PRINT September 1984


WHEN GIORGIO DE CHIRICO CROSSED the Atlantic on the ocean liner Roma in August of 1935 he was 47 years old. After nine hellish days he arrived in New York. As he recalls in his Memorie della mia vita (1945):

With the first light of morning there appeared on the horizon the skyscrapers of Wall Street; it made me think of Babylonia and of certain plaster models of archaeological reconstructions I had seen once in a museum in Germany. A damp heat, colonial, minelike, hung over the thick waters of the port. The sun was not visible; men and objects had lost their shadows: a diffused light, like that in a photography studio from the last century, was everywhere. Once in the city I felt as though I had died and been reborn on another planet. Those smooth, monotonous structures, the surfaces of which had nothing jutting out—not a balcony, not a column capital, not an entablature or piece of ornamentation or pilaster, not a nail—it all gave me a feeling of great dismay. I thought with nostalgia of the warmth and the humanity of the Baroque style, the Second Empire, and even the Umbertine and Liberty styles. I consoled myself with the thought that I had come here because of my work, because of my paintings.

De Chirico was hoping for new success, following the period of stasis in Europe after the Wall Street crash. In the ’20s in Paris there had been renewed interest in his work, and while it’s true that the Surrealists attacked him with spite, it was only natural that they, the sons, should rebel against the father. But the dealers still vied for his work, and he had contracts with two of them, Paul Guillaume and Léonce Rosenberg. He had one-man shows in Brussels, Paris, London, and New York; and his work was once again included in major collections, as it had been at the time of his metaphysical paintings. His paintings of the ’20s (the epoch Jean Cocteau defined as a “laic mystery”) were successful, seemingly effortless works—horses at the edge of a Grecian dream world, mannequins with temples and objects that emerge from their bellies (and their unconscious), furniture set in valleys and, equally out of context, landscapes imprisoned in rooms, gladiators and builders of trophies . . .

Then there was the period of crisis, in de Chirico’s life and in his art. In 1933, between his attempt to live in Milan and his retreat to Florence, he took on two large decorative ventures—a huge fresco for the salon of the Triennale and sets and costumes for a production of Vincenzo BelIini’s I Puritani at the May Music Festival in Florence. In this period new dreams (or nightmares) appear: not only I Puritani, with its sets and costumes that turn into masks for an unbridled commedia dell’arte, but also the “Bagni misteriosi” (Mysterious baths), where gods and members of the modern bourgeoisie intermingle along the torpid waters rippled in a tranquilizing parquet pattern.

At the time de Chirico decided to leave Italy for the United States his earlier mythical, metaphysical paintings were also crossing the Atlantic; indeed, the masterpieces from his Parisian and Ferrara periods arrived in New York in 1935. James Thrall Soby, author of the first monograph on metaphysical painting, bought some early works, and Pierre Matisse gave de Chirico a New York show, containing 26 of his early canvases, which opened in November 1935. The following year his work received great recognition when 25 of his paintings appeared in the exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” at the Museum of Modern Art, a show that acknowledged his importance as a precursor.

In New York de Chirico found himself in a new world, the one he had been seeking in his metaphysical paintings, the one which his friend Marius de Zayas had described at the time of Guillaume Apollinaire, the world of Alfred Stieglitz, to whom Paul Guillaume had sent de Chirico’s early paintings, along with some drawings and manuscripts. For half of 1935, all of 1936, and half of 1937 de Chirico remained in New York. His new paintings were seen in various shows: Julien Levy became his new dealer and the millionaire Albert Barnes, who had already shown an interest in his paintings in Paris and had purchased work from both his metaphysical and Surrealist periods, was also supportive of him in New York.

This article will deal with a new episode in de Chirico’s life—his activity as an illustrator for magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, resulting in work in which his spirit shines forth. This little-known body of work is consistent with the usual view of de Chirico: the suspension of time, the mechanism of absence, the surprise of two real elements, and simple juxtapositions from which generate the ever-renewed mystery of the unreal (the surreal, the metaphysical). Concentrating his personal mythology and his new visions within the limited space of a magazine cover or an illustrated page, in this work de Chirico reflects on the enigmatic coexistence of past and present before the lights of that most ephemeral of stages—the world of fashion and beauty. A glove shot by Max Klinger exists alongside furniture designed for a stage set; a horse can rise up next to some roses; mannequins pose next to Pegasus and by the loggia of the Erechtheum; one of the Dioscuri (the twins Castor and Pollux), full bodied, advances with his horse against a visionary Manhattan background.

