Thursday, 29 January 2015

Giorgio de Chirico's Alternative Authenticities

^de Chirico's Sony

I realized that there are very many strange, unknown, solitary things which can be translated in painting (…). To imagine everything as enigma (…) the enigma of things that usually are considered insignificant. To feel the mystery of some phenomena of sentiments, of characters of a people, to imagine also the creator geniuses like very odd objects that we can turn over by any side. To live in the world as in a huge strangeness museum, full of odd multi-coloured toys, which change aspect, which we, sometimes, like children, break to see how they are made inside. And, disappointed, we realize they are empty.

Giorgio de Chirico, about 1912

At the entrance to the parlour of Giorgio de Chirico’s flat next to the Spanish Steps in Rome there is to your right a niche containing a 1970s Sony television. Around the television fall two heavy velvet curtains in a deep burgundy, parting gently from ceiling to Sony to reveal a cascade of heavily pleated white fabric, like an Elizabethan ruff for the piece of Japanese technology. To your left is an early twentieth century rococo revival chair on which the artist would sit, for at least two hours a day watching fabric-ensconced programming with the sound turned off, gathering inspiration, pure sensorial colourist delight, and letting his mind wander gently from Italian game shows to nature documentaries, to the making of his first paintings, to memories of his brilliant but lost younger brother, to the strength of his young shoulders moving through cold waters, to the memory of carrying luggage alone across a burning-hot square, and quietly back again to his parlour, and his wife, and his chair, and television.

The pulsating brightness, and nervous energies of consumer advertising and primetime entertainment were a liquid shower of art, a reinvigorating massage of creative virtuosity to which he could quietly surrender each evening, better than a sunset, more beautiful than the stars.

The walls are cluttered with works reminiscent of, or almost exactly recalling various old masters, all painted with the same vigorously contrasting colours and definitive, dark outlines. There is a self-portrait in the style of Peter Paul Rubens from which de Chirico, dressed in a purplish velour gown, looks down at you with theatrically affected disdain. Every evening he would admire paintings by Velazquez, and Constable, and Rubens, from coffee table books whilst sipping his evening whiskey, appreciating them in the same manner and at the same time as his wife would peruse her imported edition of Tatler. There would often be a page in one of the books he found himself returning to again and again over several evenings, and he would be compelled to paint it, to take it off the page, to bring it to life.

Sometimes images we have seen, scenes from movies we have watched, chapters from books we’ve read ingrain themselves so deeply in our consciousness that we can no longer distinguish them from actual memories of our lived lives. For whatever reason, because of the strength of the impression made at an impressionable moment, or because they say something about us that our own experiences never managed to say, they become part of us, they become our own memories. His repainted old masters were de Chirico’s acquired memories, dreams and ideas and images from the history of art which became his own.

^Enter the Chirico

Whereas soon after childhood most of us lose the ability to incorporate external images into our own sense of self, de Chirico actively cultivated his through the act of repainting, so that it only became more potent as time passed. His everyday domestic existence was interwoven with sublime clifftop temples, dancing naiads, papal mistresses, classical battles, bucolic pastures and tormented Sybils. The Rijksmuseum, the louvre, the Prado did not need to exist because their contents were in the end just reflections of recollections in his head, insubstantially distant copies of very real paintings he had on his walls.

The floor is herring-bone parquet, a motif repeated in several of the paintings on the wall with the same glossy sheen as the varnished wood below your feet but distorted, rippling, with the naked torsos of men submerged almost to their shoulders in its chevrons, reaching out in front of themselves as if swimming through the living room floor. A younger Giorgio was once attending a dinner event, and trailing the other guests as they moved from parlour to dining room when he caught their indistinct, watery reflections in the beautifully finished parquet. He followed their intermingling images as they slid across the floor, gracefully as a group of divers slipping under the calm classical sea towards the island of the dining table where they re-emerged, fully dressed, not a drip or drop or scrap of flesh in sight, ready for the meal and its attendant polite conversation.

Bourgeois interiors became insubstantial, translucent veils over limpid Aegean expanses, and their sets of furniture archipelagos, peopled not by decorous step-aunts and local notables but Circe and Polyphemus, Calypso and Aeolus.

