The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2018

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NOV 2018 Issue

Giorgio de Chirico’s ‘Other’ Novel: An Excerpt from Monsieur Dudron

Translator’s Note

“The only novel by the famous artist.”

Thus reads the cover of the 1964 English edition of Giorgio de Chirico’s Hebdomeros — a quirky novel by the Greek-born Italian painter, first published in French in 1929. At once meandering tale, aesthetic treatise, and autobiography à cle, the book marked both a departure from, and a culmination of, de Chirico’s writings since the 1910s, finding him venture for the first time into experimental narrative prose. To the ire of his erstwhile Surrealists champions — who had lionized his Metaphysical paintings of the 1910s as their greatest visual precursors, and adopted him as an unofficial “godfather” of the movement — de Chirico renounced his early style in favor of increasingly neoclassical imagery. In the wake of that seeming retrogression, Hebdomeros’s modernism thus appeared all the more strange. As the “dissident” Surrealist author and ethnographer Michel Leiris noted in his (glowing) review of the book for the journal Documents, de Chirico had surely taken note of Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant and André Breton’s Nadja — the inaugural novels of the Surrealist movement.1 Like Breton, Aragon, and seemingly the entire gamut of Surrealist artists and writers, Leiris made plain his preference for de Chirico’s Metaphysical painting. While the artist’s painting hand could go to the devil, Leiris quipped, his writing hand deserved wholehearted praise.

Despite its seemingly singular curiosity, Hebdomeros was not, in fact, de Chirico’s only novel. Begun in 1934 but never definitively completed, his second novel, Monsieur Dudron, remains extant today in a number of disparate versions and editions. Beginning with the so-called Dusdron manuscript in the mid-1930s (an anagram of “Nord-Sud”), the text underwent numerous iterations, variations, and divagations, including the Dudron-Levy manuscript (1936); the short story/excerpt, “A trip to Lecco” (1940); “One of Monsieur Dudron’s Adventures” (1945); the typewritten “Evangelisti” manuscript (1963); and, finally, an excerpt published in the magazine Il Tempo (1976).

Monsieur Dudron saw official publication (in an Italian edition) only in 1998, though the text’s integrity has since been questioned with regard to various omissions and bowdlerizations.2 The book’s fitful editorial history surely stems in part from its often unbearably pedantic tack. The original subtitle of Hebdomeros in French reads: “Le peintre et son génie chez l’écrivain” (“The Painter and His Genius as Author”). This somewhat ironic line becomes, in Monsieur Dudron, an exasperatingly earnest shibboleth. By way of his narrator, an embattled de Chirico repeatedly distinguished his painterly genius from the decadence of his modernist peers, calling for a return to the ancient canons of oil painting.

The same supercilious distinction marks de Chirico’s infamous Memoirs, published in 1945. A certain astonishment greeted the book’s relentless, vituperative philippics, aimed at seemingly every individual the artist had every encountered — from his fellow Italian painters to the luminaries of the Parisian avant-garde. Recalling his early artistic formation in Munich, in one instance, de Chirico identifies the city as the site of the century’s worst two “calamities” — namely modernist painting and Nazism [sic]. Anything but one-off quips, these ideas came to characterize de Chirico’s increasingly reactionary theoretical excurses. Parallel to the Dudron drafts of the 1930s and 40s, he prepared the chapters of what he would publish in 1945 as the Commedia dell’arte moderna (The Comedy of Modern Art) — a series of screeds against the supposed decadence of modernist aesthetics. Comprised of texts old and new, The Comedy of Modern Art also bore out de Chirico’s penchant for heteronyms and alter-egos. For, the book was presented as co-authored by his wife and muse, Isabella Far. We know now that the writing issued from de Chirico’s pen alone. Yet the charade of Far’s authorship (and authority) would carry over to Monsieur Dudron, forming one of the book’s abiding tropes.

