The Fondazione de Chirico has confirmed the authenticity of this painting and have recorded it in their archives under the number 0030-09-08OT.
*This lot may be exempt from sales tax as set forth in the Sales Tax
Notice in the back of the catalogue.
This Composition métaphysique by Giorgio de Chirico comes with an especially impressive resumé of modernist credentials. The title refers to the signature style of the artist--his philosophical contemplation of the "solitude of signs", a highly intuitive and personal approach to painting that set him apart from the prevailing modes of Cubism and Futurism. De Chirico formulated these ideas in Milan and Florence during 1909-1911, and then perfected this style in Paris during his stay there in 1911-1915, before returning to Italy during the First World War. According to Paolo Baldacci, de Chirico painted this canvas in March-May 1914; he noted that "The year 1914 was a period of intense activity for de Chirico, a happy and almost frenetic time. He produced thirty-five of the most important paintings of his entire career, nearly every one a masterpiece, and the majority of them prior to the outbreak of the war (3 August 1914) (op. cit., p. 211). Of the sixty-six recorded paintings that de Chirico painted during his Paris sojourn, two-thirds are presently in public institutions. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, holds the largest concentration to be found anywhere of de Chirico's pre-war Paris pictures, with nine in all.
This painting possesses, moreover, a remarkably distinguished provenance. Paul Guillaume became de Chirico's first dealer in 1914 and represented him for the next twenty years. He acquired this work under the terms of his contract with the artist not long after it was painted. It remained in Guillaume's collection until his death in 1934, when his family sold it to Paul Eluard, the greatest of the French surrealist poets. Eluard's interest in this picture reflected the great esteem his circle accorded to de Chirico's early metaphysical canvases. Thereafter this painting became the property of Sir Roland Penrose, the renowned British collector, artist, Picasso biographer and writer on modern art. Composition métaphysique then made its way to San Francisco in the early 1940s, where it belonged to another surrealist, the expatriate British painter Gordon Onslow Ford. The painting resided in two New York collections during the early 1950s, before Alex and Rita Hillman acquired it in 1956.
While there is much that is known about this painting, there are two things which remain mysteries. The first is the painting's original title, as the artist would have conceived it--this has gone unrecorded. For many years this painting was known as Portrait de l'artiste par lui-même ("Self-Portrait"), the title which Eluard gave to it, reflecting the typically surrealist point-of-view that a portrait may be less a physical likeness of its creator than it is an amalgam of his fetishes. Eluard also owned an important manuscript written by de Chirico during his Paris stay, which is quoted on several occasions below. The current generic title came into use during the Milan exhibition of 1970, and most de Chirico specialists have since adopted it.
The second mystery is the meaning of this picture. De Chirico did not refer specifically in his writings to any of the imagery in the composition. Various commentators have offered their interpretations, highlights of which are mentioned below, but while all have certainly contributed to a wider understanding of the painting, none has constructed a thoroughly convincing and comprehensive exegesis. In the process of becoming familiar with de Chirico's metaphysical paintings, one realizes that the artist intended no single, precise interpretation, and it is indeed in the very nature of his work that none is possible. As de Chirico inscribed in Latin across the lower edge of a self-portrait he painted in the spring of 1911 (fig. 1): Et quid amabo nisi quod aenigma est?--"And what shall I love if not the enigma?"
De Chirico arrived in Paris with his mother on 14 July 1911, just three days after his 23rd birthday. His brother Andrea Alberto, a musician, composer, writer, and painter who went by the professional name Alberto Savinio, was already living there. The artist's earliest significant Paris paintings date from the winter of 1911-1912 (Baldacci, no. 15-17). De Chirico painted his most celebrated arcades, piazzas and towers during the next year and a half (Baldacci, nos. 18-23, 29-41; no. 23: fig. 2, and no. 32: fig. 3). He made his public debut with three paintings in the 1912 Salon d'Automne, including the 1911 self-portrait (fig. 1), which he had brought from Italy. He also sent pictures to the Salon des Indépendents the following spring, and in October 1913 he held an exhibition of thirty works in his own atelier. Among the few reviews he received was a notice by the poet, critic and avant-garde man-for-all-seasons Guillaume Apollinaire, who referred to his "strangely metaphysical paintings," thus naming de Chirico's unusual subjects for the public. In early 1914, Apollinaire advised Paul Guillaume, a young man who was about to open his first gallery, to represent the artist who painted the mysterious and melancholy piazzas. De Chirico and Apollinaire became good friends, and the painter rewarded the poet's accolades with a famous portrait (Baldacci, no. 71; fig. 4), which he painted soon after the present painting was completed.