Next to the easel in his studio there are some plastic fruit. Oranges, apples, and bananas. Diagonally across from the seat where he would paint are a set of shelves full of cheap porcelain figures, reproduction ceramic vases, plastic characters, tin toys and assorted souvenirs. Rome is very much present in much of de Chirico’s work produced during his long residency in the city, a time in which he became a well-known feature in the area, going about his daily life from café to bar to apartment, with exactingly repetitive punctuality. He was not the kind of artist who could be spotted, notebook in hand, or box of oils at his side, sketching meticulous studies of the city’s great monuments. He would meet acquaintances at café Greco, attend concerts, host afternoon tea, living a respectable, gentlemanly existence. He would paint while dressed in a suit, covering himself with an apron, incorporating all the wonders of the city around him, the glories of its past and of its mythologies into his oeuvre by painting the little knick-knacks with which he surrounded himself. The tiny papier-mâché Colosseum would become the huge arena on his canvas filled with battling gladiators, while the lumpily indistinct plastic figure with what looks like drapery would turn into any number of nymphs, Penelopes, and un-placeably eerie marble statues. The tin toy charioteer, still in its box with German labelling for northern visitors, became the dynamic, whipping Ben Hur of dreamlike landscapes, and a badly proportioned temple of sorts would turn into the teetering, stacked towers in the distance of so many bizarrely populated piazzas and streets.

It did not matter of what supposed quality the items he painted from life actually were. In fact the less inherent artistic value they held the better, any qualities they might have had would only have been a distraction. They were triggers, tools to set off the act of mental construction in which he would each time build his own versions of things, his own resonant and imprecise iteration of buildings, statues, stories and characters he had seen and read, and which would be reborn each time, reinvented and refreshed precisely through the imprecisions of his memory. Painting the real thing in any way would have erased exactly those qualities he was searching for, because he would have been painting an actual object, rather than the resonance that remained of it through time.

The reality of Rome existed all around him but it was the city that existed in his thoughts, the one that belonged entirely to him which he would spend his days visiting, eagerly as any wide-eyed tourist, and to which he would gain entry each day via his incongruous collection of kitsch collectibles.

^Eternal Returnimation

As de Chirico aged he began returning to imagery first explored as a young man in his metaphysical paintings. Impossibly uneasy perspectives, strange and impersonal architectures that could be anywhere but were precisely located in very specific, eerie nowheres, burnt with yellows and browns and chiselled in confused shadows. Scenes of loss, confusion and yearning embodied in an architecture of unanswerable questions. Nostalgia tends to be strongest in the young, during the period in which their indistinct memories and impressions of childhood are still suffused with an immediate potency, with a magical strangeness unmatched by the real world, with an overwhelmingly powerful attraction that cannot be anything but frustrated since the effect of those experiences can never again be replicated. At the same time as the past aching in the near distance, the future at such a point in one’s life is wholly uncertain, oppressive in its fearful emptiness since one has absolutely no idea what one’s path in life maybe, and where it may take you when, if ever, it is found. His metaphysical paintings perfectly evoke the mental state of a young man trapped in this existential paralysis between past and future.

As we grow older and gain some distance from youth, the imagery of adolescence loses its penumbra of yearning, and slowly becomes instead a reserve of restful, pleasant places in which the imagination can wander at will. In revisiting the spaces evoked in his works of angst and loss, de Chirico reconfigured their constitutive architectural elements as the urban space, the all-embracing context for the analogical world he had spent the intervening years building for himself. The perilously pitched colonnades and looming towers, distant walls and peering chimneys became host to all the richness and complexity embodied by the characters of his imaginary pantheon. Next to the Spanish steps, in his suit, watching television and admiring old masters in coffee table editions, he had reached a happy equilibrium. He had managed over the years to build a dazzlingly elaborate private universe, a joyful playground of memories collected from himself and the world around him, through which he could and would wander as through the most cosmopolitan of cities, the most majestic of archaeological sites, the most awesome of landscapes.

