One of the most memorable images of his famed Metaphysical period, the subject of Ettore e Andromaca (Hector and Andromache) was one to which de Chirico returned on many occasions. He created numerous pictorial variations on the theme, which introduce a new dimension to the mysterious, haunting world of de Chirico's metaphysical paintings, where time stands still and the era in which the scene takes place is not clear.
Depicting the Trojan hero Hector taking leave of his loyal wife Andromache before battle, de Chirico portrayed the grandeur, nobility and pathos of this epic theme in the form of two awkwardly constructed mannequin's propped against one another, like T.S. Eliot's "Hollow Men," on a stage-set-like background. Among the most significant alterations in this work, however, is that the two figures are given identical facial features and are presented even more symmetrically as composite twins. At the center of the composition, two armless figures appear to have been assembled with automaton legs, torsos made of wooden planks and mannequin head and shoulders. They stand amongst mysterious and empty buildings, as shadows melancholically stretch across the bare ground. The white cloak over the male figure's shoulders and the throne-like scaffolding behind them suggesting the high aspirations of the pair, rulers of an empty plaza.
Initially conceived in 1917, after three long years of war, the somewhat comic and claustrophobic qualities evoked by the mannequins of Ettore e Andromaca and the strangely constructed monolithic figure of Il grande metafisico (fig. 1) can also be seen as an indictment of the suffocating effect of the war on human creativity. Having been transferred from one reserve military barracks to another over a period of three years, this was an experience de Chirico knew firsthand. He had titled his painting of two kissing mannequins Ettore e Andromaca not only to poke fun at the well-known subject of 19th century painting, but he was also presenting, in a deliberately inanimate and coldly dispassionate way, a scene of separation, and of undeniable pathos and human emotion, of the kind that was taking place on a daily basis all around him in wartime Italy.
Implicit within these paintings, too, is this same satirical notion of the human being as a mere empty-headed automaton, a mechanical robot who fulfills his role in a bizarre mechanical universe. This striking feature of 1917 paintings was soon taken up and developed into an overt form of protest by many artists, most notably the Berlin Dadaists such as Raoul Hausmann and George Grosz, whose puppets and automatons were fiercely satirizing the brutally mechanical bureaucracy of the German military.
De Chirico's transmutation of the human into a dummy or a mechanical object is nevertheless intended less as a critique of man's slave-like obedience to the powers that be, than as a psychological portrait. The impossible angles and geometry of the constructions that form his "Grande metafisico" or his "trovatore" are architectural elements that for him are an attempt to map and outline the contours of the poetic soul. The very artificiality, illogicality and physical impossibility of the elements that constitute such a construction as the "Grande metafisico" are intended to underscore the complexity and suprarationality of the figure depicted.
(fig. 1) Giorgio de Chirico, Il grande metafisico, 1917. Private collection.