PRINT September 1966

2. Giorgio de Chirico

MOST OF THE 19TH-CENTURY “precursors” of Surrealist painting on Breton’s early lists had very little influence on what came to be called Surrealist painting (Redon is a signal exception).6 Such similarities as do obtain derive more from related aims than historical cause and effect. Giorgio de Chirico’s painting, on the other hand, exercised an immense formative influence on Surrealist art and was so prophetic in character that de Chirico has often been mistakenly labeled a Surrealist himself.7 But the truth is that, except for copies—which amounted to self-made "forgeries”—de Chirico had ceased working in his inventive early style at least five years before the emergence of the Surrealists, and despite the myriad ways in which he anticipated them, his painting is clearly distinguishable, iconographically and stylistically, from theirs.

De Chirico’s enigmatic juxtaposition of objects, his diving perspectives and hallucinatory lights and shadows, laid down precedents for Surrealist iconography and established, pictorially speaking, the “theater” in which the drama of much Surrealist imagery was to unfold. It was not, however, the drama of all Surrealist imagery, nor was it the drama of the very best of it. De Chirico’s theater of dreams, with its illusionist spatial scaffolding, proved to be of interest primarily to the imagiers of the movement: Magritte, Dalí, Tanguy, Delvaux, and, in certain periods, Ernst. The concerns of Arp, Miró, Masson, and, later, Matta and Gorky, lay elsewhere. De Chirico’s essentially inorganic world recommended it self to painters who, following Ernst’s lead, had diverted the collage from its original, primarily plastic purposes to those of “poetry”; that world was of little interest to the more improvisational painters, the ones who chose to explore the possibilities of automatism. One irony of the situation is that de Chirico’s art remains so obviously superior to that of the painters deeply influenced by him. Much of the best Surrealist painting was opposed to the Chiricoesque esthetic and derived far more—in its plastic structure—from Cubism, if in some cases only indirectly.

De Chirico’s important painting (1911–17) emerged at the moment when advanced Analytic Cubism had practically obliterated recognizable subject-matter and opened the way to non-figurative art. That de Chirico’s emergence coincided with this point in the development of Analytic Cubism is crucial, for it made him react all the more strongly in an endeavor to “rehabilitate the object.” A year later, Cubism also turned away from abstractness and entered its Synthetic phase, which Meyer Schapiro has called “the Cubism of rehabilitation.” De Chirico himself, though rejecting Cubism’s attitude toward nature, was influenced by the Cubist collage and by the emphasis on planar structure of Synthetic Cubism (a fact that has been overlooked in Surrealist criticism of his work, though accounted significant by James Thrall Soby in his definitive monograph on the painter).8

The years just before world War I saw a crisis in the role of subject matter. “The old model,” Breton observed, “taken from the external world, was no longer viable. That which was to succeed, taken from the interior world, had not yet been discovered.”9 His first sight of a de Chirico painting, The Child’s Brain, in the window of the Parisian art dealer, Paul Guillaume, was a turning point for Breton. After seeing some more of the painter’s work, he became convinced that ”it is to Giorgio de Chirico that credit must go for preserving for eternity the memory of the true modern mythology which is in formation.”10

The first step in the direction of the “purely interior model” seemed to be to reconsider familiar objects in the light of their subjectively poetic and metaphysical implications, which were generally obscured by their everyday contexts and uses. Objects had to be wrested from their familiar “horizontal,” rational contexts and juxtaposed in novel, imaginative, “vertical” (that is, poetic and psychological) arrangements. This began to be done more or less simultaneously by de Chirico and Duchamp, but the lesson was more direct and assimilable in the work of the former. De Chirico had written of the “second identity” of the objects in his pictures in terms not unlike Duchamp’s:

Every object has two appearances: one, the current one, which we nearly always see and that is seen by people in general; the other a spectral or metaphysical appearance beheld only by some rare individuals in moments of clairvoyance and metaphysical abstraction, as in the case of certain bodies concealed by substances impenetrable by sunlight yet discernible, for instance, by X-ray or other powerful artificial means.

