IN CHIRICO'S COMPANY: Time is nothing
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.
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:
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:
Before the end of the year, Warhol had produced twenty-three series paintings based on six metaphysical paintings by Chirico.