10 things to know about Giorgio de Chirico

The maverick Italian artist — who claimed to be ‘the only man to have truly understood Nietzsche’ — was adored by the Surrealists, an influence on Hopper and Hitchcock, and loved by Warhol. Illustrated with works previously sold at Christie’s


Giorgio de Chirico. Photo © Farrell Grehan/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

He was from the city where the mythical Argonauts set sail

Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) was born to Italian parents in the coastal Greek city of Volos, where his father was employed as a railway engineer. In Greek myth, it was from Volos that Jason and the Argonauts had set out in search of the Golden Fleece. Although he would leave Greece as a boy, the country's classical history left a deep impression on him.

Over the course of his career, Greek myth was a regular source of artistic inspiration. The final embrace of the Trojan prince Hector and his wife Andromache — before Hector fatally took on Achilles in solo combat — was a moment de Chirico turned to again and again.

Nietzsche was a huge inspiration

As a young man, de Chirico studied art in Munich and absorbed the late-Romantic style of Arnold Böcklin, with its air of mysterious, dreamlike melancholy. As significant an influence on him as any painter, though, was the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

In a letter to a friend in 1910, de Chirico declared, ‘I’m the only man to have truly understood Nietzsche — all of my work demonstrates this’. The German had argued that man was an outsider in a godless world of alien and senseless things, where there are no obvious truths.

He was a ‘surrealist’ before the Surrealists

De Chirico made his name with works (from 1910 onwards) dotted with seemingly unconnected and out-of-scale objects. These disquieting images also boasted a deliberately distorted perspective and, according to the Tate, captured ‘a visionary world of the mind, beyond physical reality’. 

They came to be known as examples of a style called Pittura Metafisica  (‘metaphysical painting’) and would be a major influence on the Surrealists a decade or so later. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire hailed de Chirico as ‘the most astonishing painter of our times’.

He volunteered for military service in World War I — but wasn’t accepted

Italy joined the Allied side in World War I in 1915, and de Chirico was stationed in the northern city of Ferrara. The major of the regiment to which he was assigned, however, felt he’d be better suited to an office role. One advantage was that he could continue painting, and it was in this period that he introduced one of his best-known motifs: the mannequin.

These have been interpreted in a variety of ways — by some, for example, as a suggestion that humans are little more than purposeless, empty-headed automata. Whatever their precise meaning, the mannequins added to the atmosphere of unease in de Chirico’s pictures.

He was a highly-rated novelist

De Chirico wasn’t an artist in any doubt about his own ability. He was known to sign paintings with the words Optimus Pictor — Latin for ‘the best painter’. In his seventies, looking back on his career, he said he saw ‘consistent progress, a regular and persistent march towards those summits of mastery which were achieved only by a few consummate artists of the past’.

His talents also extended to literature, and his (only) novel, Hebdomeros, is regarded as an important Surrealist work.

A revelation in front of Titian transformed his art

At the end of the First World War, de Chirico moved to Rome. During a visit to the city’s Borghese Gallery, he recorded having ‘an epiphany of what great painting was’ in front of Titian’s masterpiece, Sacred and Profane Love. He duly turned his back on the avant-garde and looked to the Old Masters for inspiration.

A good example of this shift can be seen in 1920’s Piazza d'Italia (Mercurio e i metafisici). Unlike his ‘Metaphysical’ scenes, which had been set at sunset, this is bathed in a warm, Mediterranean daylight — and observes traditional rules of perspective. In a piece of classical composition, the two main figures (the horse on the left and the naked man with a spear on the right) form an invisible triangle with the central tower.

He developed a penchant for Italian stallions

In the early 1920s, de Chirico visited Rome’s museums regularly and took to executing pastiches of Renaissance works by the likes of Raphael, Carpaccio and Lorenzo Lotto. He also began studying tempera and panel painting. His newfound fondness for the past even, it seemed, filtered through to his choice of wife: a Russian archaeologist, called Raissa Gourevitch Krol.

Three new sets of subjects started appearing in his art around this time: Roman gladiators; horses on beaches; and himself, in self-portraits for which de Chirico often wore period costumes from centuries past.

He designed sets for the Ballets Russes

In the late 1920s, de Chirico was invited by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev to design sets for his dance company, the Ballets Russes.

There’s an air of the stage-set about a number of de Chirico’s paintings from this period, too. Showing he hadn’t completely abandoned his affinity for the surreal, they often feature landscapes within a room

He enjoyed repeating his greatest hits

In the latter decades of his career, de Chirico started making sculptures in terracotta and bronze. He also repeated — or, as it’s sometimes put, ‘re-elaborated’ — many of the paintings from his metaphysical days. One example was 1918’s Le Muse inquietante (‘The Disquieting Muses’), set against a backdrop of Ferrara’s Castello Estense, to which he returned on more than 20 occasions.

Such works divided critical opinion, but among their fans was Andy Warhol — an artist well-known for a practice of repeating his own images. The American hailed de Chirico as someone with whom he had so much in common that, ‘I felt I had known him for ever’.

In homage, Warhol produced his own (silkscreen) takes on The Disquieting Muses  in 1982: The Disquieting Muses (After de Chirico).

From Hopper to Hitchcock, his influence ranged far and wide

In 1978, de Chirico passed away in Rome, aged 90. By that point, his impact had been felt right across Western culture: most obviously on the Surrealists, but also Edward Hopper and numerous film-makers. Unsettlingly deserted cityscapes were a motif adopted by Hitchcock, Antonioni, Fritz Lang and a host of science-fiction directors.

The Disquieting Muses, meanwhile, inspired a poem of the same name by Sylvia Plath.

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