Objects in de Chirico’s paintings are not fantastical as they became later on in Surrealist painting, but as Breton observes, “. . . even if . . . the exterior aspect of the object is respected, it is evident that this object is no longer cherished for itself, but solely as a function of the signal which it releases. From the sensorial world of Post-Impressionism and Cubism . . . We pass, with Chirico, into the purely emblematic . . . [he] retains only such exterior aspects of [reality] as propose enigmas or permit the disengagement of omens and tend toward the creation of purely divinatory art.” In the middle twenties Breton looked back on de Chirico as a “great sentinel” on the route to be traversed by Surrealism. “In times of great uncertainty about the mission which had been confided to us,” he wrote later, "we often turned back to this fixed point (de Chirico) as to the fixed point of Lautreamont, who with Chirico sufficed to determine our straight line.”11

When Breton wrote of Surrealism in general that it had “one foot in automatism and the other in the dream,” he had de Chirico mainly in mind as far as the painting of the dreamlike was concerned: none of the Surrealist artists came nearly as close as he did to the true images of dreams. The word dream and such phrases as dream world—have been used indiscriminately and with out qualification by critics in writing of such diverse artists as Arp, Masson, Tanguy, Matta, and Ernst. But it should be borne in mind that the imagery of dreams is not abstract, nor does it take radical liberties with the configurations of things. At most, an object might be dreamed of as distorted, but it is always an object familiar to us in our waking life. No matter how strange the juxtapositions and relationships of things in dreams, these things must all have been seen with the waking eye before they can become part of dreams. It is, strictly speaking, in correct to call the morphologically “abstract” visions of a Matta or a Tanguy dream images. No one ever dreamed such things, or at least not until after seeing pictures by Matta or Tanguy.

To refer, as is so commonly done, to the whole of Surrealist art as involved with “dream imagery” is a way of dodging the relevant issues. At the same time, it is unfair to the imaginative powers of the artists in question, for it implies that their inventions—often symbols cut from whole cloth—are primarily transpositions of dreams. It is highly doubtful whether even Dalí’s Surrealist pictures were in large part really the “hand-painted dream photographs” that he claimed—and the extent to which they were accounts for his sterility as a painter. After all, the separate items which go to make up dreams—even nightmares—are in themselves entirely prosaic. All owing for the exaggerations attributable to Dalí’s professedly self-induced “paranoia,” the images of his dreams, if they could somehow be photographed, would constitute art in about the same measure that an ordinary snapshot of the real world does. The dream has no art in its imagery as such; the painter must use dream data selectively and put them into an esthetic frame work before they can become pictorial art, just as Breton had to edit his automatic writing before it could become poetry.

The images in de Chirico’s paintings are more like those we actually see in dreams than are the images in the paintings of the Surrealists who were influenced by him. De Chirico shuns the fantastical almost entirely. (His mannequins are an exception, but even these probably derive from store-window figures and tailor’s dummies.) The mysterious white light in his pictures is less like sunlight (even Mediterranean sunlight) than it is like that “interior light” visible in Henri Rousseau’s paintings, and its absolute clarity, combined with the simplification and generalization of the shapes it illuminates, produces an apparitional effect closer to dream experience than to anything else. (In his notebooks, Leonardo mentions that we see things with much greater clarity in dreams than in waking life.)

Sensations of sound, psychiatrists observe, are extremely rare in dreams, and in this connection the Leopardian silence that prevails in de Chirico’s pictures is noteworthy. It is a pregnant rather than a calm silence, charged with elusive, nightmarish foreboding. (Writing, in Sur le silence, of the nature of great cataclysms, de Chirico makes a point of warning us to “beware of the silence” that precedes them.)

The most literally dreamlike aspect of all in de Chirico’s art consists in the extraordinary juxtapositions of ordinary objects in his paintings. As we know, different contexts and levels of reality constantly mingle in dreams. What makes these minglings striking in de Chirico’s art is not so much their presence per se as the quality of the poetry evoked by his particular confrontations—a quality often intensified by exaggerated foreshortenings that bring the objects into hallucinatory proximity with the spectator. The juxtaposition, in his Song of Love, of the head from an ancient Greek sculpture (Apollo Belvedere) with a surgeon’s glove, a ball, and a distant locomotive, all set amid arcaded buildings, has the telling simplicity, force, and directness of Lautréamont’s classic evocation.12 As with the latter’s sewing machine, umbrella, and dissection table, each of de Chirico’s objects calls forth associations that are rationally quite unrelated to those of the other objects. But cross-fertilized, as they are in this painting, all these associations create a poetry in which a heretofore unsuspected metaphysic is revealed.

