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Giorgio de Chirico

Italian (born Greece), 1888 - 1978

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Giorgio de Chirico was of Italian ancestry, although he was born in 1888 in Vólos, Greece, where his father worked as a construction engineer for the railroads. His early years were spent in his country of birth, which was to have a great effect on his later imagery. From age twelve he was enrolled in the school of fine arts at the Athens Polytechnic to study painting and drawing. After the death of his father in 1905 his mother took the family to live in Munich, where de Chirico spent two years at the Akademie der bildenden Künste, later acknowledging his debts to the artists Max Klinger and Arnold Böcklin during this time. He then moved to Italy, settling first in Milan and then in Florence.

Through his readings of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche he became acquainted with the world of mythology as a font of symbolism, and in 1910 he painted his first important and characteristic work, Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon (Philadelphia Museum of Art; London, Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art. Giorgio de Chirico and the Myth of Ariadne. Exhibition catalogue by Michael R. Taylor. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2002. fig. 48), in which two cloaked figures stand beside a statue of Dante in an otherwise empty square, with heavy drapes closing off the doorway and windows of the building to the left and a sailing ship just visible above the wall on the right. The painting's suggestion of parallel universes was central to the philosophy of the later Pittura Metafisica, an approach to painting championed by de Chirico and fellow Italian Carlo Carrà.

In 1911 de Chirico joined his brother, Alberto Savinio, a writer, musician, and later a painter as well, in Paris, where he exhibited Enigma at the Salon d'Automne of 1912. During his time in that city he attracted the attention and approbation of critics and literary figures as well as fellow artists, including Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton, and Pablo Picasso. Paintings of vast empty public spaces, colonnades, and improbable architecture with exaggerated diagonal shadows indicate his attempts to incorporate his poetical sentiments into imagery, which included, after 1913, such objects as artichokes, bananas, and flayed hands, prefiguring the later imagistic experiments of the Surrealists.

Following a term of military duty in Ferrara and a hospitalization for what today would probably be termed acute depression, he began to develop his concept of the metaphysical, which, difficult as this was to translate into visual terms, sheds some light on the artist's novel approach to subject matter. The idea of the Pittura Metafisica began to circulate through the magazine Valori plastici, attracting a number of supporters, including Giorgio Morandi and Filippo De Pisis.

De Chirico's ever erratic career then led in 1919 to a stint of copying works of older Italian masters that were on view in the museums of Rome and Florence. He began to produce portraits, nudes, and landscapes that were generally realistic in style. In 1920 he signed the Italian manifesto of the Dadaists before returning to Paris in 1924. The Surrealists invited him to participate in their first exhibition in 1925, only to realize belatedly that the prancing horses and gladiators in pseudo-classical settings that he was now painting did not qualify him as a member of their arcane assemblage.

Beginning around 1930 he made a break with his past, both in terms of his work and his associates, retreating to a kind of academicism. His reputation has suffered from his acceptance of Italian Fascist patronage as well as from the fact that by prevailing standards his work is seen to have degenerated during the last decades of his life into a repetitive formulation of earlier themes. However, this view was recently challenged by Michael Taylor (Philadelphia Museum of Art; London, Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art. Giorgio de Chirico and the Myth of Ariadne. Exhibition catalogue by Michael R. Taylor. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2002, esp. pp. 164-67), who sees the artist's late work as foreshadowing the repetitive, serial approach to making art exemplified by such modern artists as Andy Warhol and Mike Bidlo. De Chirico lived until the age of ninety, dying in Rome in 1978.

Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat. 76.

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