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August 2020

Vol. 162 / No. 1409

Giorgio de Chirico: La Peinture métaphysique

Reviewed by Silvia Loreti

Edited by Paolo Baldacci, with contributions by Ilaria Cicali, Cécile Debray, Cécile Girardau, Annabelle Görgen-Lammers, Giovanni Lista and Federica Rovati. 232 pp. incl. numerous col. + b. & w. ills. (Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, and Hazan, Vanves, 2020), £49.99. ISBN 978–2–7541–1135–5.

By a curious twist of fate, Giorgio de Chirico’s early paintings of emptied cities and cluttered interiors are the unwitting subject of an exhibition at a time when reality seems to be mirroring their suspended atmosphere. Uncannily, de Chirico himself narrated how his first metaphysical compositions were inspired by a walk in Florence at the end of a ‘long and painful’ illness that had led him to ‘a morbid state of sensitivity’, and reflected the feeling that the city, too, was ‘convalescing’.(1)

Giorgio de Chirico: La Peinture métaphysique, an exhibition due to open at the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, in April has been postponed and, at the time of writing, is accessible only online and is known by this author through a digital version of its catalogue.(2) The volume is edited by the de Chirico scholar Paolo Baldacci, who curated the exhibition and who, in recent years, organised two ensuing shows of the young de Chirico in Florence and Ferrara.(3)

Contrary to de Chirico’s insistence on the Florentine origins of his art, the Orangerie exhibition undertakes a philological study that emphasises the European dimension of his metaphysical painting. This is a complex aesthetic concept derived from Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy and first applied to de Chirico’s work by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918) in Paris before the First World War. During the conflict, de Chirico’s art evolved in Italy into the school of Metaphysical Painting, an evolution that this exhibition follows closely, but does not tackle head on.

The volume is divided into three sections: ‘Genesis and Sources, 1888–1911’, ‘The Parisian Period, 1911–1915’ and ‘The Ferrara Period, 1915–1918’, each introduced by a documentary chronology. The sections comprise scholarly essays that give prominence to the multiculturalism of de Chirico’s ancestry (his was a truly cosmopolitan family, whose members had moved between various Italian kingdoms, the Ottoman Empire and France), his Symbolist models and avant-garde connections up to 1918. Baldacci identifies that year as the moment in which de Chirico returned to the Italian tradition in order to appease nationalist critics. Prior to then, it is argued, his paintings are not the ‘piazze d’Italia’, or Italian cityscapes, as they are often referred to, but interiorised psycho-cultural landscapes that convey a modern reorientation of humanist values.

De Chirico’s main influences before his move to Italy during the war are firmly located in the philosophical, literary and visual culture in which he studied and in which he came of age as an artist – respectively, Munich and Paris. His debt to Nietzsche’s immanent philosophy and German Symbolism, as well as his knowledge of prominent members of the Parisian avantgarde, are well-established. This catalogue, however, has the merit of summarising the wealth of research carried out by Baldacci’s Archivio dell’arte Metafisica, a vast research publication, exhibition and authentication project promoting the role of de Chirico and his brother, Alberto Savinio, in the development of that strand of modern art that went from Metaphysical Painting through Dada, Surrealism and Magic Realism all the way to Neoromanticism, in the past ten years.(4) The authors bring clarity to some of the events that are likely to have influenced the development of de Chirico’s art and its dissemination. Uncertainties remain, however, because documentary evidence is not always available and because de Chirico was both the painter of enigmas and his own first biographer; thus, some facts were shrouded in mystery early on.

