Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Anguish of Departure: Giorgio de Chirico and Arte Metafisica

In the fall of 1913, Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico began painting an enigmatic scene which, upon completion in 1914, he titled The Anguish of Departure (fig.1). The work, although undated and unsigned, embodies qualities of form and content, including symbolism and iconography both psychological and sexual in nature, which are unequivocally unique to the artist and would later be termed ‘metaphysical’ upon the founding of the Italian Scuola Metafisica in conjunction with former Futurist painter Carlos Carra in 1917.

The elements of form and content found within The Anguish of Departure are clearly identifiable with de Chirico. The work presents an outdoor setting made up of large spaces, including a rounded Italian square shaping the fore and middle grounds and an enveloping sky at dusk like a backdrop to theatrical scenery (Martin, 343). Everyday forms and objects exist within the space, however the subject matter of the work is not found in the physical essence of the presented forms but rather in the capacity of those forms to evoke associations within the mind of the viewer. Exact meaning in the work is not dictated, but rather the viewer is encouraged to recognize the idea of a meaning that exists outside of the physical world, and to experience the “previously unknown sensations” of such a revelation through the works enigmatic quality and ‘inhabited depth’ (Chipp, 452) The space is “a dreamlike illusion of infinite space and quiet” steeped in stillness and enigma with a kind of paranoid, anxious anticipation for something to move or make a sound (Soby, 51). De Chirico calls this quality in his work a kind of “madness... [that will] always exist and continue to gesture and show itself behind the inexorable screen of matter (Chipp, 449). With this is a kind of madness and mystery that makes de Chirico revolutionary in his artistic execution in which he has “strip[ped] art of all its subject matter in favor of aesthetic synthesis,” in which the subject exists within the mind of the viewer rather than in his or her physical space (Chipp, 397).

The nature of the painter’s technique and use of texture, light and color played a large role in the creation of his enigmatic imagery. He utilized artistic techniques reflecting older traditions of mural wall paintings with a use of pigment that is much drier and thinner (Soby, 50). The canvas is very lightly covered and yet there remains certain texture to the surface that can be seen and felt. Its thin application of paint provides the work with a kind of luminous quality, “almost incandescent, as though lighted from beneath the canvas (Soby, 51). Like many of his works, The Anguish of Departure possesses very rich color with a slight somber quality. It also presents very sharp contrasts between light and dark, provided for mostly by use of shadow. The quality of light within the scene “resembles the sharp spotlight effect of the theater” and envelope the forms in a mysterious glow, of whose origins are blocked by the portico and out of sight (Lombardo,6).

As in many of his works, The Anguish of Departure utilizes a great deal of precise and geometric form in its construction due to his belief in Otto Weininger’s concept of the ‘geometric metaphysic’ that claims geometric figures to be “symbols of a superior reality (Chipp,453). Weininger’s belief that the form of an arc, much like that within this work for example, presents something “still incomplete, that needs to be and can be completed” influenced de Chirico’s interest in forms whose meaning exist in the realm of the presentiments they evoke (Chipp, 453). Further, the work is structured in a triangular composition between the three main forms, the chimney, the moving wagon, and the portico. Further, the large shadow from the portico is in a triangular wedge shape. The artist was particularly interesting in the triangle because of what he believed was its power to evoke “a sense of uneasiness and…fear,” which, combined with the “precise, geometric shadow” suggests an “enigma of fatality, [a] symbol of the intransient will (Soby, 252). The geometric forms also utilize line whose qualities alternate between rigidity and curvature, seen for example, where the portico’s rigidly straight vertical edges meet and are countered by the horizontal rounding arc of the square’s boundary.

In addition to his experimentation with geometric form, 1913 marks the year in which de Chirico begins presenting a deeper concept of space and perspective. He creates an imaginary space that is modeled around a more traditional one-point perspective that is, however, deliberately skewed and exaggerated for effect (Soby, 48). In The Anguish of Departure, this experimentation can be seen most clearly in the space that extends into the far and hazy distance yet is still bound by a landscape. It is, in essence, an illusionary sense of limitlessness that is still contained (Soby, 49).

As the year 1913 brought about much exploration in his artistic methodologies, de Chirico also expanded and developed his traditionally used iconography (Baldacci, 185). The Anguish of Departure exemplifies the manner in which commonplace forms or objects are illogically used in the construction of his works, intentionally placed in “seemingly arbitrary but mysteriously evocative juxtapositions (Baldacci, 185). The artist comments on the grounds for his use of iconography in such a manner so as to enter the viewers “regions of childhood vision and dream” in his 1912 essay Meditations of a Painter when he states that “logic and common sense will only interfere” and therefore must be “broken (Chipp, 397). Architecture is presented as a prominent iconographical theme in de Chirico’s works between 1910 and 1914, first occurring in his work The Enigma of the Hour (Soby, 43). The artist was fascinated with architecture primarily due to its geometric qualities-“signs of the metaphysical alphabet”- through which one may experience the “joys and sorrows hidden within a portico, the angle of a street,” each corner of which he felt “possessed a spirit, an impenetratable soul (Chipp, 402, 452). In The Anguish of Departure, a large arcaded portico with empty windows creeps in from the right, shaping the space and casting a large geometric shadow that extends beyond the left frame. It is positioned in a rounded Italian square that curves to an unseen place behind the portico and separates the foreground from the rest of the work. In the middle ground, an exaggeratedly large industrial chimney tower stands solidly as it visually grounds the work, connecting the upper and lower halves of the canvas.

