The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914) by de Chirico
Interpretation of Italianate Symbolist Urban Landscape
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The Mystery and Melancholy
of a Street
By Giorgio de Chirico.
Regarded as one of the
greatest 20th century paintings.

The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914)

Contents

Description
De Chirico's Approach to the Classical Tradition
Analysis of Mystery and Melancholy of a Street
Other Modern Neoclassical Paintings Explained

Description

Name: The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914)
Artist: Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Modernist urban landscape
Movement: Metaphysical painting
Location: Private Collection

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).


ART EVALUATION
For analysis of paintings
by Metaphysical painters
like de Chirico, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

De Chirico's Approach to the Classical Tradition

One of the most innovative contributors to modern art of the 20th century, Giorgio de Chirico was an early champion of the Classical Revival, and also expanded and transformed previous definitions of neoclassicism in radically new ways. However, the value of his work of the 1920s and beyond has been recognised only recently. Taking their cue from the hostility of Andre Breton and other Surrealist artists, critics and art historians have tended to praise de Chirico's early metaphysical paintings but dismiss his works after 1918 as uninspired and repetitious. With hindsight, however, there seems to be no decline in quality in de Chirico's paintings after the 1910s; and the continuing inventiveness of his work in the 1920s and, in particular, his contribution to the concept of classicism in twentieth-century art, are now clear.

The fact that de Chirico was born and spent most of his youth in Greece was crucial to his love of Greek architecture and Greek Sculpture, and to his identification with the classical tradition. His family was Italian, but his father worked as a railway engineer, first in Thessaly and then in Athens. De Chirico was born in Volos and was later to see parallels between his own peripatetic life and the story of Jason and the Argonauts who in ancient times were supposed to have set sail from this coastal town in search of the Golden Fleece. He and his brother, who adopted the pseudonym Alberto Savinio, saw each other as Argonauts, and they developed in their paintings an iconography of departures and voyages as metaphors for heroic and tragic adventure. Like many of his generation and background, de Chirico had a strongly classical education, and he is known to have visited many of the sites of Ancient Greece. However, his interest in the classical world was far from archeological: he was concerned more with the psychological and philosophical implications of the intertwining of fragments of the past in the present.

De Chirico received a full training in academic art, first in Athens and then in Munich; and he later insisted that this was a sure basis for achievement in the field. In his Memoirs he recalled that at the Athens Polytechnic, there were four years of drawing in black and white, and studying sculpture, before working directly from living models. In the first year we copied figures from prints; in the second, sculpture, but only heads and torsos; in the third and fourth year, sculpture again, but this time the whole body, or groups of figures. Thus, by the time the strident had reached the fifth year (during which he drew heads from real life and did chiaroscuro work), he had a fairly good general knowledge and could draw a hand and a foot "without their assuming the ridiculous aspect of a couple of forks or house-keys, as is the case in drawings of our modernistic 'geniuses'".

While many of his contemporaries looked to Cezanne and later to Picasso for inspiration, de Chirico was firmly convinced of the decadence of French painting since Impressionism, and turned instead to 19th century German art and literature for inspiration. While studying at the Munich Academy de Chirico gained first-hand knowledge of the paintings of Max Klinger and the Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin, and through his voracious reading of such writers as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, as well as Winckelmann, he absorbed the German romantic vision of the classical world. De Chirico had probably first come into contact with this view of the classical world in Florence before he moved to Munich: both Klinger and Bocklin had had close links with the Tuscan capital, and the writer Giovanni Papini had already celebrated the work of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and written of a metaphysical conception of reality in his influential Florentine review Leonardo. But during de Chirico's years in Munich and subsequent stays in Florence and Turin these ideas took root in his mind, and the romantic themes of tragedy, enigma and melancholy were to provide the basis for the creation of what he called metaphysical painting.

De Chirico decided to join his younger brother in Paris and arrived in the French capital in July 1911. He seems to have been unaffected by the exciting developments in contemporary French painting; and, drawing on the ideas he had developed in the preceding years, and perhaps, too, on his sense of uprootedness and nostalgia for Italy, he began to paint scenes of Italian piazzas, with unreal, raking perspectives, mysterious classical statues and inexplicable combinations of objects. He abandoned his early Bocklin-esque style for an inexpressive or flat manner which emphasised clarity at the expense of the sensuous or material aspects of reality. One French critic likened his canvases to scenery painting; but the Italian artist Ardengo Soffici came nearer the mark when he described them as 'dream writings' (Lacerba, July 1914). Among his best early works are The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913, Tate Collection, London), The Song of Love (1914, Museum of Modern Art New York) and The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street.

De Chirico exhibited in the Paris Salons, and came to know most of the leading French artistic and literary figures, including the poet Apollinaire (1880-1918) who gave him considerable support. However, he had yet to achieve much success when, following the outbreak of war, he and his brother returned to Italy in 1915 to enlist.

 

 

De Chirico was stationed for most of the war years in Ferrara, where, away from the front line, he was able to continue painting and maintain his contacts with the Parisian avant-garde. This period witnessed his intense visionary treatment of his subject matter of mannequins, military maps, anatomical charts and alchemical symbols placed in claustrophobic settings. It was also a time when his contacts with painters such as De Pisis and Carlo Carra led to the foundation of what was to be known as the 'Scuola Metafisica'. After the war, de Chirico moved to Rome, and began to publish articles about his vision of metaphysical painting and his new preoccupation with tradition and technique in Valori Plastici and other reviews. He started frequenting the Borghese Gallery, and began a dialogue with the work of the Old Masters which was to dominate his painting of the early 1920s. He made copies of masterpieces, seeing these not simply as studies or experiments but as proof of his skills as an artist; and he called on other artists to follow in his footsteps. He became especially interested in Italian and French painting of the 19th century and his paintings of the mid-20s reflected this in their new naturalism and echoes of the antique.

