^de Chirico's Sony
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.
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.