Trains and locomotives are also often included in his works. In this work, the train appears very small in the distance at the base of the chimney tower, apparently frozen in the still, quiet composition with the other forms while yet at the same time, it evokes an odd sense of motion (Martin, 353). His use of trains in his works could be due to childhood memories of toy trains and of his engineer father. De Chirico also claimed to have been frequently visited by trains in his own dreams and to have been neurotically troubled by railway travel due to childhood experiences. Nevertheless, he was interested in their nostalgic nature and hold on popular imagination (Soby, 48).In the foreground, a moving wagon, which made its first appearance in this particular work due to de Chirico’s having moved to a new studio across the street from a moving company, appears stationary in front of the shadowed grounds behind it (Baldacci, 193). Positioned on wheels, it suggests a potential for movement, yet does not depart, rather appears much like a box that has been abandoned (Soby, 51).

Many of his works tend to exclude the human figure altogether, displaying rather a shadow of an unseen individual. In The Anguish of Departure, however, two minute figures and their shadows can be found standing before the boundary of the square towards the right. With much of the canvas undetailed, a powerful mysterious quality is achieved through spatial absence that translates onto the human forms which, only mere smears of black, occur as if absent themselves of a quality of humanness (Gale, 273). There is no clear division between the blackness of the actual figure and that of his or her shadow. This ‘human absence’ is a prime example of de Chirico’s view that the aim of painting should be to “free [the viewer] from the anthropomorphism that…shackles; …to see everything, even man, in its quality of thing (Chipp, 397). He engages in a “de-individualization or de-personalization” of the human figure so as to “express a more comprehensive spirituality” through abstraction (Martin, 343).

De Chirico’s iconography became significantly more sexualized in the works beginning in the year 1913, presumably as a result of encountering the poet Apollinaire, who encouraged the artist’s further development of symbols in this direction through more “evident… dialectical opposition” as a translation into painting of the poet’s commonly addressed themes concerning the Ariadne-Dionysus dichotomy and general “polarity between masculine and feminine elements (Baldacci, 164, 179). This is most clearly seen in The Anguish of Departure through his use of “alternating solids and voids” particularly in the arcade architecture, the vaginal quality of the unknown empty spaces and empty, enclosed boxcar in the foreground, and the phallic nature of the large shadows and towers which consume the space (Soby, 69). Although tower iconography is used in his previous works, here the tower symbol has become an industrial smokestack, a symbol which didn’t appear prior to 1913, presented more explicitly as it seems to demand much of the center ground from which it stands, an “obvious Dionysian phallic emblem”: massive, erect, red and swelling in its penetration of the sky’s open space, a symbolic feminine void (Baldacci, 179). The location of the train at the very base of the chimney in the visual field creates a sense of tension deriving from opposition between the stillness of the scene and the suggested upward movement of steam which creates an anxious presentiment of explosion.

De Chirico not only operated as an artist outside of the modernist movements of the time, but he also despised most of what was being done as well. His work has been viewed as a reaction to such modernist movements as the impressionists whom he labeled “sensationalists” unable to create anything “new” or provide a revelation of something which “previously did not exist (Soby, 244-45). “I was more concerned with creating a work that would be my own,” the artist stated in response to his association with other movements (Mazars, 115). He considered his art to be different, “more metaphysical,” which to him meant “more complete, more profound, more complicated (Chipp, 447). Although he had been painting in the metaphysical style since 1908, his work was not considered part of a particular movement until meeting Carlos Carras, a futurist painter in search of a “more monumental art based on early Italian tradition”, in 1917 and co-founding La Scuola Metafisica, “the metaphysical school (Chipp, 445). The work of the metaphysical school revolved around two core principles. First, the art created should “evoke the disquieting states of mind that prompt one to doubt the detached and impersonal existence of the empirical world” so as to view each object as merely an external part of one imagined, cerebral experiences (Taylor, qtd in Chipp, 446). The second principle of the movement concerned the manner in which the former was to be accomplished: through “solid, clearly defined constructions which, paradoxically, seem entirely objective,” using “classical compositions” of everyday forms and objects and the associations that they evoke (Taylor, qtd in Chipp, 446). Another core quality of the metaphysical style was a metaphysical solitude which de Chirico called ‘the solitude of signs’ through which each object in the visual field is freed of “predictable links with the surrounding world,” allowing each sign to signify on its own and elicit unpredictable mental associations from the viewer (Baldacci, 193). The school was “anti-Futurist in spirit,” looking back to classic Italian form in a radical manner: “a poetry with deep roots in the past which was at the same time modern (Arcangeli, 176). Where the Futurists were concerned with evolution, de Chirico was more interested in the idea of “perpetual becoming” in the mode of Heraclitus in which “everything changes while appearing to remain the same (Martin, 346).

With his radically unique treatment of form and content while operating outside the popular modern art movements of his time, Giorgio de Chirico came to found one of the most important modern art movements in both Italy and the western art world. Evidence in The Anguish of Departure provide only one case study to explain an artist operating in such a revolutionary style whose dream-like symbolism and fantastical nature would break the ground from which future modern movements like Surrealism were able to take root.


Arcangeli, Francesco. "Notes on Contemporary Italian Painting." The Burlington Magazine, 97 (1955): 174-180.

Baldacci, Paolo. De Chirico: the Metaphysical Period 1888-1919. New York: Bulfinch P, Little, Brown and Company, 1997.

Gale, Matthew. "The Uncertainty of the Painter: De Chirico in 1913." The Burlington Magazine 130 (1988): 268-276.

Lombardo, Joseph V. "20th Century Italian Art." Art Education 5 (1952): 1-10.

Martin, Marianne W. "Reflections on De Chirico and Arte Metaphisica." The Art Bulliten 60 (1978): 342-353.

Mazars, Pierre. "Giorgio De Chirico: Surrealism." Yale French Studies, 31 (1964): 112-117.

Soby, James T. Giorgio De Chirico. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1955.

[november 2007]

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