Magazine article The Spectator

Provocative Touch

Magazine article The Spectator

Provocative Touch

Article excerpt

Exhibitions

Giorgio de Chirico and the Myth of Ariadne (Estorick Collection, till 13 April)

Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) is one of those artists people like to pronounce over. The early work is generally praised, and the later disparaged, but to examine that dialogue in any depth we would need a major retrospective of his art, and this tiny themed exhibition makes no pretence to be that. For a year or two at the beginning of his career, de Chirico adopted the classical subject of the sleeping Ariadne deserted by Theseus (whom she had just helped slay her half-brother the Minotaur), and turned it into a powerful modern image of melancholy and abandonment. De Chirico himself, an Italian born in Greece, had come to Paris in the summer of 1911, fleeing conscription. He was a deserter, and, although he enrolled in the Italian army in 1915, the four years before that were to some extent spent on the run.

How did this affect his art? De Chirico began to paint deserted piazzas, somewhat similar in look to the colonnaded architecture of Turin, stained with long shadows and distorted with stagy perspectives. Lonely, threatening places, full of foreboding. In the centre of these compositions generally stood a statue of Ariadne on a plinth. A mysterious figure or two might lurk on the periphery of the square, and in the background would be a beflagged tower or giant kiln, with a sailing ship and steam train perhaps converging beyond. These scenes are gravid with possible meaning. If, for instance, the ship is intended to signify the departure of Theseus, then the train could symbolise the imminent arrival of Bacchus, who will take the abandoned Ariadne to be his wife. But will the statue awake? And who is really coming?

Apollinaire, poet and apostle of Modernism, called de Chirico `the most astonishing of all the modern painters', though he felt his colours were too gloomy -- `shades of pools covered with dead leaves'. Actually, the painter's typical livery of sage, sand and khaki was regularly enlivened by red towers and blue-shaded arcades, but by and large de Chirico played down his palette as part of his general attitude of cool classical restraint. Here are no rhetorical flourishes nor expressive brushmarks. De Chirico, who encouraged the myth of himself as the great outsider, made his style deliberately impersonal and low-key, which of course only added to its mysteriousness. …

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