So far ten or so original de Chirico sketches from this time have come to my attention. Only recently have they begun to emerge from private collections of couturiers or journalists, and they appear occasionally at auctions and in general catalogues. The work is always of a high quality, the very fresh-looking watercolors depicting with stenographic rapidity characters and props in both ancient and modern settings. In this work de Chirico frequently quotes his own paintings, recent and early, with his method of “time without time.” He brings what he sees to center stage, joining it to that which he has already seen . . . Manhattan and the Acropolis of Athens. In one sketch a pair of horses (an exact quote from an earlier painting) belong to the space and time of his native Greece, and there is even a small temple in the background. But in the foreground and to the right there appear bathers in modern dress, while a Greek beach merges with the beach of Oyster Bay, a few miles outside New York City (and mentioned by de Chirico in Memorie). In another sketch a rearing horseman (again similar to an earlier painting) stands at the edge of the sea. In the foreground area are two bathers, one seated like a statue, the other standing, dressed in the Greek style and leaning against a column fragment like a typical Amazon figure from the 5th century B.C. The stairway that leads to the sea, as in the “Bagni misteriosi” paintings, displaces the scene into another time and locale.

Then there is a study for a cover where a perfume flacon rises above a necklace and various toiletry items. Immediately adjacent, on a fan, is a figure of a running colt (as in a previous work), while in the background one can make out the allusive mount of the Acropolis with a temple. The sea remains the unifying presence between the two continents and the two stories.

In one published cover a woman’s dressing table is in the foreground, with a furnished room behind; the whole is rigorously Chirican. In the foreground are the glove and the rose that he often placed within his metaphysical paintings and also in his romantic works of the ’20s. The room, on the other hand, is a precise quote of the stage set he designed for the production of I Puritani, where the furniture became the setting for a timeless tale. Furthermore, a painting of horses hangs on the wall—a 1927 de Chirico work of the type that so entranced Jean Cocteau.

Other sketches show scenes from his birthplace. In one, published in Vogue, well-known New York fashion models pose with Greek statues in a mythological set from a Cecil B. De Mille film. Seeming almost natural, a winged horse grazes on the sand; it is Pegasus—one of the mythical creatures alluding to Poetry. Another sketch, the last I will describe here, depicts a figure dressed in everyday clothes standing next to a large white horse, against a background of skyscrapers. For de Chirico, New York, city of renewed myths, recalled his native Volos in Thessaly. In effect the figure in this sketch recalls, in its iconographic details, a Dioscuro with his horse; for de Chirico (as for his brother, Savinio), the Dioscuri are almost a personification of the two brothers who left Volos to discover the world and its “Golden Fleece.”

Some years back a large painting by de Chirico was up for sale. In the Catalogo Generale Giorgio de Chirico (1971), organized by Claudio Bruni, it appeared with the title Figura in frack (Figure in tails), and was dated 1938. In fact it is a work from his American period, and should be dated 1937 (as can be seen from a clipping of that year). The painting decorated a clothing shop, serving as a backdrop for the Benno Scheiner atelier on Fifth Avenue. As usual, the painter found the difficult point of balance between past and present. The mannequin in the window, transported into a metaphysical dream-time, once again becomes just a mannequin. The stones of the columns transform New York’s Central Park into the valley of the Acropolis, the skyscrapers substituting for the Parthenon.

Clearly this Chi rican coexistence between the ancient sublime and the banal present in which space and time are superseded in the search for a fixed, astonishing image, is an incredible kitsch investigation; it is an operation concerning the metaphysics of fashion. This outrageous contact between past and present is similar to what Salvador Dal i was also to find in New York, and led to the formation of the most ephemeral yet strongest of de Chirico’s aspirations—his investigation of set design, theater, performance, and lighting. What can be more kitsch than the staging and costumes of a spectacle designed by an artist? De Chirico’s desire to join diverse times and places, to recite to people of his own time a Greek tragedy or a romantic melodrama, brought him to the summit of so-called bad taste. But it was an operation conducted with sublime tenacity, and is thus yet another way in which this artist, who many still insist “died” in 1918, is most relevant today.

De Chirico sought to interpret the “metaphysics” of New York in an extraordinary article, “La Metafisica dell’America” (“The metaphysics of America”), published in Omnibus, October 8, 1938, upon his return to Europe. The text is little known, and misunderstood, like all his writings. It is full of intuition and enigmas on a level with his more poetic creation, the novel Hebdomeros (1929), which was dubbed a masterpiece by those same Surrealists who had repudiated his new paintings. Excerpts are reprinted here for the first time.


The Metaphysics of America
by Giorgio de Chirico

Damp Heat
America, hot, damp. Passing the sultry barrier of the Gulf Stream, one enters into an atmosphere like a steam bath, and one feels as an immediate reaction a violent nostalgia for dryness, for the trunks of Tuscan olive trees and also for those Tuscan cigars; these latter were all the more longed for because the entire boat was impregnated with that awful smell of Anglo-Saxon tobacco, reeking of honey and dried figs. . . . The regular, white, geometrical structures of New York appeared just as I had seen them so often in films, first in the distance and then near, rising above the smooth, tranquil ocean, which seemed like an immense pond. It was a vision of a very ancient city, inhabited by men who had arrived from afar by mechanical means. Small clouds of steam and spirals of smoke emerged from chimneys and from the sides of skyscrapers; it seemed to me as though something was cooking or boiling down there; it was like hearing a humming through glass, vague noises, like a far-off stick beating a mattress.

