IN CHIRICO' S COMPANY: Time is nothing

02/17/2021 01:00

On warm summer days, I did during my childhood and early youth join the bicycle caravan that meandered from Hässleholm to Birch Bay by the Finja Lake – a sandy beach with a jetty and a restaurant with outdoor seating.



 I remember every detail of the road. The downhill after the exit road to P2: The Scanian Dragon Regiment and how I used glance at the villa that lay by the hill slope. It belonged to Calle Preutz who boxed for Hässleholms BK and who together with the nation's pride, Ingmar Johansson, was active during the golden age of Swedish boxing. Preutz never became Swedish champion, but during his active time he conquered three silver medals at the Swedish boxing championships.



For some reason unknown to me, his son who was my age, once started a fight with me in the school yard. Of course, I did not stand a chance against him. At that time I avoided him, but we became friends when we much later did our obligatory military refresher training together. After the slope by Preutz's villa, some waterlogged marshes took over and where, below some impressive oaks, Hässleholm's city limit was marked by a milestone with the town´s coat of arms. there was always a compact swarm of gnats.



Finally we reached Finjasjön. In those days there was a solid jetty of the old-fashioned type, i.e. not the modern variant floating on pontoons but one that rested on properly piled down logs and provided with stairs leading down to the water. As a kid, I was fascinated by that jetty, perhaps mostly because my parents had told me I had to avoid drowning – once my four-year-older sister, had ended up in an underwater hole next to the jetty and had been close to drowning. When she suddenly disappeared, my parents had been sunbathing on the beach. My father told me he had not heard her cries for help and she had been rescued by others.



I often sneaked into the shade under the jetty where the water was cool and light dimmed. The water was striped by beams falling in between the wooden slats above me from where footsteps and faint voices could be heard. In the shadows I was alone in the middle of the world.



A feeling I am reminded of as I flip through a book where I found pictures of Giorgio de Chirico's Bagni Misteriosi, the Mysterious Baths. In 1934 he made his first images of such baths as illustrations to a book of poems by Jean Cocteau, until his death in 1978 Chirico created a vast amount of versions of the same motif.



He claimed that his idea for ​​The Mysterious Baths came when he remembered his childhood in the Greek city of Volos. At a place where the river Anavros met the sea at a sandy beach, there were jetties and small changing cabins. I have seen such cabins in several places, not the least here in Italy, though then they are generally not placed in the water, but by the beach, as in Ostia outside Rome to where we often take the car.



What made me react when I saw Chirico's pictures was that in some of them he described my childhood feelings when I hid myself under the jetty of the Finja Lake – the sunlight, the shadows, and the loneliness coming from watching other bathers play around me; the sound of cries and laughter. Such shadows and lights may be often found by Chirico, as well as multi-coloured beach balls and bathers.



As in so many of Chirico's works, Bagni Misteriosi emit, with their shadows, sun and strange desolation – exclusion and memories.


Chirco made his Bagni reflect his life. When he in 1937, while residing in New York, heard of his ever-overshadowing mother’s death in Rome he interpreted his feelings in a picture of Bagni Misteriosi.



The same, desolate silence, time and time again. Most often, Chirico's bathing places are not be found by the sea, but by canals cutting through barren land.


Bleak landscapes inhabited by alienated humans. Dressed youths watch youngsters,, some of them with featureless faces, wading naked in shallow canals with brown water similar to the water generally found in forest circumscribed lakes, like those of my youth and childhood.



Occasionally a dressed-up youth passes the bathers in a rowing boat.



Customed, silent men generally just watch the bathers, though from time to time they seem to be talking to them, some have even placed themselves on a box, or a chair, by the canal rim.



Even the bathers tend to be isolated, sometimes in tower-like, separate pools, to which ladders lead up.




Sometimes the sea is glimpsed, and then usually between buildings. In these claustrophobic, and nevertheless open landscapes, the sea is blue, contrasting the Bagni's brown waters. Like here where an individual in a suit is rowing towards a tunnel opening up to the sea.



Already as a child I had been fascinated by Chirico’s art. In one of my father's books, which I returned to time and time again, I had been attracted by one of Chirico’s early paintings, The Mystery of the Hour and I began to draw several variations on the artwork – the arches, the solitary figures, the clock. It had something to do with the passage of time, the loneliness, the isolated figures and the stillness that had taken hold of me.



When I am confronted with Chirico's art I tend to be surprised by such memory blocks. When I saw the rowing boat moving towards a tunnel opening towards to the sea, I came to think of a tunnel I once saw in Livorno. It is a canal that stretches under the city's central square and opens into its lively harbour.



And ... this strange, desolate exclusion – like when you arrive at a new workplace filled with future acquaintances. In Chirico's Bagni there is often a dressed young man who with a suitcase in his hand opens the door to a bathing cabin, where he is to undress to reunite with other bathers, but before he does so, perhaps with anticipation, anxiety and hesitation, he thoughtfully watches the surrounding bathers.



Among my memories are several such images and situations finding equivalents in Chirico's art. Sometimes his bathing cabins are not located by strange canals, but instead remind me of the bathing complexes you may find along the Swedish coasts, for example in Varberg and Malmö. So called kallbadhus, “cold bathing houses”, which were built in the early twentieth century, a time that seems to correspond to Chirico's constructions.



While I was working as a teacher in Malmö, it happened that I went out to Ribersborg's kallbadhus to visit its sauna and take swim afterwards. This quite impressive complex had been built by the end of a long jetty stretching into Öresund, the wide strait between Sweden and Denmark.


The strength of Chirico's art is at its best during a direct confrontation. In 2010, I did in Rome on several occasions visit a comprehensive exhibition covering Chirico’s very extensive production. The sight of the desolate cityscapes etched itself into my brain. When I after seeing them took to the streets again I found that Rome had been transformed into the alienating world of Chirico.



In addition to being an eccentric and quite unique artist, Chirico was a skilled writer, not only of the suggestive novel Hebdomeros but also of a number of articles on art, in among which he wrote about how architecture affects, yes… constructs our reality and our way of thinking. Several times he returned to how Renaissance artists dreamed of organizing life, making it clearer, more tangible, and in their quest applied mathematical rules created through speculations about the basic structure of the Cosmos.



In his art, Chirico tried to find an inner pattern and meaning of life. Not for nothing was his admired father, who died when Chirico was seventeen years old, a recognized and skilled engineer. Chirico's depictions of a dreamlike and alienating reality endow his versions of life with a peculiar timelessness.



In the late 1910s, Chirico wrote that the art of the “cave people” was already perfect since these unknown artists, while creating masterpieces on rock walls in the depths of dark caves, were fully aware of the fact that their hunting prey was “endowed with an inner meaning”, a reality far beyond what we can see, perceive with our senses, and only grasp through our imagination – a metaphysical realm.


One must picture everything in the world as an enigma, not only the great questions one has always asked oneself, why was the world created, why we are born, live and die, for after all, as I have said, perhaps there is no reason in all of this. […] On earth. There are many more enigmas in the shadow of a man walking in the sun than in all past, present and future religions.


Through such insights, Chirico wanted to anchor his art in reality and thus make it eternally true. His empty urban landscapes and soulless puppets seem to be freed from time and change and thus became eerily prophetic.



It may seem that Fascist architecture copied Chirico's art, like the beautiful, but ghostly EUR, a futuristic Roman suburb, which began to be built in the 1930s. It has constituted a backdrop to films by masters like Fellini, and especially Antonioni in whose L’Eclisse, Eclipse, alienated individuals move around in EUR, unable to find purpose or meaning in their lives.



In EUR we find a modern architecture, which incorporate classic elements; columns, arches and sculptures, similar to some of Chirico’s drawings of Bagni Misteriosi where an antique sculpture suddenly may appear among the bath-houses.



EUR’s vast piazzas and colonnades breath alienation, cold emptiness. No wonder that visual masters like Fellini and Antonioni appreciated the desolate aesthetics of this sterile grandeur.


It is not only in the EUR that Rome seems to reflect Chirico’s art, also Foro Italia, Mussolini's huge sports facility with its “heroic” marble statues and austere, but at the same time whimsical, almost kitschy buildings, also appears to borrow certain aspects from Chirico’s paintings.



Even the colouring and built-in sculptures seem to have been inspired by Chirico’s art.



The cities built in the formely malaria infested swamps of Pontina, just of south of Rome, have an appearance as they had taken Chirico’s paintings as a model. One example of this is the austere and quite pleasing architecture of the coastal town of Sabaudia.



