Magazine article The Spectator

Snark or Boojum?

Magazine article The Spectator

Snark or Boojum?

Article excerpt


by Margaret Crosland Peter Owen, 18. 95, pp. 158

Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) began as a nihilist and worked his way down. Making art is often said to be a lonely experience. De Chirico at the beginning of his long, prolific and prosperous career was the painter laureate of loneliness.

His sombre early paintings of the empty arcades and plazas of depopulated Italian townscapes are bleak, dreamlike studies of `mystery, melancholy and enigma', as Margaret Crosland writes in this astute, brief biography. She was well prepared to undertake it, having translated Hebdomeros, the artist's only novel, and his memoirs.

De Chirico's father's death emotionally shocked Giorgio and caused him to fail his final school exams. In his twenties, still possessively dominated by his widowed mother on the slow trek from his birthplace in Greece to Turin, Munich and Paris, he suffered from psychosomatic intestinal troubles. After an overdose of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, he seemed to yearn for nullity. The few humanoid figures in his early paintings were unidentifiable statues and tailors' dummies whose oval heads were faceless. He was a master of selfabnegation, a personification of absenteeism, a masochist who gloomily enjoyed the pain in painting.

While Cubists represented external reality in angular facets, de Chirico preferred a more profound, subconscious dislocation.

To be really immortal [he wrote] a work of art must go beyond the limits of the human: good sense and logic will be missing from it. In this way it will be close to the dream state, and also the mentality of children.

His abstract titles suggested indefinable distress: `The Enigma of the Oracle', `Mystery and Melancholy of a Street', `The Enigma of Fatality', `Nostalgia of the Infinite'. The titles could be reassigned at random to different paintings without any apparent loss of significance.

De Chirico defined enigma as the mysterious difference between reality and unreality, thus leaving the word itself inscrutably enigmatic. He called his early works `the art of metaphysics'. In what his kind and admirably rational exegetist describes as `his visionary essay' `On Metaphysical Art', de Chirico tried to explain, but his definition leans heavily on the term he was supposed to be defining:

One can deduce and conclude that ever) object has two aspects: one current one which we see nearly always and which is seen by men in general, and the other which is spectral and metaphysical and seen only by rare individuals in moments of clairvoyance and metaphysical abstraction. …

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