In Italy, de Chirico's critical and commercial success was relatively slight in these years; but in France the reputation at least of his metaphysical paintings was high. In 1922 Paul Guillaume held a show of these works for which Andre Breton wrote an appreciative preface. Max Ernst - who had known of de Chirico's work for some time, largely through reproductions in the magazine Valori Plastici - included de Chirico in a painting entitled The Meeting of Friends, 1922, a roll-call of the members and heroes of the nascent Surrealism movement. And in 1923, Paul Eluard and his wife Gala visited de Chirico in Rome in order to buy some works (they were taken aback, however, when he offered to paint the same scenes of his earlier Parisian period again, only better, and sell them more cheaply).

When de Chirico moved to Paris in 1925 he had every reason to be optimistic about his prospects. He quickly held a solo show at the highly prestigious Galerie de l'Effort, owned by Leonce Rosenberg. However, he soon found his new pictures mocked by his former admirers, the Surrealists. For all their advocacy of the magic in his early works, and the inclusion of some of his metaphysical paintings in the first exhibition of Surrealist art in 1925, Breton and his followers were unable to accept de Chirico's seemingly pastiche repetition of the themes of his earlier paintings, or his vaunting of the 'conservative' values of craftsmanship and respect for the museums.

He did receive support from other quarters. Roger Vitrac, for example, a former Surrealist, published a monograph on de Chirico in 1927, in which he said that, like Picasso, de Chirico was beyond criticism. In the same year Waldemar George wrote in his preface to the catalogue of an exhibition at Galerie Jeanne Bucher: "two facts dominate the art of the 20th century: Picasso and de Chirico." And whatever they thought of his paintings, even the Surrealists had to admire his dreamlike tale Hebdomeros, published in 1929; Louis Aragon described it as "interminably beautiful".

NOTE: Picasso also had a high regard for the classical tradition: see, for example, Neoclassical Paintings by Picasso (c.1906-30).

During this second stay in Paris, de Chirico dealt again with some of the themes of his earlier metaphysical work; but he also began to explore new fantastic classical motifs, such as furniture in landscapes, Dionysiac horses on sea-shores, and gladiators seemingly frozen in lassitude. He worked on sets for Diaghilev's Le Bal for the Ballets Russes, and illustrated Apollinaire's Calligrammes in 1929. He also decorated a room in Leonce Rosenberg's house with scenes of gladiators inspired by the mosaic art of Ancient Rome.

If de Chirico's work of the late 1920s and 30s failed to replicate the ground-breaking impact of his pre-1920 metaphysical painting, it does not diminish his unique contribution to the revival of interest in the art of classical antiquity, and to the development of new forms and juxtapositions of classical art. The key to de Chirico's painting is his love of Greek art and its Roman derivations, which was greatly stimulated by his admiration of German Romanticism, and it was this that helped him to devise new ways of looking at the Classics, and at the classical themes of tragedy, mystery, and melancholy. Above all, in de Chirico's eyes, the principles and themes of the Greek and Roman Classics retained their importance even in the modern world. Furthermore, some of the most powerful features of his pre-1920 paintings derived from the dissonance produced by juxtaposing antique forms with those of the twentieth century.

Analysis of Mystery and Melancholy of a Street by Giorgio de Chirico

The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street is one of de Chirico's most baffling metaphysical pictures, which, as usual, presents us with an unsettling and impossible universe. In the painting, two buildings designed in the style of Renaissance architecture enclose a deserted public space, creating an edgy atmosphere of entrapment. Two figures intrude into the late afternoon light: a girl (lower-left) with a hoop, and the shadow of a large human (almost certainly a statue) (upper-right). The girl is seemingly being drawn towards the unseen adult figure. Meantime, in the darkened foreground we see what appears to be a horse-box on wheels, whose open doors and dark interior add to the overall feeling of latent menace.

In a further subversion of reality, De Chirico employs two contradictory vanishing points: thus all the lines of the illuminated arcade on the left meet just above the horizon, in complete contrast to those of the darkened building on the right, that meet just above the roof of the horse-box (which, incidentally is illuminated by an incomprehensible light source).

In some ways the composition resembles a largely empty stage, upon which some drama is about to unfold. The street is full of possibility and melancholy.

The objects in the picture have no obvious meaning, but they are always included for a purpose - often because they represent one of the artist's childhood memories. What's more, de Chirico believed that certain geometrical shapes (arch, circle, and so on) projected certain emotions, such as nostalgia and anticipation. For example, he thought that the arc projected a sense of uncertainty and expectation. As noted above, the Surrealists admired the dreamlike quality of de Chirico's metaphysical imagery, seeing it as an early form of their 'automatic painting'. However, none of de Chirico's works can really be described as examples of subconscious painting or automatism in art, for the simple reason that their 'dreamlike character' is based on precise and lucid planning.

Like the vast majority of his paintings, The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street remains a mystery. There is certainly no obvious reason for the inclusion of objects like: the running girl, her hoop, the shadow of the statue, the horse-box, the red flag in the distance, or either of the two buildings. And yet we know that de Chirico composed his pictures with precise intent.

De Chirico loved Greek architecture and sculpture, but he didn't include classical motifs merely to celebrate the antique. They were included as symbols of beauty - as aesthetic references, to compare with modern objects and motifs.

Other Modernist Neoclassical Paintings Explained

Two Nudes (1906) by Picasso
Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Three Women (1921) by Leger
MOMA, New York.

Large Bather (1921) by Picasso
Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris.

Nudes against a Red Background (1923) by Leger
Kunstmuseum, Basel.

 

• For the meaning of other Metaphysical paintings, see: Homepage.


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