Painted in 1963, Le muse inquietanti is a reprisal of one of Giorgio de Chirico’s most famous paintings of the same subject. De Chirico first painted this work in 1918, at the height of his Metaphysical period, and subsequently returned to the scene on numerous occasions throughout his career. Set on a stage-like wooden platform in front of the red-bricked Castello Estense in Ferrara, a group of classically inspired mannequins stand, their dark shadows heightening the plunging perspective of this compellingly enigmatic and perplexing scene. James Thrall Soby, one of the earliest scholars of de Chirico’s work, wrote of the enduring captivation of Le muse inquietanti: ‘The picture attracts and repels, beguiles and frightens, conveys a warm nostalgic aura but at the same time suggests an impending catastrophe. There is no action; the piazza is still; the figures wait’ (J. T. Soby, Giorgio de Chirico, exh. cat., New York, 1966, p. 136).
De Chirico first painted Le muse inquietanti while stationed in Ferrara during the First World War. Originally entitled Le vergini inquietanti, de Chirico changed the name of this painting to its current title, which identifies the figures as the Muses: the mythological figures, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne and goddesses of inspiration in knowledge and the arts. This identification however does nothing to alleviate the ambiguous, somewhat melancholic atmosphere of the painting. The strangely adorned figures are composed of modern day mannequin heads, and stiff, classical bodies, which distort their mythological identity, rendering their role in the painting indecipherable and obscure. These disquieting muses are set within an equally unfathomable setting: the juxtaposition of the mythological past with the theatrical yet eerie modern world creates a surreal scene of hidden meanings and mysterious signs, an encapsulation of de Chirico’s Metaphysical painting.
The dreamlike, melancholic world that de Chirico conjured in Le muse inquietanti enchanted the Surrealists. André Breton greatly admired this painting and the poet Paul Eluard, who had amassed a large collection of works by the artist, was keen to buy it. In a letter from 24th March 1924, de Chirico explained to Eluard’s wife Gala, in answer to her request to buy I pesci sacri and Le muse inquietanti, both of which he had already sold: ‘If you would like exact replicas of these two paintings, I can make them for you for 1,000 Lira each. These replicas will have no fault other than having been executed with a more beautiful material and a more skilful technique’ (de Chirico, letter to Gala Eluard, in P. Baldacci, Betraying the Muse: De Chirico and the Surrealists, New York & Milan, 1994, p. 201). The Eluards agreed to de Chirico’s controversial idea of replicating his own painting, and their version of Le muse inquietanti would prove to be the first of several representations of this theme.
De Chirico continued to repeat, replicate and quote from his own compositions and paintings throughout the 1920s and beyond. Although condemned by Breton and the Surrealists, de Chirico saw no reason why he shouldn’t appropriate his own art, believing that the original idea expressed in a painting was more important than the artefact itself. The concept of repetition over time also corresponds with the Metaphysical idea of timelessness that pervades the artist’s greatest works. In copying his own work, de Chirico challenged the modernist compulsion for authenticity and uniqueness, and in so doing, prefigured the work of the Pop artists of the 1960s and the subsequent post-modernist movement.
When, in 1979, the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a retrospective of de Chirico’s work, Andy Warhol came across a reproduction of the many variants of Le muse inquietanti, and recognised in de Chirico the same concern with appropriation that he was exploring in his own work. A few years later in 1982 the Pop artist executed a series of silkscreen canvases based on Le muse inquietanti, as well as other works from de Chirico’s Metaphysical period. A great admirer of the artist, Warhol stated: ‘De Chirico repeated the same images throughout his life. I believed he did it not only because people and dealers asked him to do it, but because he liked it and viewed his repetition as a way of expressing himself. This is probably what we have in common… The difference? What he repeated regularly, year after year, I repeat the same day in the same painting’ (Warhol, quoted in ‘Industrial metaphysics: Interview with Andy Warhol by Achille Bonito Oliva’ in Andy Warhol (After de Chirico), exh. cat., London, 1998, p. 8).