‘(...) For men of fate, even the saddest events, and perhaps these above all, are necessary for the development of the mysterious forces they harbour within them and which then appear in their works; I now feel that my departure from Paris, my distance from the milieu in which I lived, and the apparition of this fatal city in which I presently find myself, are fatally necessary to my creative self… I am writing to you from the bursar’s office; through the window I see the dark towers of the castle of the Marquis d’Este, where Parisina and her young lover were decapitated; it is very grand, very simple, very beautiful.’ -Giorgio de Chirico
Executed while Giorgio de Chirico was stationed in the Italian city of Ferrara during the First World War, Testa di manichino is one of the great, revolutionary series of ‘metaphysical paintings’ that the artist pioneered between 1912 and 1918. Taking the comparatively rare form of a portrait that depicts one of the strange and enigmatic mannequin-like personages who came to populate de Chirico’s art during this period, the painting presents, in surprising close-up, the seemingly curious image of one of his philosopher-poets gazing directly at the viewer from a construction of geometric tools and drawing implements.
For de Chirico, the disquieting image of the mannequin that came to distinguish his work during the years of the First World War had grown out of the faceless statues and shadow-bound sculptures populating the enigmatic piazzas and metaphysical landscapes of melancholy he had painted in Paris. Originally a fusion between an artist’s dummy and a classical Greek statue, de Chirico’s mannequins grew, in Ferrara, to become lonely symbols of otherworldliness in his work. Portrayed in these paintings as a kind of morphed composite of the tools found in his studio - of his easel, his drawing implements, classical bust and artist’s dummy - the mannequin came to stand, in de Chirico’s paintings, as a kind of mysterious visitor from the metaphysical realm of his artistic inspiration. As the titles de Chirico often gave to his paintings suggest, such mannequins became for him, philosophers, seers, savants, poets and muses: figures expressive of, and inexorably caught up with, a world of thought and memory.
This was one of the reasons why these paintings so fiercely captured the attention of the French Surrealists when they first saw them. Such paintings seemed to be the first ones in modern art to speak the language of another world - a world formerly only known to poets, philosophers and dreamers. Like de Chirico’s famous Muse inquientanti (Disquieting Muses) - a painting which was so greatly admired by the Surrealists that de Chirico was commissioned to paint a copy of it for Paul Éluard, Testa di manichino - a solitary portrait of another disquieting ‘muse’ or mannequin - was also a work that attracted their attention. It was once in the collection of the Surrealist poet Philippe Soupault. Soupault himself had acquired this work from another writer, the Belgian poet and leader of the short-lived Lega di Fiume, Léon Kochnitzy and prior to this, Testa di manichino had been owned by de Chirico’s friend and collaborator Mario Broglio, editor of the highly influential magazine Valori Plastici. Broglio, an important art critic, impresario, art dealer and painter from Rome, had first met de Chirico in April 1918 and on seeing his work became determined to publish what he called ‘an important magazine’ publicising this fascinating new development in Italian art. First appearing in November 1918, the first edition of Valori Plastici and the metaphysical paintings of de Chirico and Carlo Carrà that were illustrated in it would prove highly influential, not just among the Surrealists, but especially in Germany where they proved a major influence on the development of the new Verist, Realist and Neue Sachlichkeit tendencies there.
What was it that so appealed to these poets and writers about Testa di manichino? Was it the painting’s strange combination of loneliness and otherworldliness? Or the almost spectral, companion-like quality of this enigmatic protagonist or muse-like figure gazing out of the picture from its strange metaphysical realm, like a protective avatar? Like de Chirico’s later Great Metaphysician of 1917 and other poet-philosopher figures that appear in his work, the inquisitive and totemic mannequin or ‘Muse’ who functions like a melancholic watchman in this painting and is also, seemingly born from a construction of a set-squares, T-squares and other geometrical, measuring devices, carries about them a sense of tragic heroism. A lone figure, whose blank, dark and somewhat mournful eyes stare out of the picture as if questioning, this solitary ‘manichino’ commands its portrait-like frame in a way that makes the painting’s mysterious combination of rational geometry, isolation and melancholy appear to speak somehow of the sadness of reason.