The models and objects the Cubists painted were assimilated to esthetic structures that seemed to come into being autonomously. In de Chirico the model is primary, and to a considerable extent it determines the structure of the picture. They are not things seen around the studio, but things remembered from childhood. Together they constitute a symbolic autobiography. However, since we cannot psychoanalyze paintings, we can be sure only of the manifest implications of the objects: in the Song of Love, for example, the themes of travel, nostalgia for Italy (from which de Chirico had been away for three years), and the painter’s equivocal relationship to Renaissance and Antique tradition. But the difficulty, or even impossibility, of verbalizing latent meanings in no way denies their presence or blocks our visual response to the particular psychological overtones which give de Chirico’s poetry its ring of authenticity. De Chirico’s favorite objects—trains, towers, artichokes, Antique sculpture, toys, cannons, eggs, gloves, and anatomical charts—recur frequently, in various contexts, and the viewer is able, in time, to intuit some of their more elusive aspects just as one sees the symbols in dreams acquire meaning from their contexts.

To be sure, symbols like the tower and the artichoke can be interpreted as phallic and vaginal in the light of modern psychological theory. It is undeniable, in this regard, that de Chirico’s pictures of 1911–17 are charged with subliminal (and largely passive) sexuality. But far too much criticism of de Chirico has been devoted—rather embarrassedly—to defining the degree of that sexuality. Opinion has ranged, as Soby observes, from those who refuse to see the least sign of erotic meaning in the paintings to those who see vaginas in virtually every arcade. However, all critics agree that none of de Chirico’s icons were consciously intended by him as sexual symbols. In this sense de Chirico’s poetry is naive and inspirational, and because it is, it derives from deeper wellsprings than the sophisticated and self-conscious sexual iconography of Surrealists like Dalí.

Establishing the presence of sexual implications in de Chirico’s imagery was important to the Surrealist critics, for in their view it was proof, to the unbelieving, of the Freudian revelation, which was still largely unknown in the French intellectual community or, where known, generally unaccepted. Sexual liberation became an important aspect of the Surrealists’ program for the “total liberation of the individual,” and led to their manifesto, “Hands Off Love,” in support of Charlie Chaplin during his prosecution in a paternity case. Curiously, however, the biographies of most of the Surrealists reveal no more flouting of sexual conventions than obtained among other groups of modern artists (the Cubists, for example); Breton was known for his almost puritanical prejudices in actual life (particularly regarding homosexuality; he considered Rimbaud’s relationship with Verlaine “inadmissible”).

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of de Chirico’s art—plastically as well as iconographically—is its equivocal relation to the art of Renaissance Italy and ancient Greece. His use of iconographic motifs drawn from these traditions has often been noted, as has also his adaptation of linear perspective and other devices of 15th-century illusionism. But while critics have noticed that he transformed these elements in appropriating them, the consistency and completeness with which he turned classical traditions upside down has never been sufficiently remarked.

We must remember that de Chirico emerged along with the Futurists in the resurgence of Italian painting in the second decade of this century. There had been no really important Italian painting for well over a century before, at the most generous estimate. The glorious past seemed to weigh on painters in Italy with a weight reinforced by a conjunction of social, economic, and cultural circumstances. Up until at least World War I this past was something every Italian artist had to face up to. There is no better testimony to its oppressiveness and to the inertia for which it was responsible than the Futurist manifestoes with their attacks on museums, archeologists, tourist guides, professors, and the like, and their affirmations that a motor car is more beautiful than the “Winged Victory” of Samothrace.

From the French Revolution until World War I, most Italian artists had bowed to the past by practicing one form or another of Neo-Classical or academic painting. The Futurists rejected this heritage vociferously and tried to create an ultra-modern art. But, ironically, the results they achieved contained much more of the past than they realized, as witness the Baroque aspect of Boccioni’s painting The City Rises, and the propinquity of his sculptured striding figure, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, with the much maligned “Winged Victory.” Moreover, the prevailing nostalgia and reverie of Boccioni paintings like The Forces of a Street, with its disembodied shadows, suggest an affinity with the metaphysics of de Chirico if not an outright influence on him by the latter.

While the Futurists built on a foundation of Cubism, de Chirico appeared to be taking the opposite course, and plastically, and indeed iconographically, opting for the Renaissance. In actuality, his art, by parodying the implications of Renaissance art, effected a more marked break with the past than did that of the Futurists. And, at the same time, it reflected the mood of the early 20th-century with equal vividness. Nor was this all. If his debt to Cubism was less obvious than that of the Futurists, it was a debt nevertheless, and in some ways it revealed an understanding of Cubism that went deeper.

The purged, transparent manner of de Chirico’s best work begins to manifest itself in 1910 and is consolidated over the next two years. In 1909, his painting had still been rather academic, deeply influenced by the Swiss-German post-Romantic, Bocklin, as Soby has demonstrated. Albert Elsen observes that de Chirico was a mature poet before he was a mature painter: the poetry of his early Böcklinesque works survived the quattrocento influences that he used in 1910 and 1911 to clear his art of 19th-century academicism.

