The exhibition of Giorgio De Chirico’s painting is as disappointing as the Durham is exciting. Nevertheless, as I see it, there are two reasons to visit the first few rooms and wander through the remainder.
First, the early works which were De Chirico’s great contribution to the development of modern art are all on display here. It is such a rare occasion to see such a comprehensive retrospective of this prolific body of work, that it’s also a unique opportunity to evaluate the oeuvre of De Chirico and to see the works in this context. Works such as Melancolia, (1912) Ariane, (1913), De Chirico paints the dreamscape of urban life, filled, or should I say, empty with, skewed perspectival renderings of desolate spaces, surrounded by adumbrated arcades. Invariably this genre of works contains the same symbols: there is always a statue in the middle of a desolate town square, an exaltation of the chiaroscuro created by sharp shadows that nevertheless appear in the bright midday sun, bunches of phallic bananas, a steam train, a sailing boat both passing in the background on a horizon line and a strange cone shaped building. The same symbols appear, even when we are apparently in Paris at Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure), 1914 Similarly, the colors are repeated: the signature bottle green of the buildings, and light brown of the square and blue sky. Thus, this exhibition conveys the place of these images in his development as an artist, as well as the melancholic silence that he captures in the emptiness of these distorted spaces. Similarly, the dominance of dream-like phallic objects and symbols make it easy to see why his work was so groundbreaking and influential for the surrealist painters such as Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Yves Tanguy.
However, up close, the exhibition convinces us that De Chirico was no great painter and not a particularly gifted draughtsman. When he paints, his medium is applied literally to fill in spaces, and rarely does he demonstrate a use of pigment as a way of defining surfaces, or to imbue the environment with a certain tone or temperature. Similarly, light and dark are not created through a working up of paint; there is no luminescence, or sobriety to the use of color. And his use of a ruler to shape the spaces and arcades is clearly the result of the problems posed to De Chirico by drawing. It becomes obvious that the lasting genius of this body of work comes in its influence on the painting and representation of others. The brilliance not only of the painters of the surrealist movement, but also of artists and filmmakers such as Edward Hopper and Michelangelo Antonioni, far outweighs that of De Chirico himself.
In the hundreds of paintings outside of the five or six surrealist townscapes, there is a lot of repetition: again and again De Chirico paints mannequins, phallic symbols in cartoonish narratives in kitsch colors. In the 1930s De Chirico created a series of lithographs as illustration for Jean Cocteau’s Mythologie. While these images, Bains mystérieux a Manhattan (1934), show none of the conceptual complexity and sophistication of craft evidenced in Cocteau, they do give De Chirico the opportunity to indulge in another subject matter: bath house scenes filled with naked men. Variations of these ten lithographs recur throughout the rest of the oeuvre at different points in his remaining 40 years. Indeed, in the 1950s began to repaint his whole oeuvre, which, together with the many self portraits in different costumes and poses, is the marker of his self-obsession.
All of this said, it’s worth buying the combination ticket and spending half an hour or so in this huge exhibition while you are at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris for the Jimmie Durham. Again, it’s such a rare opportunity to see the entirety of this output on display in the same place.
(*Images, from top to bottom: Giorgio de Chirico, L’Énigme d’un jour, 1914, Huile sur toile, 83 x 130 cm, São Paulo, Museu de Arte contemporãnea da Universidade de São Paulo. Giorgio de Chirico, Place avec Ariane, 1913, 135,6 x 180,5 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, legs de Florene M. Schoenborn, 1995 (1996.403.10). Giorgio de Chirico, Bains mystérieux avec statue, 1948, Huile sur toile, 60 x 50 cm, Collection particulière, Rome, © Droits réservés. All images © ADAGP, Paris 2009.)