Drawing on the late 19th century philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the celebrated piazza scenes project a typically fin de siècle mindset of melancholia and ennui. They perhaps are more successful in suggesting the aura of mystery than in stating any deeper profundity. The stronger and more genuinely modern aspect of these paintings is de Chirico's conception of space and form, his manipulation of austerely flat, unadorned facades and ambiguous distances, for which he devised inconsistent and unsettling perspectives by employing multiple vanishing points.
Toward the end of 1913 de Chirico experienced an epiphany which altered his iconography and made his painting more innovatively modern--as modern in its play of imagery and pictorial format as a Picasso or Braque cubist collage. He dreamed that two enormous artichokes made of iron appeared to him in a piazza. They appear in several paintings done in late 1913 and early 1914 (Baldacci, nos. 42, 47 and 48 [fig. 5]). This vision suggested that objects might easily be divested of their normal context, or removed from the logical systems of sense and perception that ordinarily determine their meaning, so that they may exist in multiple associational guises. De Chirico described this phenomenon in the Eluard manuscript:
"A revelation can be born of a sudden, when one least expects it, and can also be stimulated by the sight of something--a building, a street, a garden, a square. When a revelation grows out of the sight of an arrangement of objects, then the work which appears in our thoughts is closely linked with the circumstance that has provoked its birth. One resembles the other, but in a very strange way" (quoted in J. T. Soby, op. cit., p. 245).
In a 1919 text, as artist looked back on this experience, he observed that "By deduction it is therefore possible to conclude that every object has two appearances: one, the current one, which we nearly always see and that is seen by people in general; the other a spectral or metaphysical appearance beheld only by some rare individuals in moments of clairvoyance and metaphysical abstraction (quoted in J.T. Soby, op. cit., p. 67).
De Chirico called this revelatory principle the "solitude of signs" and proceeded to investigate this idea in pictorial terms. He embarked on a new series of paintings in the spring of 1914 (Baldacci, nos. 58-75; no. 63: fig. 6), including the present Composition métaphysique, in which objects--common or otherwise--converge and interact in the outdoor space of the piazza, as he imagined in his dream of the iron artichokes.
Most of these metaphysical still-life cityscapes share several significant characteristics. In a canvas of vertical format, the foreground space is a steeply tilted incline, almost like a ramp, that directs the eye to an elevated horizon, beyond which the perspective reverses itself, and plunges downward, although only the tops of buildings, towers, and smokestacks on the other side are visible. A few paintings show full daylight, but in most the scene is set in dark shadow, twilight or growing darkness, which suggests their out-of-the-ordinary, oneiric state. The bizarre assembly of objects-- some are instantly recognizable, while others are difficult to decipher--varies from picture to picture, with some things making repeated appearances, taking on a different context and suggesting new affinities in the presence of their changing neighbors. James Thrall Soby, director of the Museum of Modern Art and author of a landmark 1955 monograph on the artist, delved into some of the symbolism in the present painting:
"The Self Portrait [Eluard's title] testifies to de Chirico's rising interest in the symbolic efficacy of objects and signs; it includes plaster feet, a tubular form which might be either a fallen tower or musical instrument somewhat like a recorder, an egg, a St. Andrew's cross and two factory chimneys. To the painter-critic, Gordon Onslow Ford, lecturing on de Chirico's early art, these objects symbolize the artist's progress through life. The plaster toes are read as representing de Chirico's babyhood, when his toes played a major part in his visual experience. The painter advances in age, symbolically, as we move from the foreground to the background of the canvas. Thus the factory chimneys were described by Mr. Onslow Ford as symbols of adult virility, incomplete (i.e. cut off) in the right chimney, triumphant in the left one. The St. Andrew's cross on the wall represents de Chirico's aspiration to faith and knowledge; the egg, his renunciation and retreat from reality" (op. cit., p. 67).