As we move through time we incorporate things around us into the very fabric of our being. Most of us do this not as a conscious activity, but are guided by what is generally accepted as good and right and worthy and fun and of significance. Others require that the whole process be under their authorship, for the criteria of who, and what enters the event horizon of their identity to be defined entirely by themselves and their own understanding of what might constitute substance, delight and value.

In its unequivocal, unarguable validity as the crucible of historic depth and artistic brilliance, Rome is the one city where those who wish to define their own understanding of authenticity and meaning, truth and quality, can come to be free of the norms through which those very things are usually so despotically defined. The city’s incalculable weight of tradition frees those in its midst from any responsibility towards contributing towards it, the pile is too great, it can take no more, it begs please no more weighty works, please no more heavy histories and authoritative judgements, please invent old things again like they are new, see things differently, help it lose some weight and dance again, imagine the city like Benjamin Button, getting younger and younger with every passing year, and the older it in fact is, the younger it will now be. 

And it works, because each time a de Chirico spends his lifetime reimagining Rome, he changes the city itself to the exact same degree that the city helped form him and his dreams in the first place. And so it is with every dreamer who lands on the shores of the Tiber, destined to be transformed by, and transform in turn this city of historical depth and imaginative emancipation.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

All Colours Lead to Rome

^When Niccolò met Gianni and Pierluigi, and Ugo, and Pietro.

“Pompeian red: you are taken to a roman villa where lying men dressed in white peplum are served by young Egyptian slaves elaborate dishes, animals stuffed with animals stuffed with other animals, from the big ones to the small ones, and there is marble on the floor, outside the Mediterranean is blue but the walls of the room are red. That is all you see in a fraction when you hear Pompeian red.
Nathalie Du Pasquier, Associations

Early Rome was a terracotta vase made from Red Ochre clay, like the Latin soil, like the walls of its buildings, like the background of its frescoes, with Yellow Ochre and Green Celadonite filling out squares and circles and any number of patterns, straight from the mud of the Lazian rivers and into the decorative schemes of ornamental objects, interiors, art. Figures were defined by black lines whose marks were made by the charred reductions of peripheral farmyard detritus, animal bones and discarded vegetation, not the accumulation of every other colour but the burning away of all life, a black nothingness for the depiction of anything. Egyptian blue glaze was like the eye of a northerner, or the sky at dusk, but boiled in a vat like a broth of minerals.

“Hours gave you gold for your flesh, excellent colours for the extremities of your limbs; (…) fortified your flesh with vermilion, so that you can live, so that you can live forever, so that you can grow younger, so that you can grow younger forever.“
The Egyptian Book of the Dead

Rome came from red, and to red it will return.

"a world of statues that was reminiscent not of a trip to the British Museum today but rather of a colourful, interactive, hands‐on visit to Madame Tussauds."
Professor Mark Bradley, Colour and Meaning in the Ancient World

Numidian Yellow marbles, yellow Pavonazzetto from Phrygia, green Cipollino from Greece, purple Porphyry, pink granite, black basalt, Alabastro from Carthage, creamy Travertine from Tivoli, red veined Cottanello from Sabina. The buildings of the Forums in Rome were dazzlingly decked-out in multi-coloured marbles from the farthest reaches of the empire, just as much as its cosmopolitan crowd were dressed in every exotic attire that might be worn in any of the myriad nations whose lands laboured under the wealthy warmth of the imperial sun.


Imperial colour was cosmopolitan.

“For colour is the material in , or rather of, painting, the irreducible component of representation that escapes the hegemony of language, the pure expressivity of a silent visibility that constitutes the image as such”
Jacqueline Lichtenstein, The Eloquence of Color: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Age, P.4.

Vermilion, Ultramarine, Azurite, and Verdigris mixed into the brightest of bright pinks, pale blues, opalescent greens, limpid purples and bulbous reds that spread across acres and acres and acres of walls, ceilings, and canvases in palaces, churches, apartments, villas and monasteries across the city. Popes saw themselves as emperors and St Sebastian became the focus of a gaze not quite in line with what might have been considered that of a pious Christian’s. Michelangelo terminated the Sistine chapel in an awesome cascade of writhing nude figures, pinned to the blue plaster surface of the wall like a squirming taxonomy of artistic ingenuity. Raphael built a villa for a Cardinal that was to have rivalled the palace of Nero in its devotion to the senses and saturation by chromatic display.