Of course, among this Fascist architecture there were also threatening shadows lurking, emitting a nasty nervousness, skilfully portrayed in the American artist Peter Blume’s The Eternal City from 1937:



Blume's works are more baroque than the almost empty and dark cityscapes of the early Chirico, although Blume’s world is also a dreamscape of sorts, distorted but nevertheless firmly rooted in a tangible reality. As with Blume, Chirico’s oeuvre also contains its threatening shadows.



Sometimes they come from the buildings, though as in his Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, they may also be cast by invisible figures, like the ever-present threat of the Italian twenties and thirties – the Fascist Squadristi; black-clad thugs loyal to the suppressive regime.


Throughout his life, Chirico was influenced by German art, mainly Max Klinger and Arnold Böcklin, and it may seem that he in his paintings could have been inspired by the arte noir of German expressionism. The interplay between light and sharp shadows, so noticeable in a masterpiece like Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. as well as in Fritz Lang's and F.W. Murnau’s films. Although it was probably the other way around – Chirico began to paint his menacing, empty piazzas eight years before Wiene made his Dr. Caligari


Chirico told his nephew, who also became an artist, though not by far as fascinating as his father and uncle:


Yes, yes, the shadows. Darker and darker, but there is always a possibility of a brightening. It was the Saturnian melancholy that pushed me into darkness, making me forget about the tangibility and meaning of matter. Only death can claim that I have lived, had a history and a place where I was born. When I look back, I think of myself as one of those “born under Saturn”, who in the melancholy and misfortunes of his life, after all, owned himself, his body and soul, one who was able to create images of such a life and gain a home within it.



Because he believed, somewhat erroneously, it would benefit his art and incomes, Chirico did in 1933 join the Italian Fascist Party. However, he was far from being a convinced and loyal party member, perhaps an impossibility for such a hypersensitive, defiant, trapped, hypochondriac, and possibly latent homosexual man.


The populist rhetoric of Fascism, its superficial slogans, intrusive presence of the masses, the culture of bullying and constant tributes to war and violent actions, got on the nerves of the hyper-sensitive Chirico. Most of his life he suffered from chronic, nervous stomach pains and during the first fifty years of his life he spent more time in Paris than in Rome. Although Mussolini privately appreciated Chirico's art, the artist despised the superficial vulgarity of the pompous dictator and the stifling totalitarianism prevailing in Fascist Italy, despite of some degree of artistic freedom.


The Parisian atmosphere also irritated him. Chirico came to resent the “moral and materialistic garbage dump” that Parisian art, according to him, had become and from 1936 to 1938 he lived in New York, but there he felt even more alienated. In the United States, de Chirico was an admired artist, selling his paintings at high prizes while receiving lucrative assignments from millionaires such as Helena Rubenstein and fancy magazines like Vogue and Harper's Magazine. Nevertheless, he lamented the absence of Europe's ancient history, its art and intellectual debate.


In the United States, a catastrophic development began, which his American art dealer characterized as a “propensity for self-destruction, encapsulated in an aura of grandezza.” Driven by greed, and possibly under the influence of his new life companion, Isabella Pakszwer, combined with his dominating mother’s death and the geographical distance to his brother. Giorgio began to play out different art dealers against each other and to satisfy the market he began to execute slightly retouched copies of his bestselling earlier work, which he signed as if they had been made several years before. At the same time his current mode of expression had taken what he called a “baroque and classical direction” and he did in his writings pour invectives over “modern art”.



Chirico returned to Rome, but left after less than a year when the Italian racial laws were introduced, “disgusted by the decrees concerning the defence of the race.” However, his Parisian existence worsened, particularly since he was under constant attacks from his former and more radicalised Surrealist friends. When France capitulated to the Germans, Chirico moved to Italy, lured back by his brother, who at that time had become an earnest supporter of the Fascist regime. After actively seeking Mussolini’s support Chirico settled in Milan. Among other things, he painted official portraits of the dictator’s daughter Edda and her husband, Galeazzo Ciano, who had been Italy's foreign minister since 1936, until he took part in the ousting of Mussolini from power. In 1943, Galeazzo was in Rome caught by his father-in-law’s hooligans and taken to Mussolini’s German puppet regime, Saló, in northern Italy, where he was executed in January 1944.


Like so much else in his life, Chirico’s attitude toward fascism was marked by ambiguity. He wrote to Il Duce and asked to become director of an art academy:


To liberate Italian art from the yoke Paris has burdened it with and to the art of paitning return the qualities that now have been lost. An academy that will make use of every available means – didactic, moral, technical and yes … both disciplinary and compulsory ones.


In other words – Chirico presented himself as a presumptive Duce of Italian art. However, the actual leader smelled an opportunistic rat in the letter, written as it was by an “unpatriotic intellectual” lurking in Paris and he did not put much faith in Chirico’s proposal. Mussolini did willingly admit that he did “not have much understanding of the subtilities of painting,” in that specific area he preferred to listen to professional art historians and those with Fascist leanings assured Il Duce that Chirico was far from being a trustworthy Fascist, as a matter fact his art was decadent and “spineless”. Accordingly, Chirico did not obtain much success through his shameless complicity with the totalitarian regime. He did not get the prizes and commissions he pursued, even if media occasionally paid homage to him he gained most his income from privately commissioned portrait painting.



Mussolini was through his spies well informed about Giorgio de Chirco – that both his ex- and current wives were Jewesses, that he was a great admirer of “Jewish culture” and that he among friends exposed an unveiled contempt for Italy’s Fascist regime. Nevertheless, it was first after 1945 that Chirico openly and emphatically attacked Fascism and all that it represented, maybe under the false assumption that he had not been compromised by his former open support to the regime, though he was far too well-known to avoid such an accusation.


In all his isolationism Chirico was a chameleon who adopted himself to the market forces and not the least his controlling second wife, the intelligent, apparently tender but actually rock hard Isabella Pakszwer. Chirico was nevertheless able to maintain his dual nature and in his art continued to indicate sublime and often convoluted hints at irony. It is is mainly through his eloquent writings that de Chirico was able to expose his inner life – a sarcastic distance to much of what was happening to and around him, all imbued with an aesthetic view on human existence. Often he did not even try to publish all that he wrote, but quite generously gave it away to friends and acquaintances.



In an article that he in 1928 wrote for French magazine he did, in his usual contradictory and poetical manner, lament the increasing chauvinism which had begin to engulf arts and politics:


What about all these sublime and ridiculous declarations about returning to the soil, about popular art, dissociation from all sorts of things, honesty, truth, simplicity, nature worship, a cult of beauty and health in art, victory over oneself? […] Twaddle and utopia. Fantasies by a hysterical monk dreaming about ideal, platonic republics where the clergy, venerated by the masses, regularly and hygienically every night copulate with women beautiful as statues. Mere utopias! All that will remain is a handful of ashes […] while the centenarian elephant passes by.


The vast amount of depictions of fighting gladiators that Chirico painted by the end of the thirties and beginning of the forties were maybe an ironic comment to contemporary Fascist, muscle-bulging, naked athletes that totalitarian and other forms of chauvinistic art paid tribute to. Chirico’s gladiators is generally fighting inside ordinary apartments and do undeniably look quite ludicrous, far from being any muscular giants.



Chirico’s dense compositions with struggling men seem to have been inspired by the picturesque and baroque etchings of the siblings Diana (1547-1612) and Adamo Scultori (1530-1585), whose artwork Chirico returned to time and time again. The Scultori siblings’ pictures emit a claustrophobia similar to the one you are confronted with while looking at Chirico’s depictions of amassed gladiators, though the muscular scultorimen are far from being as ridiculous as Chirico’s gladiators.



Girgio’s brother Andrea did also paint several pictures depicting fighting, naked men, who might just as well constitute ironic allusions to official, Fascist art. However, contrary to his brother’s scrawny gladiators Andrea’s wrestling musclemen have exceptionally small heads, entirely lacking facial expressions, they are totally blank.



The gladiator fighting of his paintings is reflected in the novel Giorgio de Chirico wrote at the same time – Hebdomeros contains dreamlike, overloaded scenes characterized by a surreal sense of alienation. Chirco’s hero Hebdomeros is a cynical outsider, who wounded by a complicated childhood observes and makes a fool of the people and phenomena he encounters, at the same time as fantasy and Mediterranean life are praised:


compact groups of philosophers and warriors, like polycehpalic blocks in soft luminous colour, held mysterious secret meetings in corners of low-ceilinged rooms, just where the ornamental mouldings joining the walls to the ceiling formed a right angle. “I don´t like the look of those faces,” burst one of Hebdomeros’ youngest disciples, to whom he replied: “Alright, I understand, or at least I can guess what you are thinking; you would have preferred the well-behaved phantoms of puritanical society restricted by its laws, that avoids speeches referring to microbes and surgical instruments and turns pales when tactless people use expressions like breast-feeding, or discuss midwives and methods of childbirth, you would have preferred the company of these phantoms on an enclosed veranda ...