It was with the quattrocento that de Chirico then came to feel his closest affinity. His foreground figures stand, like Uccello’s and Piero’s, in a frontal space that is felt as separate from the background, which is treated as a foil or back drop; the High Renaissance’s continuity of realistic spatial feeling through the middle ground (as in the mature Raphael) is foreign to him, as is its aerial or atmospheric perspective. Yet the effect of de Chirico’s art was to deny the rational, orderly world evoked by 15th-century art, and this denial was even more a matter of formal than of literary content. To the extent that it reversed the propositions of quattrocento painting, de Chirico’s manner of painting in those years was more an anti-style than a style.

As a branch of projective geometry, 15th-century perspective endowed the imaged world with a coherent, measurable order. The quattrocento’s characteristic perspective arrangements, unlike those, for example, of Mannerist art, suggested a stable visual reality whose unity of purpose was expressed by the perfect—and usually symmetrical—convergence of all the picture’s orthogonals on a single vanishing point. In de Chirico there are multiple vanishing points. In The Anxious Journey and The Evil Genius of a King, for example, conflicting spatial schemes create a sense of frustration and disorder; in The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street the dominant note is of malaise. Pictorial space no longer evokes real space but recalls, rather, space that one has dreamed or imagined. And though de Chirico’s orthogonals read as indications of retreating space, the bland, unmodeled surfaces of the planes they delineate remain paradoxically flat on the surface of the picture, as on a screen. This ambiguity is spelled out in The Double Dream of Spring, where the retreating orthogonals of the center ground connect with those of the picture-within-a-picture in the foreground plane, rendering the reading entirely equivocal.

Since the verisimilitude of de Chirico’s space is only schematic, we should not be surprised that the representation of the figures that people this space is equally schematic. In Renaissance art the mass of the figure is seen quantitatively, with the modeling giving the illusion of a continuous turning that completes the cylinder of the whole mass, while empty space acts as a foil to the relief of the figures, enhancing their tangibility by contrast. De Chirico’s modeling is based on simple—and frequently rather crude—hatching, supported intermittently by shading in very low relief; his figures never have bulk, and their weightlessness–often like that of a flat silhouette—intensifies their spectral quality.

But perhaps the most extraordinary reversal of quattrocento style may be seen in de Chirico’s use of cast shadows. In Renaissance art, cast shadows speak of the logic and reality of the world by attesting to the concreteness of solids as forms blocking the passage of light, by confirming the ground as a solid entity supporting the figures, and by palpably measuring the intervals between solids. In de Chico, cast shadows have a life of their own, free from the demands of a consistent light source. Sometimes their contours are so unrelated to the objects by which they seem to be thrown as to suggest hidden presences. Or the reality of an object is called into doubt by the conspicuous absence of cast shadows. And frequently, as in The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, we see haunting shadows that are cast by objects outside the field of vision. The disembodied shadow, its source often mysterious, is perhaps the most startling of de Chirico’s poetic devices (and one which highly recommended itself to the illusionistic Surrealists).

De Chirico’s patchwork shading and his shallow, virtually ungraduated modeling constitute an almost autonomous decorative convention, and his linear perspective inverts that of the Renaissance in such a way as to destroy it. (It was the resultant flat effect in de Chirico’s pictures—Gare Montparnasse, for example—that led Clement Greenberg to see them as “announcing the absolute flatness of Mondrian.”) Curiously, the illusionistic Surrealists most influenced by his work did not grasp its real plastic character. Dalí and Tanguy, for example, took over de Chirico’s general schemata but used them for something resembling conventional trompe-l’oeil realism: Flat figures became smoothly mode led in the round, flat planes were shaded, light was made atmospheric. Such features of style put these painters at a much further remove than de Chirico from the mainstream of modern painting. It was precisely the reintroduction of atmosphere, modeling and abundant detail that in the 1920s profoundly changed the nature of de Chirico’s own art once again, and made such later pictures of his as The Departure of the Knight Errant (1923) and the Roman Villa series seem unmodern. De Chirico’s affinities with Synthetic Cubism in his work of 1911–17 set him off from his own followers, and one might even argue that, poetry and iconography aside, the conclusions Tanguy and Dalí drew from his work were further from its intrinsic nature than was the painting of Mondrian.

