - From “Realism” to “Baroque”
In the early 1930s, de Chirico sought new inspiration from museums, revisiting the history of art. On one hand, he continued to create variations on stylistic themes from earlier decades, on the other, he became increasingly passionate about studying the heritage of painting, especially the cult of “great painting”. This was the period of his cycle of female nudes, most notably Bagnante coricata (Il riposo di Alcmena).
Still lifes, or rather, in the terminology he preferred, “silent lifes”, was another genre he cultivated assiduously around this time. Soon enough, he began another extraordinary cycle of “creativity” with I bagni misteriosi.
As his research progressed, his painting became thicker and more sumptuous; Massimo Bontempelli among others began to bandy about the word “baroque”.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, despite the precarious circumstances and anguish over the fate of Europe, de Chirico continued with his research. He painted his famous Autoritratto nudo, “perhaps my most complete painting so far,” he says in his 1945 “Memoirs”.
Section 7 - Neometaphysics
Neometaphysical Art was the final phase of de Chirico’s work, running from the late 1960s to his death in 1978. For the artist, this was a time of great vitality, as he reread and reinterpreted his youthful metaphysical painting, contaminating it with the immense iconographic repertoire of his 1920s and 1930s works to achieve new results.
In the last years of his life, de Chirico opened his horizons once more, shifting towards a timeless point of intersection at which his characters and their objects, wooden T-squares and boxes containing other paintings, open up in an infinite interplay that encompasses all of his existential and artistic years, illuminating some mysteries and recomposing others.
We find his new metaphysical interiors against the backdrop of these felicitous enigmas: archeologists and humanized mannequins, mysterious baths, gladiators, trophies, his customary yellows and blacks, the return of the knight to the ancestral castle, Orfeo Trovatore stanco, Ulysses rowing in his bedroom, and rooms that open up onto new vistas of Venice and New York.