On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

DE CHIRICO'S LONG AMERICAN SHADOW 1996

Looked at from the vantage point of the late twentieth century, the story of Giorgio de Chirico's impact on a broad range of American art and architecture can be divided into two very different acts. 1Act I takes place in the heyday of modernism, when the Museum of Modern Art, with its magisterial ordering of the bewildering innovations of the early century, rightly crowned de Chirico as a prophet of Surrealism. Here was the artist who, already before the First World War and the official launching of the Surrealist movement, had established all the irrational premises that could turn the realities of the seen world and the logic of traditional perspective systems into a theater where dreams could unfold. In 1936 the Museum of Modern Art established de Chirico's authority by showing seventeen of his paintings and nine of his drawings in its pathbreaking exhibition "Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism"; and in the same year it acquired two works that demonstrated his magic both as a still-life painter ( The Evil Genius of a King) 2 and as a conjurer of haunting cityscapes ( Nostalgia of the Infinite). Already in the 1930s, then, de Chirico's audience, both in America and abroad, recognized him as a pivotal genius who had led modern art into uncharted territories where it might be possible to fathom what Freud had characterized as the submerged iceberg of the human mind.

But de Chirico's image as a pioneer explorer changed drastically in Act II. Corresponding to what we loosely refer to as postmodernism, de Chirico's work, for some American painters and architects, became a touchstone of retrospection, not only in terms of nostalgia for a historical past--a mood so evident in his early work--but, more to the point, in terms of his strange, about-face career, in which he first renounced his modernist youth by returning to more traditional modes of painting, and then, even more startling, painted countless variations and replicas of his early successes. Vexing questions of authenticity and dating, and no less upsetting problems of evaluation, were raised by a master who looked backward to his own youthful past through the odd practice of counterfeiting numerous variations of his acclaimed masterpieces.

Act I of this story, involving de Chirico's impact on painters who matured during the years between the two world wars, is the more familiar. For a surprisingly diverse range of American artists, whether of realist, Surrealist, or abstract persuasion, de Chirico's funneling urban perspectives and enigmatic joining of commonplace objects provided an exciting catalyst for

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