What I find strange about the man and artist Giorgio Chirico is that such a strangely anonymous and distant person through his cool and often technically unimpressive art touches my inner feelings. That I can identify with the worlds his paintings present and in them recognize a variety of my own thoughts, sensations, impressions and memories. Chirico has been to places where I have been, interpreting what I have seen and experienced. He had obviously read several of the books I read and was interested in the same work of art. And yet he seems to be so different, so strange.



The origins of Joseph Maria Albertus Georgius de Chirico are also enigmatic. He was born in 1888 in the Thessalian city of Volos. His father, Evaristo de Chrico, was a baron and railway engineer who by the birth of his son was overseeing the construction of the Thessaly Railway and designed Volo’s train station, which would eventually become the administrative headquarters of the railway company.




Giorgio Chirico and his unusually close brother Andrea used to refer to the family’s roots in Sicily and Tuscany, but they may actually be traced back to a certain Cajetan de Kirikó who by the end of the sixteenth century was a Venetian military commander in Ragusa, today´s Dubrovnik. In 1715, Cajetan's son was appointed as Venice’s representative by the Sublime Porte, the central government of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul, where the Italian-speaking family remained. Giorgio Chirico's wealthy grandfather, also named Giorgio, became a key figure in several European powers’ contacts with the Turkish sultan. Georgio Kirikó was for a time the diplomatic representative of the Russian Tsar, the Emperor of Vienna, and the British and Sardinian kingdoms. The nobility of the family was granted from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the dilapidated burial chapel of the Kirikós probably still remains in the Christian cemetery of Fériköy in Istanbul.


Giorgio's father was educated as engineer in Turin, where he became a convinced Italian nationalist and great admirer of Garibaldi, although he never settled in Italy but devoted himself to designing railways for the Ottomans before entering in service of the Greek government. He settled with his family in Volos, until they in 1899 moved to Athens, where Evaristo died in 1905. After his death his strong-willed and overprotective wife took single care of her boys, Giorgio and Andrea and to benefit Andrea’s education moved with them to Munich. The precocious boy was a musical prodigy. The boys claimed that their mother was a baroness from Genoa, but in fact she came from an Italian merchant family that for centuries had been established in Smyrna (present-day Izmir in Turkey).


The mother registered Andrea as a student for Max Reger, who at the time was greatly admired. He was called “the modern Bach”, a skilled pianist, conductor and composer, who although ugly and severely alcoholic became a revered teacher for a number of well-known students.



I associate Reger with fugues and preludes that the cantor Bengt Cimbrelius executed on the organ in Hässleholm’s church. At that time, I thought they were pretty boring and somewhat comprehensive, as I now find the piano pieces I have on CD. It was in Reger’s home that the young Giorgio first became acquainted with Arnold Böcklin’s art, which after that never ceased to fascinate him. Six years after the Chirico family had left Munich, Reger wrote Four Poems for Orchestra after A. Böcklin, which actually is skilfully orchestrated music and especially the first piece The Violin-Playing Hermit is quietly meditative. The famous opera composer Pietro Mascagni had in Munich listened to the only fifteen-years-old Andrea de Chirico presenting the score for his opera Carmela and immediately took the young composer under the shadow of his wings. The Chirico family first settled in Milan, and then moved to Florence.




The dominant Gemma overshadowed the lives of the two brothers. Until her death she alternately lived with one of them. They called her The Centaur, well aware that there are no female centaurs. The nickname was certainly in tune with her wildly powerful and stubborn nature. I do not know if her temperament could be related to Giorgio’s earliest works of art, which often depicted battles and death, not least with centaurs involved. Clearly, he was inspired by Böcklin, but the overshadowing mother certainly loomed in his imaginary world.



His brother Andrea also often portrayed their mother in his art, as here where he combined a photograph of the mother as newly-wed and placed in front of a map, probably an allusion to the small family´s meandering life. A Greek sculpture suggests Andrea’s Greek childhood and his great interest in classical art and literature. In the foreground, a crocodile-like monster glances at the mother, perhaps symbolising of Andrea’s rebellious, but still repressed, relationship with Gemma de Chirico.



The monster is apparently reminiscent of the horrifying, ancient monsters in Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth and do thus reflect images that Andrea since his early childhood had cut out, was inspired by and often used in his later, montage-like art, in which he often combined animal - and human bodies.'



Like in so much else, Giorgio shared his brother's interest in fantastic literature and illustrations they found in old, often forgotten books. In his art, and especially in his writings, Giorgio alludes to a childhood marked by strangeness and dreams, shared with his soulmate Andrea. Throughout their lives, the brothers were very close to each other and by their acquaintances they were called The Dioscuri, an allusion to the mythical twins Castor and Pollux, one of whom was mortal and the other immortal. Out of love for his brother, Pollux asked the gods to die at the same time as Castor. To an even greater degree than Giorgio, Andrea does in his art reflect a childhood filled with toys, monsters and ruins.



Time and time again, Andrea’s and Giorgio’s art surprise while I come across images that seemingly reflect my own childhood. For example, Andrea often painted brightly coloured building blocks against mysterious backdrops, taken from illustrations in books that were so abundant in my grandfather’s library. I realize that the Chirico brothers in good memory had the childlike experience of toys hiding a huge, imaginary world; fantasies that unfortunately happened to be counteracted by a much more dreary “reality”:


To live in the world as if in an immense museum of strangeness, full of curious many-coloured toys which change their appearance, which, like little children, we sometimes break to find out how they were made and look inside, only to disappointed realize that they are empty.



During their time together in Munich, the brothers read Schopenhauer, Weininger and especially Nietzsche, a reading that forever came to influence their art and thinking. As soon as they were together they exchanged thoughts and could until late in night engage in lively discussions. When the brothers in 1922 lived together in Rome, Giorgio painted a Roman Landscape and I assume that the two men talking on a terrace shaded by two villas, crowned with classic sculptures, may be Giorgio and Andrea involved in esoteric conversations, symbolized by the antique deity floating in the sky, while Gemma watches over them, seated by an open window.



Gemma was a constant presence in the brothers' lives, insistently committed to their art and company, especially the female one. Although the brothers occasionally tried to free themselves from Gemma’s yarn, they were deeply attached to her. In his surrealistically coloured storytelling, Giorgio described the relationship he had with his mother:


it’s not for nothing that he’s the son of a mermaid: one peculiarity with the sons of mermaids is that they never run the risk of falling in love with a woman, for they are always in love with their mothers.



While living with his mother and brother in Florence, Chirico went through a severe crisis and became seriously ill with his chronic, regularly recurring stomach ailments. When he recovered, he sat “on a clear autumn day” on a bench in Piazza Santa Croce aimlessly looking at its statue of Dante. Suddenly he was seized by a life-changing experience – everything around him appeared in an explained light. As if by a magic trick, life was transformed into something strange, though still exceptionally alive. Later, he did on several occasions describe the experience:


The autumn sun, warm and unloving, hit the statue and the church facade. Then I had a strange impression that I was looking at all these things for the first time, and the composition of my picture came to my mind eye. Now each time I look at this painting I once again see that moment. Nevertheless, to me the incident remains an enigma, it is inexplicable. This is the reason to why I to call the work which sprang from it an enigma.


He writes about An Autumn Afternoon Enigma, a work that became a talisman for everything Chirico came to create:



In the following months, Chirico painted several images in the same spirit. He read Homer's Odyssey and remembered a painting by Böcklin in which Odysseus on Calypso's island turns away from the beautiful nymph and thoughtfully looks out over the sea, gripped by a longing for new adventures, or perhaps he was thinking of Penelope’s warm embrace back home on Ithaca.


For a time, Chirico became obsessed with attempts to shape a new kind of painting:


… during a trip I made to Rome in October, after having read works by Friedrich Nietzsche, I became aware that there is a host of strange, unknown, solitary things which might be translated into painting. I meditated for a long time. Then I began to have my first revelations. I drew less, I even somewhat forgot to draw, but every time I did so, it was under the drive of necessity.