The catalogue checklist, chronology and essays highlight the young de Chirico’s reliance on other artists and intellectuals, as opposed to his increasingly insular existence later in life. The choice of works reveals the full breadth and range of his culture, talent and ambitions as a painter, draughtsman, sculptor, poet and writer, who engaged with ancient, modern and avant-garde sources in all their variety. His reading of Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry in 1912 is assigned a historical role in the development of a pictorial theory that, retrospectively in 1919, he called ‘the solitude of signs’– an association of incongruous psychological images that characterises de Chirico’s paintings of 1913–14 and would later be taken up by the Surrealists (cat. no.94; Fig.19). Also reassessed are his first contacts with Apollinaire, which Baldacci thinks occurred in the spring of 1913 and were mediated by Pierre Roy (1880–1950), as well as the painter’s reaction to Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, paramount references for any young artist in Paris before the war. Alexander Archipenko’s Cubo-Futurist sculptures, which were seen by both de Chirico and Carlo Carrà in Paris before the war and later admired in the Florentine collection of Alberto Magnelli’s uncle, are brought in as influences on the mannequins of the Ferrara period. The research for the chronology has benefited from the painstaking work of Gerd Roos, the scholar who has done most to uncover de Chirico’s German ties, and Federica Rovati, also the author of an excellent essay in the catalogue, which discusses the effects of the tools and instruments used for the rehabilitation of soldiers on the war imagery of de Chirico, Carra and Giorgio Morandi. One only wishes that this benchmark chronology was given centre stage and was fully referenced. 

Also, more would have been welcome on a central figure for this exhibition: de Chirico’s first dealer, Paul Guillaume, whose former stock constitutes the core of the Orangerie. Guillaume died prematurely in 1934, after which his widow sold all his de Chiricos before bequeathing the family collection to the French state. This means that the thirtytwo paintings, fifteen drawings and one rare early sculpture by the artist in the checklist are loans, mostly outstanding for quality and provenance. Regrettably, however, de Chirico’s two vivid oil portraits of Guillaume (1915), one of which the great American collector Albert C. Barnes donated to the Musée de Grenoble upon the dealer’s death, the other in the Musée d’Art modern de la Ville de Paris, are prominently absent.

Guillaume met de Chirico via Apollinaire in the autumn of 1913 and offered him a contract the following spring. He played a key role in promoting and encouraging the artist’s work for the rest of the period covered by the exhibition and beyond, displaying and selling it across Europe and the United States up to the 1930s. Indirectly, he also played a central role in de Chirico’s volte-face of 1918 and his unsolicited adoption by the Surrealists. André Breton’s and Paul Eluard’s acquisition from Guillaume of two paintings in the Orangerie checklist, The child’s brain (The revenant) (no.1; Fig.20), and Tobias’s dream (no.136; Fig.21), belong to Surrealism’s mythology. In short, Guillaume relentlessly promoted de Chirico’s sales and image. However, the artist’s letters from Ferrara – preserved in the Orangerie Archives; four of them are listed as exhibits – show him alternating between a boastful confidence in his work and rancorous tirades against other artists and Guillaume, offering clues to his emotional fragility, which no doubt contributed to the evolution of his work in an anti-Modernist vein following a series of disappointments.

De Chirico’s psychology apart, his relationship with Guillaume could throw light on the relationship between two seemingly irreconcilable sides within the same artist: on the one hand, the youth eager to find his place within the international avantgarde and, on the other hand, the lone copyist whose aesthetic intentions and artistic reception became irreparably detached. Considering the scarcity of documentation (no letters from Guillaume to de Chirico have survived), a list of the artist’s works that passed through the dealer’s hands could be key to rethinking the puzzling course of his art. Overall, this exhibition and its catalogue offer important insight into a contextualised assessment of de Chirico’s role in the history of twentieth-century art.

 1. G. de Chirico: ‘Paulhan manuscripts’, transl. by Katherine Robinson, Metaphysical Art 17–18 (2018), p.53.

2. The exhibition will be at the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris (16th September –14th December), and then travel to the Hamburger Kunsthalle (22nd January 2021–25th April 2021) as Giorgio de Chirico: Magical Reality. The virtual exhibition is available at, accessed 16th July 2020.

3. P. Baldacchi, ed.: exh. cat. De Chirico, Max Ernst, Magritte, Balthus: uno sguardo nell’invisibile, Florence (Palazzo Strozzi) 2010; the exhibition was reviewed by Robert Radford in this Magazine, 152 (2010), pp.428–29. See also P. Baldacchi, ed.: exh. cat. De Chirico a Ferrara: Metafisica e avanguardie, Ferrara (Palazzo dei Diamanti) 2015.

4. Available at, accessed 13th July 2020.