Giorgio de Chirico – Self-portrait (1922)

Giorgio de Chirico had always been a classicism enthusiast. Even during the early stages of his career, the artist had resorted to iconography reminiscent of Ancient Greece and Rome. It may come as no surprise then, that since he was an Italian born in Greece, de Chirico was not shy to take pride in his heritage and upbringing, combining the best of two worlds.

When World War I ended and Europe was convalescing from its horrors, drawn by the passionate declamation of returning to how things used to be (New Objectivity in Germany, return to order in France), de Chirico became an avid proponent of returning to craft. You see, Futurists and the avant-garde, with their aggressive, chaotic, fragmented and industrial styles were, in a sense, reflecting the very values of a hostile, machined-led world. In the aftermath of the Great War, distressed by what they had witnessed, artists were overtaken by nostalgia. Not to be too ironic here, but they literally wanted to Make Art Great Again. Which is rather understandable: returning to the past – a fixed and balanced point in time, (ideally) determined and measured by historical objectivity – is the perfect escape from an overwhelming present that makes no sense at all.

But de Chirico also wanted to return to the way old masters painted, using the same materials and techniques. In a series of articles published between 1918 and 1922, the Italian made known his strong convictions about the role art should play in this post-war world and urged his fellow painters to take action:

Now night falls on everything. We have reached the second half of the parabola. Hysteria and roguery are condemned. I think that by now we are all satiated with roguery, whether it be political, literary, or painterly. With the sunset of hysteria more than one painter will return to the craft, and those who have already done so can work with freer hands, and their work will be more adequately recognized and recompensed.

Giorgio de Chirico - Self-portrait (1922)
Giorgio de Chirico – Self-portrait (1922), oil on canvas

Self-portrait is a representative painting of this soul-searching period for the artist. It shows de Chirico next to a self-portrait bust. While the statue stares blankly at him, the painter himself is slightly turned to the viewer, confronting us with an unsettling gaze. They’re both tightly cropped, making them look oversized, with the small tangerine in the foreground, by contrast, only amplifying their dimensions. We also can’t see much of the landscape behind them, though with the lonely building set against a green sky it appears similar to de Chirico’s paintings from his metaphysical phase. What’s interesting here is that we not only have a double self-portrait, but also that the artist depicts himself both as an object (statue) and as a subject (artist).  Ultimately,  the subject (Giorgio de Chirico’s self-representation) becomes an object too – that is, the painting itself. How’s that for a head scratcher? Yet, what I really mean with all this object/subject talk is that there is a tight interrelationship between an artist and their artwork; they can so easily overlap and permeate one another. The artist makes the art, but the art also comes to define the artist.

The statue can be seen as the most physical and enduring self-representation an artist could create, but in de Chirico’s case statues are much more than that. They represent knowledge, civilization, tradition, and a return to the figurative art that, in his view, had been overlooked. In his essays he urges painters to go to the statues. Yes, to the statues to learn the nobility and the religion of drawing, to the statues to dehumanize you a little, you who in spite of all your puerile devilries were still too human.

As he broke away from the Surrealists – who in the early 1920s were belatedly recognizing the importance of his metaphysical paintings – and approached a style embracing Baroque and Romanticism, de Chirico never lost his passion and stubbornness for using old techniques. Amidst a whirlwind of groundbreaking art movements, he stood still, always looking back, instead of seizing the future. He had become a statue himself: As for me, I am calm, and I decorate myself with three words that I wish to be the seal of all my work: Pictor classicus sum.


Next time: It’s a-maze-ing

19 thoughts on “Giorgio de Chirico – Self-portrait (1922)

  1. Living through the Great War would definitely change a lot of perspectives, especially for artists who have the heavy task of trying to either capture or escape from things like that. Love the painting – it’s haunting I think, the way he looks out.

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    1. That’s true! It’s amazing de Chirico went from being a pioneer to being this obsolete, ridiculed figure in just a matter of years. Maybe if the Surrealists had discovered him earlier… Who knows, the praise might have fed his ego to continue with his metaphysical paintings.

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  2. It’s quite the self-portrait. I recognized it and him instantly, because his visage is so memorable. Taken individually, his features are a recipe for disaster. Weak chin, giant ears, big nose, droopy eyes, low forehead, flabby lips… but it all goes together with so much force and character for a surprisingly attractive and dignified portrait.

    Quick note: check out the rectangle attached to the end of the sculpted head’s nose. Such are the problems of composition.

