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.
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