‘According to Hebrew tradition, man’s first name, Adam, stands for “red” and “living”.’
Manlio Brusatin, The History of Colours

An indolently naked Adam reached out to a purply-red man-God in a twisting bed of golden figures, and as their fingers touched the renaissance burst like a firework across the drab spectacle of medieval Europe.

“…savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colours; that animals are excited to rage by certain colours; that people of refinement avoid vivid colours in their dress and the objects that are about them, and seem inclined to banish them altogether from their presence.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours, trans. C. L. Eastlake, p. 55. (qtd. in Batchelor, David Chromophobia)

A whitewash descending over half of Europe. A darkness consisting of the brightest pigment. The renunciation of idolatry, the elevation of text, the installation of a suspicion that the power of pigment is too much for the unwitting worshipper whose autonomy is superseded by dumb awe. No more ceilings like the sky at night or the heavens in your most voluptuous dreams. No more saints in the grip of other-worldly ecstasy or rooms whose walls were gardens that between them contained green shoots from which grew carnal pleasures in abundance. The North paled.

Calvin and Luther conflated colour and Catholic corruption.

“In Egypt colors were considered to be signs indicating the “essence of things and not their appearance,” as witnessed by the Egyptian word for “Color,” which also meant “to be”. According to this thought colors had been separated from the divine body at the time of Creation and had been assigned to every population, to every animal, plant or mineral, to distinguish their peculiarities”
Lia Luzzato & Renata Pompas, Il Significato dei Colori nelle Civilta’ Antiche

Rome blushed, and carried on, only more so. A deep, rich, red, ornate proliferation of giant columns and stormy skies at sunset. The counter reformation saw a redoubling of the power of pigment and the exaltation of art. You no longer had to stand in front of a painting, they had grown so big that the whole building was now inside the depiction, the street outside, the entire city was a swirling vortex of putti, saints, martyrs, pediments, colonnades, chapels and staircases, rising up to a Catholic Trinity at the centre of which rested the golden poise of an all-consuming St Peter’s. A Roman riposte in marble and oil.


Gold gilding, ruby red granite, brilliant white plaster angels, haloed light through yellow windows, Lapis Lazuli , Latin chants echoing within the sonorous smell of cloudy incense, an other-worldly rising up through embodied power, pigmentation and prayer.

"As white is the colour which reflects the greatest number of rays of light, and consequently is the most easily perceived, a beautiful body will, accordingly, be the more beautiful the whiter it is."
Johann Joachim Winckelmann, The History of Ancient Art.

A whitewash of limpid young men in Carrara marble, Hellenic profiles standing one after another in the rustling gardens of aristocratic villas, inviting contemplation, implying a perfect and pure form of permanent youthfulness. Athletic affirmations of unattainable ideals, the bleached boys embodied an eroticism of elevated desires. Passions that were once hidden now openly minced down shady paths, loftily appreciating the pure white buttocks of ancient Apollos, Antinuous’, emperors, athletes, soldiers…

In the bedroom moving flesh tones and the undulating shadows of clean sheets, set against unadorned stucco work wrought with the classical rigidity of the most upstanding scholarship.

Winckelmann worshipped whiteness as a veil behind which he could hide all the shades of his prohibited pleasures.

^When Niccolò met Gianni and Pierluigi, and Ugo, and Pietro. Detail

“We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-coloured and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals”
F.T. Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto

The bourgeois march of a Rome bleeding with notaries, accountants and bureaucrats, stuffed with parliamentarians and insurance companies. Its buildings staid as the waiting rooms of family lawyers, coloured like the backs of filing cabinets, they filled the gardens and the parks and the pathways and the fields. Fords and Fiats thundered across Piazza Navona, and trains pumped in and out of the railway stations squeezing more and more people in between the facades, until there were so many apartments and crowds and cars and trams and buses and museums and offices, that the Futurist’s explosive whorls of electric energy were like being on the Via Nazionale and catching a glimpse of the whole city collapsing as it slid past on the curving chrome bonnet of a passing bus.