    I’ve never been a big fan of de Chirico, preferring the more wild forays into the imagination that Ernst and Tanguy and Matta serve up, but this is one of his better works.

    I’ve been thinking about history since reading T.S. Eliot’s essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, which puts a different emphasis on the past in which it simply must be contended with and integrated even if the artist wants only to deal with the very present. Typically in the contemporary art world we divorce ourselves from the past, and don’t pay much or any attention to whatever happened B.U. (Before Urinal). Only the years in the A.U. matter. I can seriously say that in my grad school we never addressed anything before Duchamp, and mostly focused on the last decade or two.

    The past is not a place of nostalgia or comfort, I don’t think, if seen properly. We can be nostalgic about it and miss certain things that seem easy in retrospect, but the past was only experienced in the present, and is every bit as rich as now.

    There is a curious phenomenon in the at world connected with postmodern thought and identity politics, which is that the past is the domain of “dead white men”, and inherently pernicious. Hence one doesn’t have to contend with the past, but can content oneself to think that he or she is above it, has greater knowledge and wisdom, and can dismiss it with a desultory wave of the hand. Nothing could be further from the truth, or more stunningly arrogant and insipid. such a formula, in which the past is always negative, is not a good foundation for meaningful artistic expression. It’s a kind of eternal teenage, ignorance-is-bliss, stage of development, where all the adults are wrong and can’t understand the new generation. It’s more likely the opposite.

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  3. Ha! Now that you mentioned the rectangle beneath the bust’s nose, it really bugs me. I find the composition rather claustrophobic, with the curtain and that annoying vertical line from the wall. At first I thought it was the tower of the building.

    I find myself rather nostalgic about the past too. I realize on a conscious level that things weren’t better – not at all – but there’s all this detachment, having not lived through those times. I don’t know exactly who said this, maybe Samuel Huntington in “Clash of Civilizations”, but our values, conceptions and habits now change infinitely faster, within the same generation. Before, it would have taken a few generations to bring a cultural shift. It’s why it can be so difficult to relate to those older or younger than us and why we might feel overwhelmed by the present.

    Now I’m curious to read T.S. Eliot’s essay.

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    1. It’s a short essay, with a significant idea in there worth having in your head. It’s a bit of one side of a spectrum, and specifically applies to poetry, and the “traditional” poet. Nevertheless it implicitly applies to all art.

      The basic idea is that new art must be considered in the context of everything that went before (at least within a given medium and the culture that produced it), but that new poetry can reciprocally alter how we understand the work of the past.

      This makes good sense if we just think about history and the present. One couldn’t really understand the present without understanding history, and an understanding of the present would change how history was interpreted.

      And it that doesn’t seem eminently reasonable, we can look at an individual life. You can’t understand your present without remembering your past, and making some sort of sense out of it. And as you gain knowledge and get older you have a better grasp of your life up until the present.

      This is NOT how we view art now. Rather, we reject the past as pernicious and the domain of “dead white men”, and we embrace a radical NEW. It’s a kind of teenager syndrome writ large.

      But, Eliot argues it much better than I do. You can read the essay on-line here:

      Also, I recently included excerpts it in a rather long post rebutting “The Death of the Author”, which I believe is a very bad idea that’s fully infiltrated the art world.

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  4. There is so many references in this painting, Gabriela…I immediately think of Titian’s La Schiavona and the constant challenge between the art of painting and the art of sculpture (paragone) which is De Chirico here again tackles as an homage to the Renaissance masters.
    I wonder if his choice of a tangerine is meaningful? Renaissance artists would use this sort of illusionistic trick to bring the viewer in (Giotto started with a fly, Crivelli did it countless times with various insects as well and he used fruits and gourds a lot), but a tangerine? And also, it is there in this same capacity but it’s not painting very convincingly…Did you come upon any analysis on that?

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    1. Ingrid, I’m so glad you mentioned La Schiavona! You’re spot on. I reckon you see the similarities better than we do, since you just studied the Renaissance and it’s all fresh to you. I haven’t come across any sort of analysis for this portrait, so this is just my interpretation. I think the tangerine helps with scale and contrast. The statue would look more menacing without the fruit, since it adds life and color.

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      1. I think your analysis is brilliant, as usual. The fruit also basically sandwiches the sculpture between two “living” entities, reinforcing the paragone: De Chirico’s self-portrait of flesh and bones yet made of paint versus the fresh fruit vs. a carved sculpture…the endless doors opening with art!🙏🏼

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