The result of these endeavours was The Enigma of the Oracle. A brown-clad figure stands in an opening and looks out over a Mediterranean landscape. The person, we do not know if it is a man or a woman, has after being presented with an oracle answer become engulfed by brooding. The sybil is probably sitting behind a curtain, above which lining the head of a Greek sculpture can seen – probably Apollo, the deity of oracle answers. The place is located high up, maybe on a mountainside. Oracles generally do not give simple answers, rather they evoke thoughts that might lead to solutions, or to despair. They are riddles.



While looking at the painting Chirico brought me back in time, more specifically to a visit to the Temple of Jupiter above the port city of Terracina. In general, antique oracles were associated with the cult of Apollo. However, in the temple of Terracina the sibyl served Jupiter and like the more famous oracle of Cumae further south, her cell was located below the temple area.



The abode of the sybil in Terracina may still be visited, you reach it through an archway under the temple plateau. If you turn your back to the sybil’s cell, where she in a state of sacred intoxication made her predictions, you can, like the dark-clad figure in the The Enigma of the Oracle, look out over a landscape stretching down to the Mediterranean.



Like so much else of his artwork, Giorgio shared experiences with his brother Andrea, who before Giorgio created had made a drawing of the enigma of an oracle. Simultaneously, while pondering on the “enigma of life”, Giorgio and his brother were becoming increasingly immersed in the writings of Nietzsche and Weininger.



Andrea coined the term “half-dead” by which he meant how art “functions in its fullest sense.” In his case this was mainly manifested in music, which he considered to be the most obvious manifestation of the what he assumed to be the “dual character” of Nietzsche’s Superman. True art was according to Andrea de Chirico born out of clairvoyance, by which he meant a mental state in which individuals enter an enigmatic, “oracle-like” sphere, located somewhere between wakefulness and sleep. A musician senses and interprets the hidden meaning, the “language” concealed in everything that surrounds us.


I emerge from each musical crisis as from a dreamless sleep. Because music both astonishes and stupefies.


Andrea combined his thoughts about the “half-death” with the Nietzschean idea of ​​time as an “eternal return” and “imperishable present”. For Andrea de Chirico, music was “sacred”, in the meaning of secluded, hidden and unknown. A reality situated between a past that has been long gone and a future that has not yet taken place. Art is found within a sphere akin to death, in a room from which doors can be opened in any direction.


The brothers tried to unite their insights in a jointly composed piece of music through which they intended to reflect on Nietzsche's Eternal Return. However, when their effort to interpret philosophy through music premiered in Munich in January 1911it resulted in a complete disaster. Giorgio gave up music entirely and painted a self-portrait he called: “What I love is a mystery”, while his brother went to Paris, which avant-garde circles he assumed would be more appreciative of his music and grasp his philosophical speculations.



Several years ago, by Viale Aventino, not far from where we then lived in Rome, there was a record store. Its unusually corpulent proprietor generally sat comfortably reclined on, or rather in, a large, leather sofa, leisurely smoking a cigar, while its scent mingled with the sound of music from one of rhe shelves that filled a room which walls were covered with CDs and LPs, many of them hard to find records of classical music and jazz. When the doorbell rang and I entered the room, he always greeted me with the words: “Hello again! Are you looking for something special today, or do you want me to recommend something I guess might interest you?” Since I recently had bought two CDs, one with Satie´s piano music and another one with Schönberg’s Six Songs for Soprano and Orchestra, he rose, with some difficulty, from the sofa, went to one of the CD-covered shelves. Picking out one of the discs: “Here, this might may possibly interest you. Certainly not a masterpiece, but a quite unique piece of music. Alberto Savinio ... are you familiar with that name?” I nodded and said I knew he was an artist and brother of Giorgio de Chirico. The shopkeeper, whose name I have forgotten, took the cigar out of his mouth, ashing it: “See, I was right again. This CD will interest you. Now you can also appreciate Savinio as a composer.” When I bought the CD, he said goodbye with his usual prase: Bona ascolta! Good listening.



"Appreciating" was an exaggeration. To me, Savinio’s Les Chants de la mi-mort, The Songs of My Half-Death, made a quite messy, albeit slightly charming impression – a kind of overly modernist Erik Satie. Certainly dynamic and skilfully executed music, spiced with a great deal of playful irony, yet annoying due to its extreme mixture of various styles, sudden emotional fluctuations and strange lyrics. A theatrical music that seemed to call for a stage performance accompanied by props and tableaux.


Contrary to expectations, Les Chants de la mi-mort’ s Parisian premiere, sometime during the spring of 1914, was a success. It was staged in one of the absolute hotspots of modernism – in the office of Apollinaire’s “literary and artistic review” Les Soirés de Paris. A reviewer wrote:


The audience was initially confused, but it was not long before they discovered the composer’s intentions. The simplicity of his dramatic music has now found its true proponents. Too much knowledge is harmful and unfortunately even modern music has now become its slave. The friends of classicism, on the other hand, were somewhat disappointed. To such an extent that, for a few moments, they were shocked, but soon they realized the profound originality and great inventiveness of the works that A. Savinio executed on the piano with perfect mastery.



It was the influential and energetic Guillame Apollinaire who became Andrea’s greatest supporter within the Parisian avant-garde. Appolinaire, whose full name was Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki (1880-1918), had been born in Rome to a Belarusian noblewoman. The grandfather had been a successful Russian general, while Apollinaire's father was registered as “unknown”, since he did not want to acknowledge Apollinaire as his son. He has however been identified as an Italian nobleman.


The PR-minded, brilliantly witty and innovative Apollinaire had in a short time become the absolute storm centre for the artistic circles concentrated around Montparnasse. It was he who invented art concepts like Cubism, Orphism and not the Surrealism, a term which he first applied in 1917 in the prospect to Les Mamelles de Tirésias, The Breasts of Tiresas, which he had written already in 1903 but which not until the outbreak World War I was performed as an Opéra bouffe with music by Germaine Albert-Pirotest:


I have thought that one must return to nature itself, but without imitating it like photographers do. When man wanted to imitate walking, he created the wheel, which does not resemble a leg. By doing so, he created surrealism without knowing it.



Apollinaire came to regard the Chirico brothers as genuine Surrealists. For Apollinaire, there were no boundaries between poetry, philosophy, art and music and this was one of the reasons for his great appreciation of the multi-tasker Andrea Chirico, who under the influence of Apollinaire took the name Alberto Savinio. It was said that he did so to separate himself and his work from his increasingly famous brother, though another, more valid reason might be that Andrea Chirico throughout his life struggled with his identity. He considered himself to be a “liminal creature” and was in his art constantly preoccupied with hybrid creatures such as hermaphrodites and human figures with animalistic, or monstrous features. The unknown constantly broke into his existence and occasionally he was even terrified by his own art, especially music.



Before Andrea Chirico stuck to the name Alberto Savinio (actually the name of a contemporary Parisian publisher, Alberte Savine) he had used a number of other pseudonyms; Aniceto, Nivasio Dolcemare, Mr. Dido, Mr. Münster, Innocenzo Paleari, Animo, Carmelo, etc. etc. In a way, Andrea experimented with himself and assumed various roles, not the least total anonymity, “a man without qualities”, a faceless showroom dummy, or rather such a mannequin that seamstresses used in his time.



A figure that also became common in his brother Giorgio's paintings, but if Giorgio Chirico’s soulless figures had large heads, Savinio’s had small ones.



Even in Savinio’s “operetta” Les Chants de la mi-mort, the characters make their appearances as puppets, with denominations such as Bald Man, Yellow Man, Crazy King, Bird Man, and a peculiar individual, who perhaps is an allusion to Gemma de Chirico – A Mother of Stone, shrunken like a puppet”, there was also “a man without a voice, without eyes, without a face.” The two brothers’ fascination with puppets gradually grew, and as so often had been the case, Giorgio Chirico was inspired by Nietzsche:


To be really immortal a work of art must go completely beyond the limits of the human: good sense and logic will be missing from it. In this way we ill come close to the dream state, and also to the mentality of children.

I remember that often after having read Nietzsche’s immortal work "Thus Spake Zarathustra" I derived from various passages of this book an impression I had already had as a child when I read an Italian children’s book called “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” Strange similarity which reveals the profundity of the work. Here there is no naïvité: the work posses a strangeness similar to the strangeness that the sensation of a child sometimes has, but at the same time one feels that he who created it did so consciously.