"[colour] works as an enzyme to catalyse chemical reactions, it generates nervous impulses that open new doors of logic in the brain, it is a sort of perceptive jogging, an aerobics for lazy or drowsy sensory cells. Like jogging it requires commitment, determination, measure, enthusiasm, faith, and patience, and to serve a purpose, it must be used well."
Barbara Radice, Memphis: Research, Experiences, Results, Failures and Successes of new design

The polychromy of the Renaissance returns like flowers growing through rubble left by the war. Televisions pulsating with coloured light. Piaggios buzzing about the place like tropical parrots. A florescent green Granita in a shiny translucent cup glinting in the sun on an Ostian beach. The rose curves of a Cadillac’s wings, the beaming orange of fizzy sodas, the pacific blue of the banquette seating in new restaurants. The city effloresces in pink and purple and yellow elevations that look like stacks of products on the shelves of neon-lit supermarkets. Shiny, loud, cheap, vibrant, plastic, mass-produced, new new new. Banana yellow Fiat 500s driven by women in loose, red cotton blouses. Balconies that zig zag, and curve in and out like Bernini designed them for a 1950s fashion house, and all covered in as many mosaics, ceramics and colourful make-up as you might find in the bathrooms and dressing tables and kitchens that they surrounded.

^When Niccolò met Gianni and Pierluigi, and Ugo, and Pietro. Detail

“If I think of spaces being saturated with colour, or just information, the space that comes to mind is the screens through which we access our internet.”
Andreas Angelidakis, The Colour of The Internet

The city’s new museum for the new art of the new century is steely grey, with squiggly highlights of black, its massive curving pipe-forms looking like they’re straining with all their tectonic might to return to the nineties, when grey was the universal soup of a triumphant but somewhat bored globalisation that just mixed everything together until it was all, well -grey. The young mothers take pictures of it on their phones, and as they post it to Instagram they add a filter, sepia or cool, or faded or greenish, they blur it, rotate it, up the contrast and increase its saturation, ripping it out of its textureless, colourless reality and blowing it apart so that it can float away on the breeze like confetti.

If you look up you’ll see them tumbling, and flowing in eddies together with the pieces of everything else that has been digitally detonated into a million glistening fragments, and just as the sun sets, when the swarming cloud is at its most luminous, you can glimpse shapes as it dives over the city, faces, buildings, neighbourhoods, histories, colours, the billion moments that have built Rome.


Friday, 2 January 2015


If a spiral wraps the minaret and your dome’s inside a wheel, then turn them all together for some genuinely Augustan appeal.

Like a man watching you from behind a column, or people pushing in a queue, you can buy as many cornettos as you like, but you’ll never shake the deja-vu.

Arcade arches are the scenes of a storyboard whose movie circles the square, its plot is vague and its end is the beginning, like the loop of a repeating nightmare.

If a staircase wraps a sphere and your spire’s inside a screw, then turn them all together, for a touch of the Catholic world view.

Like getting caught in a demonstration, or being pick-pocketed during prayer, you can take as many artsy pictures as you like, but your loneliness will always feel unfair.

Red blistered walls are the symptoms of a disease, an itchy rash that gets under all the windows, like a clinging sense of unease.

If a colonnade wraps a spiral and your cone’s in an ellipse, then turn them all together for a display of Baroque kitsch.

Like an overcrowded platform, or electric candles in a church, you can rush all you like, but you know the historians got there first.

Tourists stare at piles of rubble like they contain the meaning of the world, and perhaps if they stared long enough, they would see how all great deeds unfurl.

If a spiral meets a circle on a rotating plate of gold, or an oval joins an ark in a tumbling ball of stone, and if you know just where to fold along the circumference of an intersected cone,

Then the red walls and travertine corridors will rise up,
in a vortex of geometry and dirt and stone,
that we so strangely try to encapsulate with the little name, Rome.