Biography of Giorgio de Chirico, Italian Pioneer of Surrealist Art

giorgio de chirico
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Giorgio de Chirico (July 10, 1888-November 20, 1978) was an Italian artist who created distinctive cityscapes that helped lay a foundation for the development of surrealist art in the 20th century. He drew on lifelong interests in mythology and architecture to create paintings that pull the viewer into a world simultaneously familiar and eerily disturbing.

Fast Facts: Giorgio de Chirico

  • Occupation: Artist
  • Artistic Movements: Surrealism
  • Born: July 10, 1888 in Volos, Greece
  • Died: November 20, 1978 in Rome, Italy
  • Education: Athens School of Fine Arts, Academy of Fine Arts in Munich
  • Selected Works: "Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure)" (1914), "The Disquieting Muses" (1916), "Self-Portrait" (1922)
  • Notable Quote: "Art is the fatal net which catches these strange moments on the wing like mysterious butterflies, fleeing the innocence and distraction of common men."

Early Life and Education

Born in the Greek port city of Volos, Giorgio de Chirico was the son of Italian parents. At the time of his birth, his father was managing the construction of a railroad in Greece. He sent his son to study drawing and painting at Athens Polytechnic beginning in 1900. There, he worked with the Greek artists Georgios Roilos and Georgios Jakobides. De Chirico also developed a lifelong interest in Greek mythology. His hometown of Volos was the port used by Jason and the Argonauts when they set sail to find the Golden Fleece.

After the death of his father in 1905, de Chirico's family moved to Germany. Giorgio entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. He studied with the painters Gabriel von Hackl and Carl von Marr. Another early influence was symbolist painter Arnold Bocklin. Early works like "The Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs" used myths as primary source material.

giorgio de chirico the battle of lapiths and centaurs
"The Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs" (1909). WikiArt / Public Domain

Metaphysical Painting

Beginning in 1909 with "Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon," de Chirico's mature style emerged. It is a quiet, simplified scene of a town square. In this case, it is Florence, Italy's Piazza Santa Croce, where the artist claimed to have a moment of clarity where the world appeared as if for the first time. The nearly empty piazza includes a statue and the classical facade of a building. Some observers found the painting uncomfortable to view while others saw it as strangely comforting.

In 1910, de Chirico graduated from his studies in Munich and joined his family in Milan, Italy. He was there a short time before moving to Florence. He studied German philosophers, including Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer. They impacted the young artist's painting by encouraging his explorations of what lies beneath the ordinary, everyday view of life.

Referring to his works as part of the "Metaphysical Town Square" series, de Chirico spent the next ten years developing his style of metaphysical painting. He attempted to infuse his interpretations of ordinary reality with the impact of mythology and moods like nostalgia and a sense of waiting. The result was paintings that were haunting and even disturbing.

In 1911, Giorgio de Chirico moved to Paris and joined his brother, Andrea. On the way, he stopped in Turin, Italy. The city held particular interest as the location of Nietzsche's descent into madness. De Chirico insisted that he was the only man who truly understood Nietzsche. The architecture of Turin is featured extensively in de Chirico's paintings from the following few years.

giorgio de chirico montparnasse the melancholy of departure
"Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure)" (1914). WikiArt / Public Domain

His 1914 painting "Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure)" is one of de Chirico's most celebrated works. He didn't create the painting to represent a particular place in reality. Instead, he appropriated architectural elements like a stage designer uses props. The use of multiple vanishing points produces a disquieting impact on the viewer.

After World War I began, de Chirico enlisted in the Italian army. Instead of service on the battlefield, he took an assignment at a hospital in Ferrara, where he kept painting. Meanwhile, his reputation as an artist continued to grow, and the first de Chirico solo show took place in Rome in 1919.

The Return of Craftsmanship

In November 1919, de Chirico published an article titled "The Return of Craftsmanship" in the Italian magazine Valori plastici. He advocated a return to iconography and traditional methods of painting. He also became a critic of modern art. Inspired by the work of the old masters Raphael and Signorelli, de Chirico believed that the arts must return to a sense of order.

In 1924, de Chirico visited Paris, and, at the invitation of writer Andre Breton, he met with a group of young surrealist artists. They celebrated his work from the previous decade as pioneering efforts in surrealism. Consequently, they severely criticized his classically inspired work of the 1920s.

The uneasy alliance with the surrealists grew increasingly contentious. In 1926, they parted ways. De Chirico referred to them as "cretinous and hostile." Late in the decade, he expanded his work into stage design. He designed sets for Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballet Russes.

giorgio de chirico self portrait
"Self-Portrait" (1922). Public Domain

The 1922 "Self-Portrait," painted by de Chirico, is one of many self-portraits from the decade. This one shows him on the right in the style of the Mannerist painters of the 16th century. On the left, his image is transformed into classical sculpture. Both represent the artist's growing interest in traditional techniques.

Late-Career Work

From 1930 until the end of his life, de Chirico painted and produced new works for nearly 50 more years. He moved to the United States in 1936 and then returned to Rome in 1944, where he remained until his death. He bought a house near the Spanish Steps, which is now the Giorgio de Chirico House, a museum dedicated to his work.

De Chirico's later paintings never received the acclaim lavished on his metaphysical period efforts. He resented the rejection of his new works believing that his later explorations were more mature and superior to the celebrated paintings. In response, de Chirico began creating "self-forgeries," backdated copies of metaphysical works that he presented as new. He was interested both in the financial profit and thumbing his nose at critics who preferred the early works.

De Chirico was an extremely prolific artist into his 80s. In 1974, the French Academie des Beaux-Arts elected him as a member. He died in Rome on November 20, 1978.

giorgio de chirico deux figures mythologiques
"Deux Figures Mythologiques" (1927). Francois Guillot / Getty Images

Legacy

De Chirico's most substantial impact on the history of art was his acceptance by the surrealists as a pioneer in their realm. Among the artists who openly recognized his influence were Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, and Rene Magritte. The latter said that his first view of de Chirico's "The Song of Love," was "one of the most moving moments of my life: my eyes saw for the first time."

Filmmakers also acknowledged the impact of de Chirico's metaphysical paintings on their work. The Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni created dark, empty cityscapes that echo some of de Chirico's most notable paintings. Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang also owe a debt to the imagery of Giorgio de Chirico.

giorgio de chirico with self-portrait
Bert Hardy / Getty Images

Sources

  • Crosland, Margaret. The Enigma of Giorgio de Chirico. Peter Owen, 1998.
  • Noel-Johnson, Victoria. Giorgio de Chirico: The Changing Face of Metaphysical Art. Skira, 2019.