By the end of 1911, Gemma and Giorgio followed Andrea to Paris and on their way there they spent a few weeks in Turin. A visit that became crucial for the sensitive Giorgio. The city where his father had studied engineering, the cradle of Italian unification and the place where Nietzsche, six months after Giorgio's birth, went insane. Already before his arrival in Turin Chirico had assumed that there was a mysterious connection between him and Turin, something he was able to confirm as soon as he in the fall of 1911 began wandering around in the town. Giorgio was seized by what he in German characterised as the city’s Stimmung, mood. How it preserved a sense of powerful exclusion that could be conveyed by Nietzsche's work. Giorgio sat for hours looking at the equestrian statue in Piazza San Carlo, the place where Nietzsche in January 1889 had collapsed and filled with compassion knelt by a fallen horse, embracing it and afterwards violently attacking those bystanders who wanted to take him from the place so he could receive medical care. After de Chirico’s short visit horses, Turin's sculptures and deserted squares regularly appeared in his paintings.



Sometime in 1912, Giorgio de Chirico returned from Paris to Turin to complete his two years of compulsory military service. He realized that his art would suffer a setback, but wanted to sacrifice himself for “his” Italy. However, the patriotic feelings of duty to his “Fatherland” quickly subsided. Admittedly, the de Chirico brothers were deeply attached to Italy and despite their fragmented international background they considered themselves to be Italian patriots. However, their longing for a homeland was apparently based on a dream of belonging. Italy was for them a source of inspiration and joy, but this did not include the fulfilment of any civic duties. After fourteen days of military life, Giorgio had had enough. By the end of World War I, he described war and militarism as “useless nonsense” and not at all the “deadly necessity” as his friends, especially those who had been indulged in Futurism, described it before they themselves had been struck down by its bloody and chaotic madness, several leading artists were killed in action and others suffered mental breakdowns. With a sigh of relief Chirico wrote:


Now all that is hopefully over […] Politics will teach us that hysteria and idiocy can now be condemned in general elections. I think everyone has by now become oversaturated by imbecilities, whether they have been political, literary or figurative.


Chirico discreetly departed from the barracks and took the train back to Paris. In his absence, he was sentenced to prison for desertion.


During my time in Paris, alone without my family, I found how easy it was to turn into a full-fledged flâneur, someone who engulfed by his own thoughts wanders up and down the streets; watching, pondering. This was for sure something Chirico engaged in and obsessed as he was by images he was probably, like several of his artist friends in the Montparnasse coterie, inspired by Eugène Atget's (1857-1925) photographs. A passionate flâneur who devoted his life to documenting life in and around Parisian streets and alleys. In Chirico’s paintings from the same period, impressions from Paris and Turin seem to be mixed up together while they become metaphysical townscapes.



Like the Chirico brothers, Aget was fascinated by the mannequins he saw in Paris’s shop windows.



An Atget photograph that seems to have gotten stuck in Giorgio’s mind was a picture of a sculpture of Ariadne in Versailles’s gardens. In Chirico’s paintings, this sculpture of the awakening Ariadne appears again and again.



As with Wagner, Chirico had his specific leitmotifs which constantly make their appearance, often after almost completely been dominating his art for longer or shorter periods – there are hundreds of versions of gladiators, mysterious baths, mannequins, horses by the beach, furniture in landscapes, suns attached to easels and self-portraits in different costumes.


The Ariadne motif can possibly be linked to Chirico’s Nietzsche fascination. After the Cretan princess, who through her ball of yarn and enchanted sword had made Theseus kill the Minotaur and escape from Knossos’s labyrinth, followed him on his ship on the way to Athens, though he abandoned her when she had asleep on the island of Naxos, home of the god Dionysus. The god awakened Ariadne, married her and eventually turned her into an immortal goddess. It would not surprise me if Chirico identified with Ariadne. His imagination and creativity had been brought to life by Nietzsche, who had hailed Dionysus as a deity of intoxication and glorification of both nature and intuition, while paying homage to an unbound existence, cross-bordering, and an impassioned art — in other words, what Chirico characterized as Metaphysics. The Greek-speaking Chirico was well acquainted with Aristotle, who had coined the term ta meta ta physika, “the work after physics,” as if he had imagined Metaphysics as a book which in an imaginary library had been catalogued just after his own work Phusike acroasis, Lectures on Nature – being a follow-up and further development of his physical examinations and accordingly superior to them. Metaphysics seeks knowledge of the inner meaning and function of Nature, just what Chirico intended to do through his art.



Giorgio settled with Gemma between Boulevard Raspail and Boulevard Montparnasse, in an apartment between Apollinaire’s editorial office and residence. The poet and public relations genius was impressed by the artistically gifted brothers, who like him counted upon an exotic, complicated, cosmopolitan and aristocratic past. He characterised Alberto Savinio as “a poet, musician, painter and playwright who through all this is reminiscent of the multifaceted geniuses of the Tuscan Renaissance.” Apollinaire also praised Savinio’s twenty-four-years-old brother Giorgio’s art as a tangible manifestation of a “metaphysical reality” and put him in touch with the equally enthusiastic art dealer Paul Guillaume.


Apollinaire did not perceive Giorgio Chirico's art as painting per se but as a “creation of dreams”. Through his almost endless rows of colonnades and facades, his expansive straight lines, fields of unmixed colours and almost funeral-like contrasts between darkness and light, Chirico had, according to the admiring Apollinaire, managed to express the sublime feelings of greatness, loneliness and immobility created during the stasis that create “states of memory” just before we fall asleep.



Like dreams, Chirico’s metaphysical paintings found their origin in what he had seen and experienced, albeit altered, distorted. Sometimes he lets himself be inspired by works of art. Since it is mainly the structure of his paintings, or single details, he makes use of, it is generally difficult to discern his models. For example, his Italian Piazza from 1938 might be compared to Giovanni Migliara’s depiction of St. Ambrose’s Basilica in Milan, painted in 1822. I do not know if they have any connection, though the perspective is the same and Chirico may have transformed the shadowed part into a pool and it is not impossible that he had seen Migliara’s painting during his recurrent visits to Das Neue Pinakohtek in Munich and then “modernized” it.



Giorgio Chirico seemed to have found a like-minded artist in the eight years older Apollinaire, a man who, like him, had “fallen ill from having been immersed in the hot bath of universal melancholy.” In 1914, Chirico painted a peculiar “metaphysical” portrait of Apollinaire, filled with associations evoked by the poet. In the image of his friend and mentor Chirico transformed what could have been traditional “mundane” depiction of a person into something beyond everyday existence, and to his own surprise Chirico had by trusting his “intuition” created a portrait that proved to be prophetic.


As his starting point, Giorgio took a collage that his brother Andrea had made and in which he had pasted a silhouette of Apollinaire. Giorgio enlarged this silhouette and draw a circle at the temple of of the poet, turning the shadow figure into a practising target; symbol of the critique the poet had to endure for being at the forefront of Parisian avant-garde.


That the “real” Guillame Apollinaire just became black silhouette is due to the fact that Chirico intended to produce a “philosophically aesthetic” image of the poet, whose name means “blessed by Apollo”. The result became a “metaphysical” portrait depicting “the singer's inner self and meaning.” In the foreground, Apollinaire is represented by a bust of Orpheus, Apollo’s son. Orpheus was a companion to the Argonauts, heroic adventurers of antiquity, among whom were the twins Castor and Pollux. These two brothers were under the protection of Orpheus, the divinely gifted poet who during his journey across the oceans through his song made fish lift their heads above the water surface to listen to his enchanting singing, two of whom by the gods were transformed into accompanying musicians.



The bust of Orpheus is in darkness and he wears black glasses, a hint that Apollinaire, like the ancient Homer and Tiresias, is a soothsayer. These poets were prophets and poets who, despite their blindness, was able look into the depths of their own souls. “The seer/poet who cannot discern the present, but is capable of reading the past and the future.” The black darkness surrounding Orpheus is furthermore reminiscent of his journey into the depths of Hades where his song softened the hard and dark heart of the Ruler of Netherworld, who allowed the fabulous singer to bring back with him his muse and beloved, Eurydice. If this is the case, the black glasses may indicate that Orpheus, during his journey from the Underworld, was forbidden to look at his beloved.


The shell behind Orpheus alludes to medieval seekers and pilgrims, who wore shells on their mantles as signs of penitence, it may also allude to Orpheus’s lyre, which after his being torn to pieces by Dionysus’s Menades carried the poet’s severed and continuously singing head to the island of Lesbos.


