Young genius, old fool

The Enigma of Giorgio de Chirico
October 8, 1999

Margaret Crosland is faced with a problem in her book about Giorgio de Chirico. She is a meticulous researcher, but not only did de Chirico's surviving relations refuse any collaboration but, in later life, the painter himself deliberately muddied the water. Despite these handicaps, Crosland seems to have unearthed almost everything worth knowing.

The trouble with the de Chirico "case" is that after his magnificent "possession" between approximately 1911 and 1919, he broke his wand and became an increasingly paranoid megalomaniac whose work, with rare exceptions, was both inept and grandiloquent. Yet he did not die, loaded with official honours, until he was 90, 60 years after he was declared "dead" by the surrealists, his early champions. Were the surrealists right?Forced, as a biographer, to follow her subject through decade after decade of fudged neo-classicism, Crosland is understandably reluctant to give an unqualified yes, but my impression is that she knows in her heart that Andre Breton, creator and "pope" of surrealism, as usual irritatingly dogmatic, was nevertheless justified in publishing a bull of excommunication.

The central "enigma" of de Chirico is how he came to paint some of the most convincing and influential images of this century only to wake up, like Alice, to a land devoid of wonders. My own tentative explanation is that perhaps the surrealists themselves may have been responsible. By making him conscious of what had been unconscious, they removed his blindfold, revealing that, like a sleepwalker, he was moving across a narrow plank above a void - in consequence he lost his nerve.

Yet in 1929, long after he had turned his back on the depiction of the metaphysical world, he wrote a novel, Hebdomeros (translated into English by the author of this book), that recaptures exactly in prose those empty squares with their arcades and statues, those crowded interiors with their mannequins and biscuits. Even Breton had to cheer.

De Chirico's family, with the exception of his father, an aristocratic railway engineer, was mad. His formidable mother, covered with jewellery and lugging with her everywhere a collection of valuable Persian rugs, dominated Giorgio and his younger brother (later a talented composer and novelist) to an unhealthy degree. Always on the move, the family roosted temporarily in many cities that were to nourish the painter: Rome, Venice, Munich and especially Ravenna. Crosland stresses, too, the importance of his Greek childhood (his father was building railways there).

Paris was useful to him - he was taken up by Apollinaire -but he was untouched by French culture. As a young man, his inspiration was Nietzsche,and among artists he worshipped Arnold Böcklin, a rather clumsy Swiss painter of classical mythology who could nevertheless, at times, realise the enigma de Chirico was seeking.

What was his "metaphysics"? Although difficult to define exactly, it proposed that the world and the objects in it can, by displacement, assume a meaning other than that we assign to them. For a time, there arose around de Chirico a small school, but the artists involved were either derivative like Carlo Carra or en route elsewhere like Giorgio Morandi. Only de Chirico captured this disquieting city and later, while sometimes denouncing, sometimes faking and misdating his early work, was unable to undermine his genius.

The Enigma of Giorgio de Chirico is an important and conscientious book full of hitherto unknown aspects of the young genius and old fool. It is essential for those interested in the tangled art of the early 20th century (where would Ernst, Magritte or Tanguy have been without de Chirico's trail-blazing?); but I feel that, for the casual reader, the book would have benefited from more illustrations.

George Melly is the author (with Michael Woods) of Paris and the Surrealists .

The Enigma of Giorgio de Chirico

Author - Margaret Crosland
ISBN - 0 7206 1042 7
Publisher - Peter Owen
Price - £18.95
Pages - 158

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