The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913) by Giorgio de Chirico
Interpretation of Symbolist Urban Landscape with Still Life

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The Uncertainty of the Poet
By Giorgio de Chirico.
Regarded as one of the
greatest 20th century paintings.

The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913)


Analysis of The Uncertainty of the Poet
Other Neoclassical Paintings Explained


Name: The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913)
Artist: Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Urban landscape with still life
Movement: Metaphysical painting
Location: Tate Collection, London

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

For analysis of works by
modern artists like
Giorgio de Chirico, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.


Giorgio de Chirico was a classically trained Italian painter, sculptor and art theorist, who is probably best-known for his invention (in about 1913) of "Metaphysical painting" - a style also practised by the Futurist Carlo Carra (1881-1966) and the still life specialist Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), until about 1920. In exactly what sense the group's paintings might be considered 'metaphysical' was never spelt out, but the idiom is characterized by the use of classical architectural and sculptural imagery, and a sense of eerieness and unreality. In addition - influenced by his studies in Munich and by the work of Max Klinger (1857-1920) and Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901) - de Chirico was extremely fond of Symbolism, and incorporated a wide range of symbolic objects into his compositions, often with autobiographical meanings. A highly influential figure in modern art of the 1920s, de Chirico's early paintings had a strong impact on the development of Surrealism during the late 1920s (notably on the quiet classical pictures of Salvador Dali (1904-89) and Rene Magritte (1898-1967), although his later work was weak.



Analysis of The Uncertainty of the Poet by Giorgio de Chirico

The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913), Song of Love (1914) and The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914), are among the great paintings of de Chirico's early 'metaphysical' period. His theoretical and lyrical writings of these years show that he had rejected what he called the 'sensationism' of naturalism, and wanted instead to display in his work an enigmatic, immutable vision of reality, as glimpsed in moments of intense surprise or revelation. His paintings, he said, should bear the same relationship to reality as the images we have of people in dreams to their real selves.

The purpose of the many allusions to the classical world in de Chirico's paintings of the period was not to illustrate aspects of the past but to act as tokens or symbols of the imagination and memory. He began painting scenes of Italian piazzas suffused in warm Mediterranean sunshine only after his arrival in Paris in 1911, and thus, in a sense, this whole series of works was based on fantasy rather than direct experience. It was characteristic of his ambiguous approach to the classical world that the torso in The Uncertainty of the Poet was probably a modern plaster cast based on an original piece of Greek or Roman sculpture. The sense of the torso being several times removed from the original is heightened by the anti-naturalist manner in which it is painted: the black outline and areas of crude hatching deliberately recall the style of academic figure drawing and engraving. In fact de Chirico often took his images of classical statues from illustrations in manuals and textbooks, and in so doing emphasized the unreality of his images. In this way his paintings suggested that the past was irretrievably lost and could only be replaced by copies and pastiches.

With its starkly receding perspective, deep shadows and the regular pattern of the arcade, this painting is dominated by line and geometric shapes. De Chirico believed that great art was based not on copying nature but, as he wrote at the time, on "dimensions, lines, and forms of eternity and the infinite"; and these, he claimed, were present above all in Greek and Roman architecture. What he valued in classical colonnades and piazzas was not so much their order and rationality as their strange lyrical beauty. He wrote in manuscripts of the period:

"There is nothing like the enigma of the Arcade - which the Romans invented. A street, an arch: the sun looks different when it bathes a Roman wall in light. And there is something about it more mysteriously plaintive than in French architecture, and less ferocious too. The Roman Arcade is a fatality. Its voice speaks in riddles filled with a strangely Roman poetry, of shadows on old walls and a curious music. (Il Meccanismo del Pensiero, Turin, 1985)

During his studies in Munich, de Chirico had admired Otto Weininger's writings on the philosophy of geometrical shapes; and in an article in Valori Plastici of 1919 he quoted Weininger's view that the arc, unlike the circle, is incomplete and fosters a sense of uncertainty and expectation. As this suggests, de Chirico's obsession with line and geometry in his compositions in this period was not mathematical: the raking perspectives and receding arcades were for him the pictorial equivalents of a projection of the consciousness or such emotional states as anticipation and nostalgia.

The irrational side to de Chirico's vision of classicism pervades almost all his work, even in this early metaphysical period. He filled his paintings with unexplained, semi-autobiographical references. The distant train in The Uncertainty of the Poet, for example, recalls his father's profession as a railway engineer; and, in fact, a railway track enclosed by a high wall ran through the centre of the Greek town Volos where de Chirico spent his childhood. The mast of the ship in the distance can be seen as a covert reference to the Argonauts, whom legend associated with Volos and who were the subject of a private mythology shared by him and his brother. Such hidden personal connotations reinforce the atmosphere of mystery in de Chirico's images, which defy precise interpretation. The significance of the tropical fruits in this painting, for example, is not clear; but in a lyrical text of this period he described what he termed the 'voluptuousness' and 'happiness' of bananas, and it is possible that they serve here as symbols of the sensual pleasures of life, complementing the lifeless cast (a torso of Aphrodite) and the intellectual legacy of the classical world it symbolised.

The ambiguous quality of de Chirico's metaphysical paintings, with their easily-legible, often mundane images belying a sophisticated and intellectual meaning, was to have enormous impact on modern art movements, in Italy, France and elsewhere. Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), an influential commentator on Parisian avant-garde art, shared de Chirico's interest in the multi-valent and poetic meanings of ordinary things, and became one of his main supporters; and, following his lead, the Surrealists took de Chirico's work of these years as a model for the dream imagery which they sought to cultivate. (See also: Automatism in art.) Indeed, the poet Paul Eluard bought The Uncertainty of the Poet in 1922 and sold it in 1938 to the British Surrealist artist Roland Penrose.

Other Neoclassical Paintings Explained

Neoclassical Figure Paintings by Picasso (1906-30).

The Mechanic (1920) by Leger
National Gallery of Canada.

Seated Woman (Picasso) (1920)
Musee Picasso, Paris.

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

Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922) by Picasso
Musee Picasso, Paris.

Two Sisters (1935) by Leger
Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin.


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

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