The art of Giorgio de Chirico has suffered a fate worse than obscurity: it has become canonical. In the popular imagination de Chirico’s name is synonymous with a certain ambience, characteristic of the Scuola Metafisica (Metaphysical School) of painting, in which he was a seminal figure. His paintings are replete with uncanny statues and shadowy streets, at once deserted and claustrophobic. So many painters have “borrowed” elements of his style and iconography that his influence is all but taken for granted, the substance of his work lost to cliché.
A recent collection of de Chirico’s poetry, Geometry of Shadows, translated by Stefania Heim, recaptures something of the original vitality of his art. As Heim’s translations make clear, what de Chirico meant by “metaphysical” was nothing less than a kind of allegorical consciousness that refused finite meaning. In a prose work that describes painting as a hermetic art, de Chirico opposes the stream of inner experience to the strictures of academic formalism. “Painting,” he writes, “is the magical art, is the fire lit by the last rays in the windows of the fancy hotel as in those of the humble shack before the setting sun, is the long mark, the wet mark, the fluent and firm mark that the dying wave presses on the hot sand, is the dart of the immortal lizard on the rock sizzling in the midday heat ….”
This flux of imagery points to painting as a religious experience, demanding an attitude of piety. Indeed, at least two poems in Geometry of Shadows end with a reverential Amen. In one poem, titled “Morning Prayer of the Perfect Painter,” de Chirico writes:
Make it my Lord that I may re-give to painting the luster
That for almost a century it has lacked
And therefore my Lord help me before and above all
To resolve the pictorial problems of my art,
Since metaphysical and spiritual problems
Are the domain nowadays of critics and intellectuals!
The symbolism that runs through much of de Chirico’s visual art is also apparent in his writing. The latter incorporates unique symbologies, culled from pagan and literary sources, to communicate the highs and lows of life in modern, technologically driven cities. Words like “pregnant” take on a metallic connotation in his lexicon. He speaks of “cities sliced by asphalted and shining streets; beautified by the sunny squares’ perfect quadrants and by piazzas pregnant with shade” (“The Weary Archangel”). Elsewhere, in an encomium to Paris titled “Vale Lutetia,” he observes that “Modernity, this great mystery, lives everywhere in Paris; at each corner you run into it coupled with that which was, pregnant with that which will be.”
The imagery de Chirico works into his poetry has a hallucinatory clarity about it. It speaks to the individual’s immersion in collective life, which is only hinted at by the language of politics and familiar colloquialisms. “On this April afternoon,” he writes in “The Weary Archangel,” “while the idiot almond trees aren’t alone in tossing the flowers of promises, I want to affix onto the windows and door of my house the banner of the freshly established publicly traded company of which I am the principal shareholder.”
Echoing his otherworldly modernist paintings, Geometry of Shadows establishes that even de Chirico’s most far out vistas were nothing more than contemporary reality presented as a collage of atmospheric elements. Prefiguring the Situationist dérive, some of the best writing in the collection describes de Chirico’s experience of Paris in an almost diaristic fashion:
After leaving the station and entering the heart of the city the landscape becomes ever more magical; one has the impression of being in a giant jack-in-the-box; of finding oneself before the open curtain of a marvelous theater: the background scenery is the tenderest gray of the fog that connects the sky to the earth and to human constructions, which are gray as well and rising curious and inviting, solemn and surprising right and left like enormous curtains from which emerge, similar to magic lantern figures, hurried throngs of men and of vehicles — strange and multicolored herds. (“Vale Lutetia”)
Heim’s translations really sing when she allows de Chirico to speak in his natural voice. Another section from “Vale Lutetia” reads: “In a city, in a town, in a house, in a garden, the part that is always most pleasant to me, toward which I always look with more love is the part turned toward the horizon where the sun sets.” In the more versified parts of the book, however, Heim’s translations sometimes stumble as she tries to recreate the musicality of Italian in English. In the poem “Suggestion” the opening lines are rendered in English as: “Faithful joys for your fine field forget, o farmer, your anxieties.” The alliteration here creates a singsongy quality that I’m not sure was de Chirico’s intention.
Geometry of Shadows details the restlessness of de Chirico’s mind as he endeavored to develop a metaphysical language for painting. As an artist, he eventually moved past this stage. What Geometry of Shadows preserves is a flâneur’s distaste for the everyday. Revealing how de Chirico’s inner life was punctured by emotional extremes, the reader is compelled to reconsider the meaning of his metaphysical paintings. Instead of being an artist of the uncanny, he is revealed as a religious artist.