The fish is reminiscent of Orpheus’s adventures together with the Dioscuri, but also of Apollinaire's collection of poems Le Bestiaire: Cortège d'Orphée, which he wrote in 1913. It does for example contain a poem about the carp:



In your pools, in your ponds,

Carp, how you live for aeons!

Does death forget you,

Fish of melancholy?


But also a short but multi-faceted poem about fish and Jesus:


Que ton coeur soit l’appât et le ciel, la piscine !

Car, pêcheur, quel poisson d’eau douce ou bien marine

Egale-t-il, et par la forme et la saveur,

Ce beau poisson divin qu’est JESUS, Mon sauveur?


That your heart is the bait and heaven the pond!

Since, fisherman, what fresh or seawater catch

equals him, both in form or saveur [flavour],

that lovely divine fish which is JESUS, My Saviour?


Through his word pun Apollinaire alludes to the ancient Christian symbol ICTHYS, Greek for fish, which stood for Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. The poem was both by Apollinaire and his acolytes interpreted as a hint of the affirmation of life that the new art entailed, or as Apollinaire put it – “Orpheus’s empire begins.”



On a more mundane level, Apollinaire associated his name with water and fish. The most popular mineral water of the day was Appolinaris, named after a spring that in 1852 had sprung up in Georg Kreuzberg's vineyard in Bad Neunahre, Germany. The bottled water was named after the Syrian saint Apollinaris, who lived during the first century after the birth of Christ and whose tomb was believed to be in Ravenna. Appolinaris was the patron saint of water and wine and was also worshipped as a helper in venereal diseases. The connections are unclear, but may be due to the fact that Saint Apollinaris during his martyrdom had boiling water poured into his open wounds.



Chirico’s portrait turned out to be truly prophetic. With the motivation that “a poet must take risks,” Apollinaire did during World War I enlist for “voluntary front service” and was on March 17, 1916 in his left temple seriously wounded by shrapnel. He suffered from fainting spells and partial paralysis of the left side of his body, but his condition improved when doctors, to relieve the pressure, drilled a hole in the skull two months after the injury. The hole was drilled in exactly the same spot that Chirico two years earlier had marked as a target. Appolinaire survived his head injury, but died two years later in the Spanish flu.



The same year he created his portrait of Apollinaire, Giorgio de Chirico had painted the Poet’s dream, depicting the same Orphic bust as in his Apollinaire portrait and here it was also accompanied by a fish and carried black glasses, but now Chirico had painted the bust in profile. It is the first painting in which he incorporated one of the mannequins that in the following years would become increasingly common in his art.



On May 23, 1915, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary and offered amnesty to former “deserters” if they volunteered as soldiers. In France, the mass slaughter in the trenches was in full swing and the threat from the Entente was imminent in Italy as well. The Chirico brothers decided to accept the amnesty and enlisted in the Italian army. However, they were deemed to be “incapable of withstanding the strains of war” sent to serve at Villa del Seminario in Ferrara, this was a mental institution that during the war became a gathering place for intellectuals and artists, some were inmates, while others served as staff, among the latter was Giorgio Chirico who served with a corporal’s rank.


The time in Ferrara proved to be quite inspiring for the Chirico brothers. The medieval city with its proud traditions and art treasures provided new impressions and so did its social life. Not least the twenty-year-old Count Lugi Tibertelli, who called himself Filippo de Pisis. An eccentric and precocious young man who had already published himself as a poet and was in contact with the Dadaists in Zürich and Futurists in Rome. de Pisis collected insects and had turned his quarters within his parents’ dilapidated castle into Wunderkammern:


rooms with a strong hue of midnight, filled with spirits mixed with bric a brac; broken dolls, dried flowers, insects, old books, multicoloured balls, spinning wheels and paintings stimulating mysterious and aesthetic sensations, spiritism, hypnotism, and the fluency of thoughts.


The Chirico brothers soon joined the intellectual coterie which met in de Pisis’s strange rooms. A few years later, de Pisis described their nocturnal conversations:


Seized by a kind of sacred, poetic rage, they immersed themselves in the invisible, in what could be defined as a chaos of the unconscious, where there are only fragments, dashed lines, sensitively sharp images that are nevertheless unreal. Naughtiness caught the bird of the cuckoo clock, which began to shout the mysterious name Chirico: “Cìrico, cìrico… cìrico, cìrico ...”


Together, Giorgio and de Pisis walked through Ferrara and the young connoisseur introduced his older friend to what he in a later book came to call “the city of a hundred wonders.” de Pisis was proud of his acquaintance with the already famous artist.



What did it matter, some poor devil might have said, if the corporal walking by his side was an educated man and I a seminarian dressed in bourgeois fashion. […] I administered material ideas to my friend, he offered me images and sensations, he was looking for a painting never seen before, I spread a new prose.


In Ferrara, Chirico further developed his mannequins, transforming them into fantastic creatures, composed of a variety of geometric figures of coloured plank pieces combined with rulers, quadrants and disassembled seamstress dummies.


Or he placed his fashion doll heads on ancient sculptures, or archaic mother goddesses, such as those he in a painting placed on a square in front of Ferrara’s Sforza Fortress and factory chimneys naming it The Disturbing Muses.



On his return to Italy, Giorgio de Chirico sought to unite his fragmented personality and find a firm foothold in life. An endeavour illustrated by his Return of the Prodigal Son in which a complex, but soulless fashion doll, embraces a father who appears to be a compact stone sculpture. Perhaps an image of the cosmopolitan Giorgio seeking an embrace from a frozen Italy, which has becoma a monument of itself.

Through Chirico’s influence de Pisis developed into an increasingly skilled artist, and in tbhe following years, when his style took on a completely different character from de Chirico’s strict and complex, contour-sharp imagery, it nevrtheless repeated several motifs that had been introduced by Chirico. For example, his still life with Sacred Fish, which Chirico had painted as a tribute to Apollinaire:



or Chirico’s constantly repeated Ariadne sculpture:


Chirico was fascinated and irritated by the overly entusiastic Filippo de Pisis; ottuso e sensible, ardente ed oscuro, “thick-headed and sensitive, burning and dark.” When de Pisis praised both Chirico and his art in an article in La Gazzetta Farrarese, Chirico complained in a letter to the at the time internationally known essayist and journalist Giovanni Papini, characterizing de Pisis’s article as un vrai cochonnerie, genuine rubbish. The French word cochonnerie can also mean “swinery” and it is possible that Chirico, who like his brother was unsure about his sexual orientation, wanted to free himself from hints about his relationship with the openly homosexual de Pisis who had declared: Io amo i bei giovani, gli efebi fiorenti e splendidi. Io ami la volupta e la frenesia. “I love the beautiful youngsters, the flourishing and magnificent ephebs. I love opulence and frenzy!”


In April 1917, Carlo Carrá was taken in for “observation” at the Villa del Seminario, which now exclusively cared for soldiers who had been mentally injured by their war experiences. In 1909, Carrá and a group of like-minded people had in Milan founded Futurism and he had like his companions praised movement, increased dynamism and even to some extent violence and tumult. One of the first triumphs of Futurism was Carrá’s painting The Anarchist Galli’s Funeral, which in 1911 both admired and criticised had been exhibited in Paris, London and Berlin.


Angelo Galli had in 1904 been killed during a major strike in Milan. Authorities fearing a demonstration during the funeral had refused the funeral procession entrance to the cemetery and a violent riot broke out. Carrá, who was present, described the incident in his autobiography:


I saw in front of me how the coffin, covered with red carnations, swayed precariously on the shoulders of the pallet bearers. I saw how the horses became nervpus while blows were dealt with sticks and lances. It seemed to me that at any moment the corpse could fall to the ground and be trampled down by the horses ...


Like several of his Futurist comrades, Carrá had enthusiastically joined the war volunteers, but had soon after that suffered a severe nervous breakdown and ended up among the war-wounded in Villa del Seminario, where during his four months of acquaintance with the artist circle around Giorgio de Chirico completely changed his style and under the influence of their speculations about the “inner nature of things” like them began to depict mannequins, toys, maps and measuring instruments.



