Giorgio de Chirico

Modernity to Postmodernity

by James F. Cooper

In 1970, in anticipation of his impending return to the land of his birth, Giorgio de Chirico (1888−1978) painted A View of Athens, depicting the city he had left with his mother and brother in 1905, after the death of his father. Young Giorgio had already seen several internecine wars and revolutions during the unraveling of the Ottoman and Austria-Hungarian empires: “I witnessed a lot of scary, disturbing, pitiful, pathetic and sometimes disgusting things that, multiplied by a hundred or a thousand, “led up to the Great War.1 A View of Athens is part of an interesting exhibition of 44 paintings, sculptures and drawings co-organized by the De Chirico Foundation in Rome and the Athinais Cultural Centre in Athens, which was on view at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York City through January 6, 2008. A View of Athens, with its phlegmatic brushwork, is stylistically naïf and ironic, consistent with works from de Chirico’s late period, from the end of World War II until his death some thirty years later. The god Hermes floats above the Parthenon on the Acropolis, overlooking the city ofAthens. The winged figure wrapped in a billowing red cloak and holding a scepter, appears bloated and visibly aged. Is it a metaphor for the return of a Greek god to the sacred temple built by the Athenians during their golden age 2,500 years ago? Is de Chirico mocking history and memory? Is he mocking himself as the last progenitor of a cultural revolution?

Born in 1888 in Volos, a port in Thessaly, de Chirico was precocious, beginning his art studies at Athens Polytechnic and continuing them at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany, where his mother had moved after leaving Athens. In Munichhe discovered the existential writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and the dark Romanticism of Arnold Böcklin’s cryptic landscape paintings. Böcklin’s most famous work is The Isle of the Dead (1880), which set the tone for German Romanticism with its phantasmata of Teutonic mythology, classical architecture and dark woods haunted with apparitions of death and the netherworld. Rachmaninov composed a symphonic poem and Max Reger a tone poem inspired by The Isle of the Dead. Indeed, Böcklin’s mysterious landscapes evoke associations in the mind of some viewers with sets for grand opera. De Chirico was mesmerized with Böcklin’s ability to create a self-contained world filled with its own enigmatic symbolism.

i>Hector and Andromache, </i>1917<br/>GALLERIA NAZIONALE D'ARTE MODERNA, ROME

The family relocated first toMilan, then toFlorence. De Chirico recalled sitting on a bench in the middle of the broad piazza in front of Santa Croce, the beautiful thirteenth-century Gothic church which contains the tomb of Michelangelo, frescoes by Giotto and the Triumphal Cross by Cimabue. The austere architecture of the Franciscan Order towered over the smaller surrounding buildings. The young artist experienced what he later described in his journal as a “revelation”: “I was looking at everything for the first time…the moment is an enigma to me, for it is inexplicable.”2

In 1910 he painted his first “metaphysical” painting, The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon, showing a desolate empty piazza. The pediment of the church has been transformed into a Greek temple. The monument to Dante in the Piazza Santa Croce has become a moldering, headless antique statue. Behind the wall of the cloister beside the church, de Chirico has painted the top sail of a passing ship. The young artist has created a disquieting experience. The juxtaposition of objects and events, taken out of their normal context and rearranged, is electrifying. During the next ten years, de Chirico developed this iconography in hundreds of mesmerizing visual “enigmas.” Artists René Magritte, Man Ray and Salvador Dali later expanded this approach into a movement called Surrealism, but none of them achieved de Chirico’s perfect balance of formal aesthetic and content. In de Chirico’s world, objects were redacted into basic elemental formal shapes while retaining their real-world identity. De Chirico had somehow managed to translate a dream (or nightmare) onto canvas. He was highly sensitive, morbidly so in his own words, and his neurasthenic insights border on schizoid hallucination. That he was able to channel and organize these insights into highly formal works of art is testament to his genius.

