New York

Giorgio de Chirico

Robert Miller Gallery

Giorgio de Chirico’s 1972 retrospective at the New York Cultural Center remains one of the most important exhibitions in recent history. Almost none of the work had been seen in America before, and it provoked a largely negative, even hostile response. Much of it repeated themes and images from an earlier phase of de Chirico’s career: that The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1965, is a dilettantish copy of a similarly named painting from 1922 did not help critics toward the artist’s cause. Further discomfort was caused by paintings depicting 15th-century Venice, still lifes of oversized fruit in a landscape, and quasi-allegorical works such as the now-notorious St. George Killing the Dragon, 1940. These paintings confirmed a widely held belief, first set forth by André Breton, that de Chirico’s powers failed him suddenly and irrevocably in 1917.

Now the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, and Robert Pincus-Witten, who wrote the introduction to the catalogue for this exhibition, states: “Giorgio de Chirico arguably is the greatest artist of the twentieth century . . . ” The real argument between those who line up behind Pincus-Witten’s banner and those of formalist-minded views (William Rubin, for example) centers around that old sawhorse, content versus technique. Rubin believes that de Chirico achieves his greatest work when he becomes influenced by Synthetic Cubism; for Rubin, de Chirico’s content is formal rather than literary. It does not matter if one agrees with Rubin’s assessment, and with the approach of a Clement Greenberg, or with Pincus-Witten’s florid praise of au courant content, however, since both views are fatuous in their imperious limitations. It is precisely the content of the early works, their expression of 20th-century alienation and isolation in a banal world, that makes them so unique; and the problem with the view that applauds the later, quasi-baroque paintings as a reaction against de Chirico’s Modernist beginnings is that it does not explain why he found it necessary to imitate earlier paintings repeatedly. De Chirico’s messianic vanity and arrogance gave him no perspective or critical distance, leading him to dismiss Tintoretto, Titian, and Tiepolo when he was young and convincing him that he was their only heir when he was older; his isolation swallowed him up, and he spent much of his career in search of a subject. The key to all this, inadequately discussed by both formalists and anti-formalists, is the self-portraits.

In the recent exhibition was a 1919 portrait of the artist and his mother. In the foreground, the mother wears an open-necked, bathrobelike dress. Behind her, in a shadowy, windowlike frame, the artist is in profile. De Chirico defines their relationship through parallels between their hairdos, faces, and muscular arms and hands. His deliberate switching of traditional gender attributes is brought to its fullest extreme by the placement of two pears as symbols of his breasts. In reversing traditional male and female attitudes, poses, and features, de Chirico envisions his mother as the strong, dominant figure while he is the withdrawn daydreamer, his face turned away from the world. The painting is as disturbing and powerful as any in de Chirico’s oeuvre.

In Autoritratto in costume, 1943, de Chirico wears a 17th-century red velvet coat and cap, holds a paintbrush, and stares haughtily at the viewer. Critical distance is no longer in operation: de Chirico’s narcissism is not being revealed through symbols, but is stated as a fact, and one is bothered by the realization of how far his vanity has taken him, how convinced he is of his rightness. There is something defiant about all the self-portraits. One has only to contrast them with Rembrandt’s self-portraits to sense what is disquieting about them: unlike Rembrandt, de Chirico knew he would live forever.

It is this narcissism, so potently expressed, that one suspects is the major attraction for many young artists and their supporters. How to make use of it is the question they must address. The reevaluation of which de Chirico is clearly in need must be both sympathetic and critical; it will be a difficult task for even the most judicious believer. Finally, while many have noted his influence on recent art, no one has pointed out that what one learns from him is a poetic possibility rather than a pictorial one.

John Yau