By the end of the war, Alberto Savinio was called in as an interpreter on the “Macedonian front”, and after returning to Italy he established himself as a theatre director in Rome. Already after his success in Paris in 1914, Savinio had left music composing behind and now devoted himself exclusively to writing, theatre and painting. Oddly enough, Savinio had become afraid of his own musical talent. He regarded music as an overwhelming, unknown force capable of destroying its practitioners:


The only suitable definition for music is the Impossible to Know – the unknowability of music is its driving force, the secret of its fascination. […] The time will come when this Strange Thing will revenge itself. The time will come when this Strange Thing will shatter its bonds and rediscover its wild freedom. We light our houses each evening with electricity, but one evening my friend Lorenzo Viano switched on his bedroom lamp and fell to the ground: it was electricity’s revenge. Thousands and thousands of people “play” with music, watering it down [...] one Day music will appear like a long spindly shadow beside the young conductor, it will seize him by the throat and hurl him from the podium. It is the Strange Thing´s revenge.



Nevertheless, after a break of twenty years Alberto Savinio returned to music when he in 1925 composed a ballet that was premiered in Rome.


By the end of 1918, Girogio and his mother Gemma had united with Alberto Savinio in Rome and after undergoing one of his regularly recurring nervous crises, Giorgio’s art took a new turn. Influenced by Böcklin and Poussin, he began painting in what he denominated as a “classical style” and created, among other things, several suggestive scenes, which in a dreamlike, “literary” manner depicted the presence of ancient history in the Italian landscape.

This style did not not at all impress most of Chirico’s friends within the avant-garde and when he followed his brother back to Paris in 1925, he returned to painting his mannequins, which were now joined by ancient ruins instead of geometric structures. Chirico was probably influenced by his new love, the Russian ballerina Raissa Guerivich Kroll, who had left the world of theatre and ballet to train as an archaeologist and she later became engaged in the excavations of the ancient port city of Ostia, outside Rome. Savinio's son, Ruggero, has described her:


They met during the rehearsals of a ballet my father had written the music for ... Niobe’s Death. Raissa danced the leading part and my uncle fell in love with her. For a time she became his model and they soon married. For five years they mostly lived in Paris. […] She belonged to the small group of women who in the early 20th century had behaved with extreme freedom, both intellectually and in their way of dressing […] I remember her as a very witty lady who even in her old age had not lost nothing of her seductive charm. At lunch, a conversation ended, I do not remember how, with a mentioning of Kerensky, who before Lenin had taken power headed the Provisional Government of Russia. And I then asked Raissa, who had talked about him as if she had seen him the day before… but, is he not dead? She replied: “Not at all. He lives in New York and we often talk to each other. I had a small but intense love affair with him.” She was a remarkable  woman.


During his time in Paris, Chirico, in addition to his archaeologists, began painting a variety of furniture within landscapes. A result of his recurrent walks through the French capital, where he apparently moved in the same neighbourhood where I often ended up during my own time in Paris:


I was walking around Saint-Germain between Rue du Dragon and Rue du Vieux-Colombier.

On the side-walk in front of a used furniture shop, I saw sofas, chairs, wardrobes, tables, and a coat rack displayed right there on the street. By finding themselves so removed from the sacred place in which man has always sought repose, the place that each of us spent our earliest childhood – they suddenly appeared solemn, tragic, even mysterious.


That furniture preserve entire lives has often struck me and not the least my youngest daughter who gets very upset if we throw away, or even move, old furniture in our home in Bjärnum.


Like Magritte, who wrote that his first confrontation with Chirico's art had been a life-changing shock, Chirico often alluded to the inherent life of rooms and furniture, and he does furthermore, just like Magritte, repeatedly allow the outer landscape to penetrate enclosed apartments, and vice versa.

In the late twenties, with its economic depression and political unrest, Chirico once again suffered a profound crisis, which he tried to free himself from by writing his strange novel Hebdomeros. In connection with this, he met the Czech lady Isabella Pakszwer, who worked at a fashion house in Paris. He fell deeply in love and she “devoured him with flesh and hair.” For the rest of his life, Chirico lived in her shadow. His wife at the time, Raissa, never got over the shock she experinced when Chirico left her for Isabella. In an interview she gave in 1976, she died the following year, she aired her bitterness:


It was a shot to the head,” she stated with a smile, while holding her beloved, beige dog in her lap. “She seduced a genius. A life of humiliation and difficulties must have created a remarkable repertoire of sexual audacity in that beautiful Polish woman. After quarrelling with a dozen critics who had defined him, artistically speaking, as a living corpse, de Chirico found in Isa Far a perfect instrument for his revenge. My husband at the time explained to the lady in question that he had made many mistakes in his life and she stated she was ready to save him. However, he soon came to consider her as a maniac and then came the first suspicions, the disagreements. The relationship crashed in the mid-60s when Isa became madly jealous of another woman whom de Chirico had fallen in love with."


Raissa was not alone in disliking the brittle but beautiful Isabella, whom one of Chirco’s biographers described as a woman who was neither interested in men, nor in Chirico as a man, but as someone whose notoriety she could make lots of money from. What Isabella offered Chirico was a “facade of solid bourgeoisie” behind which he could hide his apparent nervousness and low self-esteem. Isabella managed to assume the authoritarian role of Gemma and thus pull up Chirico’s “wounded attachment to his mother with its roots.” Giorgio’s beloved brother felt that due to Isabella’s domineering influence he was losing his grip on his brother and wrote in an article about the vast amount of self-portraits in historical costumes that Girogio had started to produce on a regular basis.


In recent years, Giorgio de Chirico depicts himself in various disguises. What psychological change are these disguises a sign of?


Friends and acquaintances described how Isabella ignored, or openly abused a servile and far too submissive Chirico:


Last night, after dinner, I went over to meet with de Chirico; the Master sat in an armchair while flipping through a copy of Hebdomeros, a novel which he on his own had translated and published in Italian: “My book is beautiful and sometimes I read it as if it had been written by another person.” However, his wife interrupted him, "Your Hebdomeroses! I'm sick and tired of having them in the closets. I have no space. For fifteen years you have filled my closets with your Hebdomeroses, if you don’t get rid of them immediately, I will myself throw them away tomorrow!”


During his crisis by the end of the twenties, Chirico had in Hebdomeros influenced by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra created his own literary ego. Hebdomeros is a man who after a tragic childhood indulges himself in a boundless nostalgia for the past. His greatest dream is to sail far away, crossing distant horizons and beyond them find islands “with temples built by the foot of hospitable mountains” making the world “both close and unknown.” Hebdomeros is like Zarathustra also a teacher who wants to teach his disciples the difficult game of turning time inside and out, and among the simplest objects find how such an endeavour is possible.


During his time with Isabella Pakszwer, Chirico created another alter ego – Mr. Dudron. As an anxious man, afraid of emotions, illnesses, and disasters, he seeks out closed rooms where he can close the window curtains, shut out reality, and step into his inner imaginations. The amount of manuscripts for an unfinished novel about Mr. Dudron eventually became a complicated, introspective self-portrait based on memories, thoughts, anecdotes and short stories. They were written in different phases of the thirties and forties, most episodes were by Chirico given away to friends he had read them to, others simply disappeared.


After 1945, Isabella Far appears as a new character in the stories about Mr. Dudron, it became a pseudonym for Isabella Pakszwer, whom Chirico married in 1946 after fifteen years of shared existence. In Mr. Dudron, Isabella Far comes forth as an intelligent teacher and inspiring muse who, at Mr. Dudron’s request provides him with speeches about the decadence of modern painting. When Isabella Pakszwer wrote about art, something she did during the forties, she used the pseudonym Isabella Far.


Alberto Savinio's death in 1952 was a hard blow to Chirico, who since then always wore a black tie when he went outdoors, declaring that he did so in remembrance of his beloved brother. For Chirico the sixties became a tragicomic farce. Every day he painted diligently in his studio, as well as he could spend hours sitting in front of a TV with its sound turned off. At the same time, he and his wife showcased a number of newly made paintings that were copies of the most commercially valuable time of his artistry, i.e. the period up to 1920. Chirico also willingly signed various forgeries made by other artists.


The situation was further complicated by Chirico’ s increasingly bitter attacks on former friends and allies – especially André Breton and his surrealist companions who regarded Chirco as a traitor after he had embarked on his “classic period”. Chirico wrote increasingly frantic attacks on every form of “modern art"” As a counter-strategy, some surrealists tried to drown the market with fake “Chiricos”. Particularly successful in this endeavour was the versatile, Spanish artist Óscar Dominguez. One of his forgeries was during several years exhibited at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris as genuine artwork by Giorgio de Chirico.