De Chirico found a kindred spirit in Carlo Carrà (1881−1966), then a leading figure of the Futurist and Dada movements. They were both confined for almost a year in a psychiatric hospital in Ferrara, which allowed them to paint and study undisturbed by the war raging across Europe. Carrà recognized in de Chirico’s work a formal stillness more profound and relevant than the action-filled motion of his own paintings. Soon he joined de Chirico, creating a series of still life’s in a style he and de Chirico called “pittura metafisca.” While de Chirico was arranging for a joint exhibition of their work, Carrà initiated a solo exhibition, claiming credit for the “invention” of metaphysical painting. De Chirico was deeply hurt by this betrayal, which was exacerbated by the cool reception to his own exhibition, which opened several months later in 1919. After the war he moved to Paris, where he was welcomed by André Breton, the leader of la Révolution surréaliste. A famous photograph shot by Man Ray in 1924 shows de Chirico and other members of the group surrounding Breton. Ironically, by the time he was becoming famous, his muse had left him.

That de Chirico’s highly agitated, productive mental state lasted as long as it did is remarkable. In that traumatic decade, a series of fratricidal wars among small nations struggling to free themselves from two decaying empires expanded to include almost every nation on Earth. De Chirico’s dream world turned out to be prescient of what was happening and the worse that was to come. Western culture itself was one of the casualties. After the war artists, writers and architects would play marbles with the remaining fragments of Western culture, and it may have been the right thing to do. Eliot would write in The Waste Land: “These fragments we have shored against our ruin.” For T.S. Eliot and other high modernists, classicism was not simply a style which could be recycled and spun off, but the very source of life and art. Picasso paid homage to classicism when he created a series of paintings based on portraits by Ingres, the supreme classicist. Le Corbusier wrote about the ideal proportions of Greek temples as a source for his Barcelona Pavilion. High modernism was not an attack, but a warning. The Waste Land imagines a shadow over the great cities:


Who are those hooded hordes swarming

Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth

Ringed by the flat horizon only…

Falling towers




The lines are evocative of de Chirico’s desolate piazzas. Classicism also became a victim of the war—as an idea, an ideal and a reminder of the old traditional order, the golden age of ancientGreeceandRome. De Chirico was one of those creative geniuses who transformed the monuments of classicism into a modernist theater of alienation. Yet he would spend nearly sixty years playing lesser variations on these themes, anticipating the frivolities of postmodernism. This period, beginning with the end of the Great War and ending with the artist’s death, is the subject of the interesting retrospective at theOnassisCenter. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the differences between de Chirico’s early and late periods is to compare paintings from different eras. In the process, we will come to identify the characteristics of high modernism and postmodernism, vastly different in style, temperament and quality.

<i>The Archeologists, </i>1968<br/>FONDAZIONE GIORGIO E ISA DE CHIRICO, ROME

De Chirico’s The Archaeologists (1968), painted when the artist was eighty years old, shows two mannequin figures sitting side by side on stone slabs, their heads pressed together in friendly communion and deep conversation. Their legs are covered with ancient Greek togas; their laps are filled with archaeological artifacts, ruins of ancient temples, arches, statues, towers and columns. The background is an arid desert composed of horizontal swatches of brown and ochre and a blue sky. It is a listless composition of flaccid shapes and few strong contrasts.  Hector and Andromache (1917), painted fifty years early, bristles with visual energy. The artist juxtaposes diagonals, triangles, ovoids and dowels, compressing them into interlocking formal shapes. The sinister-looking landscape is slanted, with dark, somber shadows stretched across the tilted plaza. The composition is deceptively simple, yet the individual parts are very complex. The two figures capture lines from Ovid’s poem about the fall ofTroy: “Hector from Andromachi’s embrace went to arms, and it was his wife who placed the helmet upon his head.”

This is also a psychological portrait, using a shorthand of abstract symbols to express emotions that would be explored further by the Bauhaus artist Paul Klee. There is a classical sensibility to the earlier work, a perfection in proportion and visual relationships, despite its abstractness. Quite the opposite is true in The Archaeologists. Its content is classical, i.e., clearly referring to classical antiquities, but the design and composition are overtly and deliberately disproportionate. The arms of the two mannequins are grotesquely large in comparison to their tiny shrunken legs and feet. There is no attempt to integrate forms with one another, or to balance negative planal space with positive planal space on a flat surface, something the artist had accomplished successfully fifty years earlier. Indeed, much of the success of classical Greek sculpture—observed in the bas-reliefs and metopes of the Parthenon at Athens—is the perfect classical alignment between marble background and the foreground. Why did de Chirico, who rarely failed to compose near-perfection in his youth, abandon it in his maturity and old age? The question is addressed somewhat obliquely by several scholars in the handsome exhibition catalogue, pointing to experiences and cultural influences in the artist’s youthful memories of Greece. The subject of postmodernism itself is avoided, as is subject of the artist’s brief association with Mussolini’s fascist government.  The style of The Archaeologists is similarly employed by the artist in A View of Athens, with similar results. So, indeed, are the remainder of paintings and sculptures in the exhibition.

