The Fondazione de Chirico has confirmed the authenticity of this work, which is recorded in their archives under the number 050/11/12 OT.
Painted in 1928, Thèbes shows Giorgio de Chirico's 'landscape in a room' theme, which featured in a number of works from this period. Echoing both a stage set and an illogical, miniature doll-house, a rocky landscape is enclosed between the ceiling and walls of a room. Encrusted in the stone are ruins and temples of unspecific Antiquity: an Ionic Greek temple, a Roman aqueduct with flowing water and, behind an archway, the remains of a marble triumph arch. Although bearing the glorious signs of past human deeds, the landscape appears deserted. Robbed from its exterior context, it is presented to the viewer as an object of contemplation, while its ruins, dispersed in this unsettling enclosed space, evoke melancholic memories.
By the time he painted Thèbes in 1928, de Chirico had moved away from his early Pittura Metafisica. In Paris, one afternoon in the late 1920s, de Chirico was struck by the vision of furniture in the street, exhibited by a second-hand shop, at the crossing between rue du Dragon and rue du Vieux-Colombier. This unexpected and incongruous sight prompted de Chirico to develop a series of paintings on the theme of 'furniture in landscape'. In an essay published in 1929 - only a year after he executed Thèbes - de Chirico explained the reason behind his fascination for the motif, stressing the disquieting feeling he was left with when seeing furniture displaced from its usual context: the 'peculiar strangeness' aroused by these visions, he argued, changed the perception of the objects, as well of their surroundings, disrupting the mindless rush of daily urban life (G. de Chirico, 'Statues, Furniture, and Generals', pp. 243-247, in G. de Chirico, Hebdomeros, Cambridge, 1992).
Thèbes explores the same idea, but by inverting the component elements: landscape is displaced and enclosed into the intimate, man-sized space of a room. De Chirico himself acknowledged the parallel: 'To the atmosphere of furniture stranded in the landscape corresponds that of the temples and nature's corners inserted into rooms' (G. de Chirico, quoted in exh. cat., De Chirico, Venice, 2007, p. 184). Giving an example of this innovative, disquieting idea, de Chirico described a scene which corresponds strongly with Thèbes: 'On the floor, under a low ceiling, I have represented some Greek temples, surrounded by rocks and fountains, with streets still bearing the marks of the carts' wheels' (ibid.).
Placed in this new, surprising context the monuments - just like the furniture in the street - suddenly acquire a different dimension: more accessible, they exhibit a new vulnerability and charm. The room, in return, seems to be forcibly expanding, pushed by the mighty presence of its monumental content. The metaphysical atmosphere of Thèbes hinges on this tension of opposite movements. The human spectator is thus suddenly estranged from the image: the encounter of the two worlds - a landscape and a room - confounds the limits of human scale through which the viewer would normally relate to the picture. Drawn into the scene, the beholder is immediately lost in it: too small or too big, he apprehends a new special dimension in which his perception is altered, questioned and metaphysically teased.
The temptation to read the poetically eerie situations of de Chirico's early metaphysical works into these paintings brought the dealer Paul Guillaume -with whom de Chirico worked extensively in those years - to rename many of them, giving them whimsical, intriguing titles. This process irritated de Chirico, who in a 1927 letter to Guillaume expressed his frustration: 'As for the question of titles, I would be grateful if you would not continue to give my current paintings the same types of titles as before the war; for example you have entitled a painting of mine The Springtime Destiny, but I have called the painting Landscape in a Room, and it is precisely this title that explains the metaphysical and lyrical atmosphere of the painting' (G. de Chirico, quoted in Giorgio de Chirico: Betraying the Muse, exh. cat., New York, 1994, p. 82).
Guillaume's shameless titling might have been prompted by the Surrealists' unwavering enthusiasm for de Chirico's early metaphysical works and their distrust of his new production. De Chirico's letter, however, expresses the artist's strong conviction in the legitimate and distinguished nature of his latest paintings. The metaphysical component of late 1920s works such as Thèbes was indeed championed by Jean Cocteau. In Le Mystère Laïc, an enthusiastic essay published in 1928, the same year Thèbes was painted, Cocteau celebrated de Chirico as a dépaysagiste, stressing his ability to estrange objects from their expected context, revealing unknown facets of their being. This process, which was at the core of Pittura Metafisica and which is still central to works such as Thèbes, argues for a continuation in de Chirico's oeuvre, linking his early production to these later paintings.
Pictures such as Thèbes marked the beginning of a new creative phase in the artist's career, yet they continued to develop de Chirico's idea of Metafisica. With Thèbes, de Chirico was striving to express the metaphysical undertones of Greek art: 'It is very important that the room's ceiling is low because the metaphysical atmosphere of Greek art is mostly due to this sense of right limits that one finds in the landscape's line and even in the air: in Greece, in fact, the sky gives less of an impression of infinity than in other countries' (ibid., p. 184). By bringing a sense of enclosure and containment to something like landscape, a genre often anchored by its strong distance horizon, de Chirico was not only re-elaborating an emotional memory of his native country, but also experimenting with a new set of imagery of disquieting encounters.
It has been pointed out that in the rocks visible in Thèbes is embedded the silhouette of a semi-reclining human figure, his knee next to the temple and shoulder and head above the triumphal arch. This detail brings Thèbes closer to the series of paintings of poets, philosophers and archaeologists in rooms which de Chirico painted in the late 1920s. In those works, de Chirico transformed the mannequins of his early Pittura Metafica into awe-inspiring figures, built out of mountains of ruins and classical architecture and sitting confined within claustrophobic rooms. Viewed from this perspective, Thèbes appears as an ultimate transformation of de Chirico's mannequins: the human figure is but a sediment in the rock, while the architectural elements of its body have taken full control of the room. In this regard, Thèbes testifies de Chirico's ability to let themes evolve and transform in his works, exploring ideas through variations that acquire new meanings when put in relation to each other.
The theatrical dimension present in works such as Thèbes also places these pictures in the context of the artist's scenography career. In 1928, in fact, de Chirico was commissioned with the design for the set of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes 1929 production Le Bal. The scenography, also inserting landscape elements in a room, brought the feeling of pictures such as Thèbes to new heights, confirming de Chirico's deep fascination and dedication to the theme. Viewed from this perspective, the encounter of interior and exterior at play in Thèbes introduces another layer of meaning to the picture, bringing into contrast reality and 'make believe'. The plot of Le Bal was in fact centred around semblances and masks, mistaken identity and dreams. De Chirico's stage design, close in spirit to Thèbes, reinforced the ballet's feeling of dismay, inverted perceptions and trickery. In return, works such as Thèbes seem to convey that feeling of melancholy which empty stage designs emanate once the illusion of the play has vanished.
De Chirico's new artistic phase, theatrically manifested in works such as Thèbes, found an enthusiastic supporter in Léonce Rosenberg, who in 1928 commissioned de Chirico with the decoration of the living room of his luxurious Parisian apartment. The project was part of an ambition decorative cycle that Rosenberg had devised, bringing together some of the most boldly creative artists of the time, namely Francis Piacabia, Fernand Léger, Max Ernst. On that occasion, Rosenberg and de Chirico planned a series of Roman gladiatorial combat, also enclosed in the constricted space of empty rooms. Epic in tone and impressive for its scale, Thèbes shares with that major decorative cycle the power and unsettling grandeur of de Chirico's decorative invention.