While the illusionistic structure that de Chirico adapted from the Classical past was a crucial influence for many Surrealist artists, his references to the iconography of the past were not. Citations from Classical sculpture (the recurrent “Ariadne,” the “Apollo Belvedere,” and other fragments), or Classical literature (Hector and Andromache, and the Muses) do not appear in his paintings in contexts appropriate to their sources but are juxtaposed with trains, toys, and other paraphernalia of de Chirico’s private iconography, so that their significance becomes more directly personal than cultural. This is why his symbols, Classical and other, would rarely become assimilable material in the way his illusionistic manner did. But if the substance of his iconography could not be transmitted to others, the general method of it—that is, the denaturing and reinterpreting of objects by putting them in unexpected juxtapositions—could. To be sure, this method was derived from Lautreamont’s and Rimbaud’s poetry, and one can see the beginning of its pictorial application in such painters as Redon and Henri Rousseau. But it was only with de Chirico that it received its full application in painting.

By 1919 de Chirico’s inspiration had more or less deserted him, but this was not immediately apparent to the Littérature group, which was not able to follow his work on a year-to-year basis. In 1922, when Max Ernst portrayed the members of the incipient Surrealist circle in a painting, The Meeting of Friends, the absent de Chirico was represented by a statue. In 1924, in the First Surrealist Manifesto, Breton spoke of him as “for so long admirable.” That same year Paul Eluard, who greatly admired The Disquieting Muses of 1917 but was unable to obtain it, consented to de Chirico’s suggestion that he—de Chirico—make a replica of it, which, he said, “would have no other fault than that of being realized with a more knowing hand, with more beautiful cuisine.” By that time de Chirico had already embarked on the series of forgeries of himself which he was to create with increasing cynicism (regardless of the stylistic direction of his new work), and which was to cause a major scandal in the end (the problem is treated at length in the Soby monograph). It was only in 1928, when Breton published Surrealism and Painting, that his gradually cooling relations with de Chirico culminated in a final break. “Inspiration,” Breton said, “had abandoned Chirico. Having abused his supernatural powers since 1918, Chirico is astonished that one cannot go along with his paltry conclusions, images about which the least one can say is that the spirit is absent and in its place presides a shameless contempt.”

Though Surreal illusionism in the twenties and thirties derived from de Chirico’s early painting, no comparable influence existed in the second decade of the century for automatist-abstract Surrealism except insofar as Cubist space and articulation were to be retained as infrastructures of pictures. Though he had no causal role in Surrealist automatism, Paul Klee had, nevertheless, arrived at a somewhat comparable position as early as 1914 when he began using “doodling” to get pictures started. The process is beautifully depicted in the remarkable 1919 self-portrait which shows Klee drawing with virtually closed eyes, plumbing the recesses of his mind for an image, the conjuration of which is whimsically encouraged by scratching his head; meantime his right hand—as if it had a life of its own—mediumistically traces lines on the drawing paper. The Surrealists recognized Klee’s affinities with them (Breton mentioned him in the First Manifesto of 1924) and invited him to participate in the first collective Surrealist exhibition held in 1925 at the Galerie Pierre; for a longtime they were the lone champions (except for the dealer D. H. Kahnweiler) of his work in France. Though Surreal automatism did not derive from Klee, there were moments in the unfolding of Miró’s, and to a lesser extent, Masson’s and Ernst’s art that were immediately touched by the magic of Klee’s inventions (his direct influence would prove greater on the first post-Surrealist generations: Wols and Dubuffet in France and the early work of the New American Painters).

Kandinsky’s improvisational painting of circa 1912–14 was unknown to the Surrealists until relatively late in their history; when Kandinsky came to Paris in 1933 he was already working in his more precise style. The Surrealists received him warmly and in keeping with their internationalist, anti-chauvinist ideals, invited him to exhibit with them. In any case, the more spontaneous appearing Kandinskys of the second decade were all based upon sketches of a relatively studied type as compared to the automatism of Klee. These pictures would influence Surrealist painting only near the very end of its history—around 1943—when they played an important role in the work of Arshile Gorky.

Though in his early work unquestionably one of the great fantasy artists of the century, Marc Chagall proved of no interest to the Surrealists. Despite the fact that his work provided a prototype for a fantasy art built upon a Cubist underpinning, neither the Surrealist writers nor painters took note of it until their mutual “exile” in America during World War II: At that time Breton wrote that it is “with Chagall alone” that “metaphor makes its triumphant entry into modern painting” (“Genesis and Artistic Perspectives of Surrealism”). The statement is patently false, Redon among others having “pictured” linguistic metaphors decades earlier. It is clear, in any event, that the Surrealists found Chagall’s folkloristic type of fantasy absolutely alien to them; some years later Breton indicated that his wartime mention of Chagall had been prompted by the expediencies—social and political—of communal life among the European artists and intellectuals then in New York.

William Rubin