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Giorgio de Chirico: Myth and Mystery, Estorick Collection | reviews, news & interviews

Giorgio de Chirico: Myth and Mystery, Estorick Collection

Giorgio de Chirico: Myth and Mystery, Estorick Collection

The artist's late work was once dismissed, but is it time for a reassessment?

de Chirico, The Archeologists, 1966All images: private collection; courtesy Galleria d’Arte Maggiore, Bologna

An exhibition of work by a giant of 20th-century painting cannot reasonably be expected to turn up too many surprises; the most we can usually hope for is a good proportion of lesser-known works to temper the “masterpieces”. To reveal a whole body of work hitherto ignored by art historians is something of a coup, but the Estorick Collection’s new show does just this, introducing over 20 sculptures that will be unknown to all but the most committed fans of Giorgio de Chirico.

Known almost exclusively as a painter, de Chirico (1888-1978) is famous for his series of bizarre but seminal paintings that set out the iconography of Pittura metafisica, using strange juxtapositions, faceless figures and distorted perspectives to fuel a sense of anxiety and estrangement. Metaphysical painting, in particular works like de Chirico’s The Song of Love, 1914, was hugely admired by the Surrealists, and for a time, de Chirico was the toast of the avant-garde.

The iconography of mannequins, automatons and tailors’ dummies is instantly recognisable

Perhaps due to his early years in Greece and his Italian parentage, the classical tradition was never entirely absent from his practice and in 1919, de Chirico appalled the Surrealists by making a series of copies of Old Master paintings. De Chirico appeared to have retreated under the comfort blanket of tradition, and he was ostracised as a reactionary by the avant-garde for whom he had once been a hero. This narrative of de Chirico’s decline has held fast, and his later career, characterised by obsessive reworkings of paintings by Renaissance masters as well as from his own Metaphysical period, has until recently been largely dismissed.

It was during his “decline” that de Chirico began experimenting with sculpture, and the iconography of mannequins, automatons and tailors’ dummies, so familiar from the Metaphysical paintings, is instantly recognisable. Although de Chirico did not begin producing sculpture until the 1930s, the nature of the medium was a longstanding preoccupation; in Horses of the Seashore, 1962-1963, the horses appear too animated to be statues, but too lifeless to be living creatures, the rubble of ancient ruins giving the impression that they have somehow broken free of their sculpted form.

Giorgio de Chirico, The Disquieting Muses, 1968, Private collection. Courtesy Galleria d’Arte Maggiore, BolognaDe Chirico’s extension into sculpture of themes and ideas previously explored in paintings is perhaps not made sufficiently explicit here as it is not always clear that many of the sculptures are precise replicas of figures from earlier paintings. The Disquieting Muses, first painted in 1917, painted again with no alteration in 1925 and then again with some changes in 1972, is on display here in its final form, as is the gilded bronze realisation of the main figures (pictured right; 1968): tailors’ dummies with distorted, alien heads, the bent limbs of the seated figure and the slightly inclined head of the standing figure, lending them an eerie animation. Our ability to walk around these figures, to not have the whole of them entirely within our sight at any one time, builds the sense of uneasiness they generate, and by isolating the figures from any extraneous context they are distilled into pure form and their power concentrated, surely achieving de Chirico’s aim ‘to discover newer and more mysterious aspects’.

At the root of de Chirico’s eventual abandonment by the avant-garde was the belief that he had dropped modernism in order to embrace classicism. It is perhaps surprising then to find that the overtly classicising sculpture Ippolito (Greek Ephebe in Horseback), 1969, was made in the same year as The Colonials, a silvered bronze that deploys the faceless mannequin heads, distorted limbs and torsos filled with strange objects, so central to Metaphysical iconography. Not only does this exhibition refute the idea that an artist’s career develops chronologically, it also gives some insight into de Chirico’s single-minded, perhaps even pathological, determination to perfect the themes and motifs of his work.

De Chirico appeared to have retreated under the comfort blanket of tradition, and he was ostracised as a reactionary

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