Meyer Schapiro approached Composition métaphysique as "a series of dualities", of crossed and contrasted pairs of elements--the two smokestacks, the pair of feet--"which express the artist's conception of his own conflicted nature." (quoted in F. Daftari, Giorgio de Chirico: A Self-Portrait, New York, 1976, p. 25). Baldacci has pointed out that the large X stands for the unknown, and continued to explain more specifically:
"I think de Chirico is also referring to two specific passages by Nietzsche in which the philosopher alludes to the condition of modern man who must face the loss of the reassuring 'center' and slips toward the 'X', that enigmatic labyrinth whose fascination and seductiveness, that Nietzsche calls 'the delight in an X,' which is 'so great in such more spiritualized men that this delight flares up again and again like a bright blaze over all the distress of what is problematic, over all the anger of uncertainty'" (op. cit., p. 237).
The "tubular" object, which Soby suggested is a fallen tower or musical instrument, is more likely a scroll which has been rolled and stored in a protective cylinder. Joseph Sloane considered the scroll to be a record of the past, while the egg embodies the hope of rebirth (in "Giorgio de Chirico and Italy," Arts Quarterly, 1958, vol. 21, p. 15). The pair of looming chimneys is an allusion to industrialization and the impact of modernity. Sloane believed that de Chirico was referring in this painting to the Risorgimento, the reunification of Italy during the 19th century. He noted that Giuseppe Garibaldi, the most famous of the movement's leaders, was wounded in the foot in 1862 during the battle of Aspromonte. Baldacci disagreed with this idea, however, and countered:
"... Such a reading would not be in keeping with the rest of the painting, Apart from being a 'sign' like any other, albeit even more disorientingly enigmatic than usual, the plaster feet, whose peculiar disposition suggests a dance step, probably allude to the 'lightness of foot' with which Nietzsche frequently exhorts the reader to allow his thoughts to dance. The scroll refers to the world as 'text,' an amalgam of signs and metaphors which we can penetrate only through the dance of [Nietzsche's] 'the gay science'" (op. cit., p. 237).
De Chirico was pondering the "elusiveness" as well as the "solitude" of signs, for he understood the impossibility of deciphering them, or perhaps in finding any ultimate meaning in them at all. He wrote: "To live in the world as in an immense museum of strange things, of course, variegated toys that change their appearance, which we as children sometimes break to see how they are made inside, and, disappointed, we discover they are empty" (quoted in M. Fagiolo dell'Arco, exh. cat., op. cit., 1982, p. 31). In the great metaphysical still-life compositions of 1914, de Chirico went further out on a philosophical limb than he would ever dare go again, and embraced multiplicity and uncertainty with the careless ease of a man who believed he could walk on water. In the Eluard manuscript, de Chirico expounded, with a voice that echoes Nietzsche's Zarathustra:
"What is needed above all, is to rid art of all that has been its familiar content until know; all subject, all idea, all thought, all symbol must be put aside. To have the courage to give up all the rest. There is the artist of the future: someone who reonounces something every day, whose personality daily becomes purer and more innocent. The revelation we have of a work of art, the conception of a picture must represent something which has sense in itself, has no subject, which from the point of view of human logic means nothing at all. I say that such a revelation (or if you like, conception), must be felt so strongly, must give us such joy or such pain, that we are obliged to paint" (quoted in J. T. Soby, op. cit., p. 246).
The metaphysical compositions of 1914 mark the path of de Chirico's most daring philosophical and pictorial adventure. They were a sudden, revelatory, and--as such moments must inevitably transpire--a fleeting phase in his painting, which is recognized today as constituting the "great noon-tide" (to use Nietzsche's term) of his enduring modernist achievement. These paintings are the essential pictorial statement of a bold assertion that de Chirico made in the Eluard manuscript: "There are more enigmas in the shadow of a man who walks in the sun than in all the religions of the past, present and future" (quoted in ibid., p. 245).
(fig. 1) Giorgio de Chirico, Autoritratto, 1911. Sold, Christie's New York, 11 May 1995, lot 126. BARCODE 25995282
(fig. 2) Giorgio de Chirico, La nostalgie de l'infini, autumn-winter 1912. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 25995299
(fig. 3) Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza con Arianna (Ariadne), summer-autumn 1913. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. BARCODE 25995305
(fig. 4) Giorgio de Chirico, Portrait de Guillaume Apollinaire, April-June 1914. Musée d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. BARCODE 25995336
(fig. 5) Giorgio de Chirico, La conquête du philosophe, early 1914. The Art Institute of Chicago. BARCODE 25995312
(fig. 6) Giorgio de Chirico, Le mauvais génie d'un roi, spring-summer 1914. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 25995326