The Hand of God and the Nine Muses (1975) is a particularly unsettling painting. A huge hand, drawn in cartoon style, hovers above nine young women similarly dressed in rudimentary smocks. Is it meant to be ironic, ugly and meaningless? Many see these characteristics as the substance of postmodernism. De Chirico has applied Nietzsche’s warning for mankind about the loss of God to the loss of beauty in art, an unnerving choice for an important artist. James Joyce was not mocking the classical tradition in his novel Ulysses; he was seeking a new approach to Homer’s tale of mankind’s relationship with the gods and fate. Nor was it a coincidence that Ulysses and The Waste Land were both published in 1922. Few captured the impending crisis of the time better than William Butler Yeats in “The Second Coming:”


Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity. (The Second Coming, 1920).


The duplicity and corruption later revealed by the secret treaties of the Great War removed the veil of innocence from the public’s eyes, while the worst pressed forward with passionate intensity toward fascism and communism.

Part of the problem for de Chirico after the war may have been the success of his early work. Although several other artists, including Carrà, Dali, Max Ernst and Man Ray, claimed leadership of the Surrealist movement, no one was able to match de Chirico’s remarkable ability to channel the feral power of the subconscious onto canvas.  André Breton had declared Surrealism the most important art movement of the twentieth century, but problems quickly arose because there was no way to judge the results. Freud’s work with free association and analysis touched upon the subconscious source of de Chirico’s art, but, of course, psychoanalysis of a patient’s dreams is not art. The movement quickly took on a Marxist orientation when it became increasingly impossible for leaders such as Breton to organize its members into a cohesive force. The same self-destructive pattern emerged among the Russian avant-garde artists during the Revolution. In 1925 Breton denounced de Chirico as a “degenerate.” To a Marxist like Breton, anything as personal as a dream challenged the authority of the state.  One cannot control dreams, and dreams—or stream of consciousness, or free association, which are the resources of Surrealism—don’t obey commands or seek power. Even de Chirico couldn’t control it. When the muse left him he continued to exploit Surrealism as a style, but the quality of his work had diminished. Tragedy would be replaced by irony and sentimentality, just as Nietzsche had predicted in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy.

The de Chirico exhibition at the Onassis Foundation contributes to our understanding of the differences between high modernism and postmodernism. It’s rare to see an important artist work prolifically in both traditions. Modernity was dead serious, a last stand by artists to set things right. If de Chirico’s late work too often settles for glib formulas, there are still glimmers of meaning. He grew up in the shadow of the classical heritage and drew on that legacy to create a modern iconography. The American postmodernists, who trace their roots to Dada, are cut off from that legacy. A permanent display at the Onassis offers hope for continuity: a cast collection of the Parthenon Marbles, made from molds of the original marble sculptural decoration of the Parthenon. The originals, dating from the Fifth century b.c., are on display at theAcropolisMuseuminAthensand theBritishMuseuminLondon. These beautiful classical sculptures, metopes and friezes were acquired by the City College of New York in 1852 and are one of the first sets of marble casts to come to theUnited States.


Onassis Cultural Center, Olympic Tower,645 Fifth Avenue,New York,New York,10022. Telephone (212) 486-4448. On the web at   





1. Silvia Tusi, “Giorgio de Chirico and Greece” in Giorgio de Chirico and Greece: Voyage Through Memory (Athinais Cultural Centre, 2007), p. 21.


2. Magdalena Holzhey, Giorgio de Chirico: The Modern Myth (Germany: Taschen, 2005), p. 19.


  American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2008, Volume 25, Number 1