The Light, the Night
It is worth noting that in America there is an aversion to shades, curtains, screens, colored glass—in other words, to anything that might make a place seem more intimate, that gives one a sense of being sheltered from all indiscreet glances, from all discomforts of the outside world. Thus at night apartments and lighted rooms, seen from the street, seem like large shop or department store windows.

And so at night the large apartments along the streets in the center of town, luminous against the dark backdrop of the night, seem like display windows showing off elegant figures, immobile and smiling, but with whom one might never converse, nor could they ever hear your voice or answer your questions. They live here and there, yet outside of time, and their glances and smiles and all the expressions on their phantom faces are the expressions of those who know there is nothing to know. They have never heard about the last days of Pompeii or the nights of St. Bartholemew; they know nothing of Doric columns, steam engines, a plowed field, an iron bridge. They don’t know where they are or from where you come.

A “Soft” City
The lack of dryness in America is everywhere, not just in the air. One never hears a dry knocking sound; everything seems padded. It is as if even metals and the hardest of materials have become soft, tepid, and dampish and, if they were to fall to earth, would make a sound like a soft body hitting against a soft surface. In fact, the streets and sidewalks are not hard, and even the buses are soft; the policemen’s revolvers seem made of rubber. Finally one begins to see everything as being a bit deformed and distorted, and one always has the impression that everything one touches—an elevator door, the wall of a skyscraper, the metaI stool in an Automat—will be left with an indentation, a trace of one’s hand. If a vehicle stops and then moves again one has the impression that the earth which was solid has been a bit sunken in; when traffic jams create dense clusters of vehicles and pedestrians, one has the impression that when the cars, streetcars, men, women, and children begin moving again in their separate directions, they might have a lump here, a piece carved out of the spine there, an enlarged tibia, a cut-out hip; the vehicles too seem to exit from that deformed throng with wheels larger on one side, with windows that turn inward or else are convex like the sides of a bomb. And then you hear a barely perceptible noise, a vague, muffled sound, soft like the immense hands of a gigantic baker who ceaselessly works, kneading and rekneading a soft, damp, sticky dough.

Moving through the streets of New York, I imagined myself rising up in flight, swimming through the air, as one does in dreams up to a certain age—an ability one later loses. I imagined myself swimming through the air, doing the breaststroke, the sidestroke, turned on my back facing the blue and the clouds of the daytime sky or the stars of the night like the Man of whom Ovid spoke. I rose up to the level of some romantic and vertiginous balconies which jutted out frighteningly from the side of a building at the height of the 25th floor. There I began to spy through curtained and shaded windows.

The Metaphysics of Architecture
In New York the most powerful metaphysical impression is given by the architecture; this is the most surprising thing, and the only thing that made the transatlantic journey, with the seasickness it caused me, worthwhile. In these buildings and houses of New York I found what I myself had felt and expressed to a certain extent in my paintings: the homogeneity and harmonic monumentality formed by disparate and heterogeneous elements. As in my “Manichine sedute” (Seated mannequins), the figures rise up and cling along the bodies of people sprawled in armchairs or resting on plinths and stools, immobile pillows, dark, hooded, solidified foam; ruins of aqueducts, temples closed to all liturgy, fragments of ancient columns joined together like inseparable friends in the midst of landscapes swept by innumerable historic events which the charioteer Destiny guided with a firm hand and tight rein; cluster pines both salubrious and malefic, forming the tall vault of a sad hospice; and heraldic figures, inexorable custodians of old faiths and old nostalgias. Just as in the church of San Marco in Venice you can see the marble, colors, curve spirals. arches, and circles of all styles which together form a unit compact and highly suggestive—so in the structures of New York you find the drama of all construction through the ages. There is the medieval tower and the English cottage, the Greek temple and the Byzantine church, the Roman arch and the chateau from the Loire valley, the Florentine and the Venetian palace. And it is all attached piece by piece with the greatest mastery, built, raised up, shaded, veiled, fused, blended—in other words, so well presented that there is nothing left to say.

This is one side of New York architecture. Then there is the other side, that of the architecture of skyscrapers or those enormous buildings that, not being true skyscrapers, still give that impression by their enormous proportions. It is above all in this latter category that one feels the enigmatic breath clarified by the autumn sun and suffused by that convalescing light that sky and earth have after the fevered heat of summer.

