De Chirico: An Artist For Our Time
Giorgio de Chirico is hailed as a significant influence upon the surrealist movement of post-world war one Europe and upon its most famous of artists; Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali. To accompany this, we are indeed living in surreal times. The spectre of Covid-19, unseen yet omnipresent, has drastically altered the world in which we live. Cities are left empty, squares have gone from places of congregation, to spaces of fleeting interaction — a raised head, a mumbled hello. Life as we knew it before the virus, embalmed. Many academics, experts, journalists and the like espouse that the world, the order of things, even capitalism itself is in line for a drastic reorganisation. The sticking point is that no one knows what, or how, this altered mode of living will reveal itself to be.
The inescapable truth is we are living in the seemingly perpetual present. The recent past is remembered and already distant, yet we have no idea of what the future will be — stuck in inertia, going somewhere free of our own volition. How can we make sense of these times? The objectively visible is, by and large, the same. The same trees outside my bedroom window are thrown around in the same winds as they always have been — yet, from a position of lock-down, isolation, quarantine or whatever, these entities have a new essence. John Berger has spoken of an infatuated lover seeing the world differently, as if they were in a different country, when separated from their beloved. The mundane, the ordinary, becomes the profound. This is what the response to the world’s most impactful crisis since the second world war has created, a sense of detachment from the familiar. Yet, the familiar is unchanged. One artist captured this sense of detachment better than any other.
In 1909 a recovering Giorgio de Chirico found himself in the middle of the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. Previously knocked-down by an intestinal illness, the artist was, in his own words, “in a near morbid state of sensitivity. The whole world, down to the marble of the buildings and the fountains, seemed to me to be convalescent […] I had the strange impression that I was looking at all these things for the first time”. De Chirico had indeed been to this Piazza before, yet through his own experience, the square around him had changed, the “autumn sun, cold and unloving, lit the statue and the church facade” presented a sensation that was separated from its reality. For de Chirico, Florence was as ill as he was. This experience would influence his work for the decade — as can be seen in his 1910 work The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon (above) — and would produce his Pittura Metafisica (metaphysical art) works. The buildings, the statue, the people are figurative in their fullest extent, but de Chirico presents, according to art historian Magdalena Holzhey, a “disconcerting composition that conveys a profoundly enigmatic atmosphere”.
In a less profound manner, what de Chirico experienced in 20th century Florence can be mapped into our own experiences. Currently, at the time of writing, residents in the U.K can leave the confines of their dwellings for one bit of exercise each day — for some a 15 mile cycle ride, for others a joint and a stroll around the houses. Whatever form this exercise takes, the experience is the same, we are outside as a condition of quarantine, not because we need to go somewhere or see someone — these urges are bad and must be suppressed. The act of going for a stroll, is to take a stroll in a stilted public realm, in a sick society undergoing life altering treatment.
I realised this yesterday when I found myself walking in my local market square; it was a quarter past ten on a cold grey Wednesday morning. Usually there is a market with food and grocery stalls, clothes for sale and on some days a guy selling knock-off guitars. As a result there is always a buzz and general din emanating from the trading, a background essence which formulates a cornerstone of experience. Of course, with social distancing measures in place, the market has disappeared apart from one stall selling fruit and veg. What replaces it is absence. The square, physically unaltered, socially deconstructed. When a bell rang to signify a quarter of an hour had lapsed, its sound echoed across the space: I have never noticed it ring before. Those in the square were either shuffling through or queuing up for one of the two banks, two meters apart where clerks with blue gloves smiled warm welcomes.
There was an overall sense of the uncanny, the feeling that horror directors try to evoke — a sense of unqualified, but correctly evoked, unease. De Chirico’s works after his trip to Florence and especially after a visit to the squares of Turin in 1911, are awash with this sentiment. One element of his work is the depiction of other people in his scenes. Take the aptly named Solitude (Melancholy) from 1912 (above) or The Nostalgia of the Infinite (1912). In both of these paintings according to the legendary art critic Robert Hughes, ‘human society doesn’t exist’, those who inhabit these spaces are but distant silhouettes, human in shape but are stripped of human traits and characteristics; they are the other. These figures are objects, ornaments inserted into the squares of de Chirico’s imagination. Under the present condition of social isolation and the imposed two meter cordon surrounding each and everyone of us, other people, strangers or friends, are to be kept and thus, observed at a distance — they are othered.
De Chirico produced these paintings in the years leading up to the first world war, in a time where the established world was at unease with what was to come. Revolution, mechanised warfare and the social upheaval it brought, would drastically alter the world’s trajectory during the 1910’s — ultimately rendering the perpetual and seemingly indestructible but malleable and finite. The outbreak of Covid-19, is poised to do the same — to what extent we do not know. Now, this isn’t a direct comparison with de Chirico’s era, however his artwork does offer a link. For, the visual compatibility of his arid streetscapes and the current public spaces and squares of Covid-lockdown is clear. Yet, it is what is implied, the distance and isolation, the experience of seeing somewhere with new insight, succinctly captures the experience of our new reality. The measures implemented to combat the worst excesses of this pandemic have embalmed public life. Society and the spaces it utilises are on pause as if de Chirico’s imagination was made real. This is why I argue de Chirico is an artist for our time. His work has evoked notions of alienation and isolation for a shade over a century and his stilted squares now exist across the world, in every country experiencing lockdown. They are all united under a suffocating shroud of uneasy quiet, for how long? We do not know.