Finally, it became almost impossible to orient oneself in the tangle of true, false and falsely signed and dated works. A madness skilfully and almost playfully manipulated by Chirico himself, while his wife did nothing to dispel the mists, in fact, many accused her of the misery, while Chirico became an increasingly popular, though distant, figure in the media. When he was seen in public, he generally adopted an ironically distant tone. It could seem as if he has shouldered the clown role that his good friend from his first Parisian soujorn, Ardengo Soffici, had described:


The clown is a personification of freedom, a discoverer of innovations, a kind of demon who, on his own accord, creates a world which eventually becomes a substitute for the one we live in, a world made of wonders.


Evil tongues claimed that Chirco’s attitude was the result of “a senile instinct of self-defence.” That he covered up a slowly advancing dementia by communicating with the help of jokes and paradoxes. He lined up for an occasional interview and had RAI do a more then one hour long programme about him painting one of his multiple Suns on the Easel while he short and abruptly answered the interviewer's questions, without telling or revealing anything about himself and his feelings. Nevertheless, while watching the spectacle I did not get the impression that it was a senile old man who was interviewed, rather someone who was hiding himself behind a rather bland facade.


Isabella controlled him. The only relief Chirico found was to work at his easel every day, devote himself to his sculptures and then walk down around the corner to Café Greco where he could be sitting alone by himself for several hours, with an aperitif in front of him. Every day he created something, it could be Christian motifs in murky colours:


slightly altered variations of his earlier metaphysical works:


or naive, crudely drawn versions of how the sun’s radiant power is brought down to the earth by cables, where it was transformed into a dead, spider-like shadow,


became extinguished in the sky,


or provided warmth inside the body or in a fireplace.


Chirico was apparently inspired by alchemical speculations, perhaps most of all by the fantastic illustrations in Salomon Trismosin’s Splendor Solis from 1582.


He also supervised bronze castings of his increasingly numerous sculptures.


Giorgio Chirico was active until the last day of his life. Late in life, he became fascinated by Michelangelo’s art:


At his death, he left on the easel the beginning of a copy of Michelangelo's Tondo Dono.


None of this gives me an impression of the dementia that so many have claimed he suffered from, not the least Isabella Pakszwer, who in 1966 had her husband declared incompetent to take care of himself due to “limited sense and will” and she arranged so she became the sole trustee of de Chirico's large fortune, meaning that she controlled her husband’s art production. Admittedly, this may have been a ploy to avoid legal problems that had arisen through complaints and notifications based on forged authenticity certificates, the sale of copies as originals, and a host of other art trade scams. It is clear, however, that the wife’s action was mainly caused by the discovery and publication of no less than five hundred letters sent by Chirico to the young wife of a high-ranking politician, to whom the famous artist harboured a platonic love.


All this did not prevent Chirco from in the autumn of his age being sincerely praised by a multitude of artists. For example, he was honoured in two large paintings by his compatriot Renato Guttoso, in which he depicted Giorgio at his afternoon aperitif at Café Greco. Chirico sits alsone at a table watching the crowd around him.


In the largest painting, the aged master is talking to a younger edition of himself, dressed in an ancient Greek himation. On a plate on the table in front of them, Chirico and his double have some of the biscuits that appear on several of his Ferrarese paintings.


Chirico seems to be glancing at Orpheus, who is sitting at a table further into the room; marble white and with black glasses.


Another modern master who was captivated by Chirico’s art was Andy Warhol, like Chirico an outsider in the midst of the world, an enigmatic hermit and innovator with a voyeur’s cool gaze. The two artists met in Washington in 1974 at the home of the Italian ambassador, where these two primadonnas, sacred and extremely odd monsters of the contemporary art scene, immediately warmed to each another and posed together for a strange photograph. The protagonists’ poses – Chirico, with a glass in his hand, looks like a demon, while Warhol pretends to be terrified, may seem to be taken from an old horror movie.


In addition to their outsider-ship, they both had much in common, not the least an extreme mother dependence. Since 1951, Warhol lived mostly with his mother Julia, who, like Chirico’s mother earlyon had become a widow. Like Gemma, Julia was artistically gifted and often made drawings with cats and religious motifs.


After his death in 1978, Chirico’s later artwork which generally had been despised by connoisseurs began to be vividly appreciated by younger, leading artists such as Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Eric Fischl and Julian Schnabel. When Warhol in 1982 visited the New York Modern Museum of Arts’ retrospective Chirico exhibition, he was captivated and returned several times. In addition to the art itself, the scandal-fascinated Warhol was attracted by Chirico´s numerous “fakes” of his own works of art. When Warhol, after acquiring the exhibition catalogue, found a spread sheet with Chirico’s eighteen, almost identical, versions of his masterpiece The Worrying Muses, Warhol recognized his own series of Coca Cola - and Campbell jars. In an interview, he expressed his admiration:


Aren’t they great? How did he repeat the same images? Did he project the same image on canvas? Maybe he did it by dividing the canvas in sections … he could not have used a silkscreen!

Before the end of the year, Warhol had produced twenty-three series paintings based on six metaphysical paintings by Chirico.


Back to Chirico’s Mysterious Baths. His metaphysical way of thinking was that there is a life of its own behind every object. Of course, this also applied to his paintings. The reason I started writing about Chirico’s baths was that I, together with my youngest daughter, who is an archaeologist and now writes about the role of water in ancient Egyptian religion and the crucial importance of the Nile, about how its water was poured over sacrificial tables to nourish the dead and how it was stored in ponds for ritual purification, and as a source of fertility.



As I took a closer look at pictures of Egyptian representations of water, I discovered the same zigzag pattern that water is endowed with in Chirico’s bathing water. Surely there is a connection. Chirico was an avid reader of art books, but he claimed that the pattern did not emerge through his contemplation of ancient Egyptian art, but that it came from a memory that indicates Chirico’s “childish” manner of looking at the world, i.e. contemplating everything as part of an underlying adventure, an opportunity.



When I was a child, I often played that carpets were islands and the floor was the sea between them. I sat on a rug like Robinson Crusoe on his island, or jumped between them like Deerfoot jumping from tuft to tuft in a swamp. Chirico got similar associations when during a cocktail party he came to look at the well-polished parquet floor and then saw how the ladies’ high-heeled shoes were reflected in it. As so often before, he became fascinated by “the thing in itself” and forgot his surroundings, sank into the sight of the reflective parquet and the idea of the Mysterious Baths was born.



Five years before his death, Chirico was invited to an art exhibition in Milan and was then asked to make a fountain by the entrance to the palace where the event took place. He created the fountain as a Mysterious Bath, with a changing hut on stilts, a multicoloured beach ball, a toy swan and naked bathers.


Next to the pool, Chirico placed a large, multicoloured fish. When Chirico was asked why the fish was on land, he replied: “It’s me. I’ve always been an outsider. A spectator.”


Apollinaire, Guillaume (2017) Le Bestiaire: Cortège d'Orphée. Paris: Prairial. Baldacci, Paolo (2018) ”De Chirico”, Art e Dossier, No. 354. Carrá, Carlo (2011) La mia vita. Milano: Abscondita. Chirico, Giorgio de (1964 ) Memoirs. London: Da Capo Press. Chirico, Giorgio de (1992) Hebdomeros, with Monsieur Dudron´s Adventure and Other Metaphysical Writings. Cambridge: Exact Change. Chirico, Giorgio de and Isabella Far (2002) Comedia dell´arte moderna. Milano: Abscondita. Dell'Arco, Maurizio Fagiolo (ed.) (1982) De Chirico: Essays. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. Jona, Alberto (1991) ”Savinio and the Impossible to Know,” insert in Alberto Savinio: Le Chants de la mi-mort, Album 1914. Milano: Stradivarius. Garbesi, Marina (1990) ”Isa, Musa e Manager”, La Repubblica, 21 Novembre. Gnoli, Antonio (2014) ”Ruggero Savinio: Io,’figlio di’ e ’nipote di’ ho ereditato le loro osssesioni”, La Repubblica31 Agosto. Lista, Giovanni (2009) Giorgio De Chirico suivi de L’ Art métaphysique. Paris: Éditions Hazan. Mori. Gioia (2006) De Chirico. Milano: Il Giornale. Mori, Gioia (2007) ”De Chirico Metafisco”, Art e Dossier, No. 230. Oliva, Achille Bonito (ed.) (2010) La natura secondo de Chirico. Milano: Federico Motta Editore. Salvagini, Sileno (2006) ”De Pisis”, Art e Dossier, No. 219. Vivarelli, Pia (2003) ”Savinio”, Art e Dossier, No. 185.


RAI, Un opera d'arte: Il sole sul cavaletto (1973)




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