The Skies of the “Pierre”
The Hotel Pierre on Fifth Avenue, that wide and elegant street which divides the east and west sides of New York, is the prototype of these extremely lyrical and metaphysical structures. This hotel’s vast terraces, adorned with statues, with banners in both soft and bright colors waving in the ocean breeze up on the building’s roof, make one nostalgic for certain large scale paintings of the Venetian school, by Tintoretto and Veronese. High skies and distant horizons—it is the other side of the sky, the other side of the world that one perceives or that appears through the arches or the spaces between the columns, through the open windows looking out over a serene area, through the windows along the side of the building, hid from view but, being at the same height as the front windows, through which you can see sky and the fleeting clouds. It is another part of the world that exists behind those tall walls. And within, you know the hotel is full of beautiful and elegant things: you know the works, the polished sculptures, the paintings grand and beautiful gilded frames, which so superbly decorate and ornament the vast lounges and walkways covered with fabrics and thick carpets.

The Metaphysical Man
New York appears to us in the height of its metaphysical nature, and then we see the Man dressed in pure wool, upright in the windows where tired Dioscuri now sleep, inseparable, next to their exhausted horses. We see the Man, dressed in pure wool, his shoes reinforced with double, triple, even quadruple soles, standing before walls, behind which lies the sea leading to other continents. We see the Man, dressed in pure wool, wearing an overcoat, a raincoat, a cap, to shield him from the wind, an umbrella and gloves—walking with neither hope nor fear, between the Devil and Death, toward the wharves where the large boats smoke and the call of the sirens wails, climbing steadily up beneath the limpid sky, clearer along the horizon and within which large, white clouds slowly float like icebergs.

The Strangeness of Nature
When you see nature in this strange country, sense of dreaming becomes stronger. The differences between it and European nature do not seem as grand or defined as in South America, or in parts of Africa or Asia. Leaves, trees, herbs, and plants do not have that monstrous aspect—twisted, swollen, hypertrophic, tentacular—as in Brazil, for example. Nonetheless there are differences, if small ones. There are the differences and the similarities, one might notice between two brothers or between the image of a person seen in a dream and that same person seen in reality. For example, you might look at a tree and be told that it’s an oak; in fact, on the ground you find that most suggestive of fruits, the acorn, that hard olive, perfectly carved in small detail out of soft wood. Yes, you find that same acorn that since early childhood has always been looked upon with pleasure as a gentle and poetic toy which can be had for no trouble or risk at all, which costs nothing, and which reawakens within us biblical memories of ragged penitent sons who, on their knees and wracked by sobs, are embraced by their parents’ open arms in a grand gesture of pardon. But when you raise our eyes and see the leaves and the structure the branches, when you look at the tree trunk, you immediately sense that something is not quite right. Then you remember that you are in another world, and you are overcome by sadness. The dawns and dusks are like those in Europe, and yet you feel that the rays of the sun, always the same, are passing through another atmosphere. Everyday you are pervaded by a strange dread, something like a fear that one day the sun will fail to set, that it will stop at the steaming horizon line, an immobile red disk amid the mists rising from the earth and the water.

That strange, disquieting, dreamlike sensation that rustles above nature in America always pushes me to seek out closed, covered, richly furnished and decorated environments. Thus, in New York I feel much more at ease in the dining room of the Waldorf-Astoria, amidst thee Baroque stucco and pseudo-Tiepolesque panels, than out in the avenues and under the trees of Central Park, or on the beaches or rocks of Long Island.

On holidays the bells of New York resound through this strange nature, in this rarefied air, in this greenhouse- and aquarium-like light—entire concerts, sweet Protestant melodies, conducive to well-being, to meditation, to prayer. And in the public gardens on temperate afternoons, squirrels with thin fur and colorless tails hop about like mad creatures among the feet of passersby, with such faith in humanity that then and there one supposes that New York and all America is made up of millions of St. Francises.

Storm over New York
In the autumn there are periods of torrential dins. The most resistant umbrella and even a hooded raincoat are of no use whatsoever. New York is washed from top to bottom: the straight streets leading to the river are transformed into rectilinear torrents, and the old Judson is tinged with gray and beneath the violent gusts of wind seems to have been brought to a boil by an underground cauldron. But after these downpours. which turn day into night, the deep shades of autumn return to the newly washed skies. Once again the soft or brightly colored banners wave in the ocean breezes from the high terraces of the Hotel Pierre. And then you can hear the call of the distant city, the fashionable city, the tranquility, the phantom city—where memories of the world left below, memories of that old world beyond the vast sea, arrive like tired migratory birds.

Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco has recently published the newly-rediscovered correspondence among Alberto Savinio de Chirico and Tristan Tzara. He is the author of “De Chirico in Paris. 1911–1915,” in De Chirico (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1982) and other studies on de Chirico. He is currently preparing an edition of de Chirico’s writings.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.