Bare Beauty: Ned Denny Admires the Loneliness and Silence of De Chirico's Most Solitary Figure. (Art)
Denny, Ned, New Statesman (1996)
Perhaps uniquely among modernist painters, Giorgio de Chirico requires that we suspend disbelief in front of his works and step inside. And once there, once in one of those blank-faced piazzas bathed in the light of an always unseen sun, we lose both sense of time and power of speech. What he gives with one hand, he takes away with the other. His paintings may seem to reassert the clear depths of Renaissance perspective, but they do so in such a way as to make them disquieting and ineffably strange. Their seeming orderliness acts as a kind of lure, tricking us into a space as banal and inexplicable as a half -remembered dream.
And whereas the open window of traditional western painting had asserted man's sovereign right to an unimpeded view of the world, de Chirico hides as much as he reveals. Horizons are obscured behind long brick walls, views are blocked by looming arcades and an unseen figure is only given away by the shadow he casts. We are shown only the undisclosed.
One effect of this curious blankness, this radical lack of incident, is to make the mind focus on details. In the utter silence of a de Chirico square, single pebbles and cracks in pillars seem to resonate with secret meaning. In the absence of sound, we begin to hear the voice of things. And when de Chirico names one of his loneliest and most beautiful paintings The Delights of the Poet, I don't think he is being ironic but, rather, referring to this bare beauty, this weirdly charged emptiness that only the most solitary can sense.
Which brings us to Ariadne, de Chirico's paintings of whom are the subject of this small but illuminating show at the Estorick Collection. Abandoned on the island of Naxos after having helped Theseus escape the Minotaur, Ariadne is one of the most famous solitaries in classical mythology. Until, that is, the more loving Dionysus comes along and snaps her up, which is the moment Titian chose to illustrate in the wonderful painting that now hangs in the National Gallery. But de Chirico belongs to the somewhat smaller group of artists who show not the joyful union with the god but rather Ariadne as she sleeps, oblivious to her lover's departure. Even more unusually, he depicts her not as living flesh but as stone.
For a sense of quite how peculiar de Chirico's version of the story is, you just need to take a look at a typical late 19th-century portrayal of the same scene. …