“Isabella Far sees painting in a way that few people see it,” commences the narrator in the book’s first paragraph. “Her philosophical spirit and her exceptional intuition permit her to delve into the complicated problem of painting, of things forgotten for almost a century.” De Chirico’s partner thus becomes a further, fictional extension of his own critical acumen in denouncing the folly of modernism or, what he deems “so- called inventive painting.” Unlike the work of the great masters (and their rare successors)

inventive painting needed, instead, to base itself on intellectual invention, on the expression of abstract ideas, on surrealist extravagance and even extravagances approaching dementia, infantalism, occultism, and so forth. In short, the worth of this new painting had to consist of things that were precisely the opposite of that which makes great painting, which is a concrete art, positive, and completely realized. 

Conserved in the Kandinsky Archives of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, a 1949 postcard Pierre Roy — a French artist and “disciple” of Metaphysical painting — sets into further relief de Chirico’s combative stance during these years: “In May and June I held a large exhibition of one hundred canvases in London. I also gave some lectures. For many years now I fight against so-called ‘modernism’ and now I have finally begun to see my efforts bear fruit.” 3 Hebdomeros had smuggled art historical and critical estimations under the cover of semi-autobiography and amusing narrative tropes. Dudron dispenses almost entirely with the trappings of authorial alterity, opting instead for a pedantry only occasionally leavened by the craft of fiction. Dudron, in short, ventures a kind of “theory in the form of a novel” — a theoretical fixation which, as Paolo Picozza notes, renders the resulting fiction an abortive hybrid of styles. For all of de Chirico’s derision of modernist formlessness, his novel itself forsakes formal coherence for a scattered grousing and grumbling.

Concealed among the folds of the book’s pedantic prose, however, lay some kernels of lyrical eloquence. It is notably about concealment itself that one particular passage speaks. In an embroidered — but no less entertaining — anecdote, one of Monsieur Dudron’s friends recounts his camouflaged outing among the ruins of the Acropolis. More specifically, he recounts how one summer evening in Athens he hid among ancient ruins, donning white gloves and covering himself with white powder so as to be indistinguishable from the site’s marble slabs. Though a seeming divagation from the novel’s didactic bent, the episode evokes some of de Chirico’s aesthetic principles by way of an eccentric yarn — a welcome departure, in any case, from the sophistic needling and niggling of the larger text. The passage contains a few fragments which shed light upon the artist’s former glory as one of European modernism’s most sui generis innovators — a past itself now laying in ruins, periodically plundered by the artist himself for reusable materials and self-imitation. The nestling of this tale within the narrative evokes the artist’s celebrated Ferrara interiors of the late 1910s, in which paintings and canvas stretchers appear embedded within the larger image. So too does the friend’s description of the Athenian night — under “the vault of the sky” — conjure up de Chirico’s writings on the “Architectonic Sense in Ancient Painting: ““Nature herself is seen by the ancient painter through the eyes of the architect or builder. He saw the sky like a cupola or vault.” More striking than any discursive resonance, however, is the passage’s pacing and rhythm. As much as evince the languor of a summer evening in Athens, the prose lilts with an almost hypnotic momentum, reminiscent even of W.G. Sebald’s spellbinding prose.

As a vademecum, the novel’s Acropolis passage proves hardly authoritative, nor even remotely credible. Yet its excerpt found early publication — under the title “Une Nuit sur l’Acropole” — in nothing less than the 1934 edition of Le Voyage en Grèce, published by the Parisian Cahiers Périodiques du Tourisme. Catalogued today under the disciplines of “Informational and documentary sciences” and “European geography,” the journal plainly availed itself of less than empirical sources during its brief run from 1934 to 1939. The fact is that de Chirico was eager for it to see the light of day, in whatever format. One of his chief American dealers, the gallery owner Julian Levy, penned an extensive recollection of his encounter with the artist in New York in 1936.

Chirico handed me the carefully folded manuscript with shaking fingers. ‘Monsieur Dudron par Giorgio de Chirico.’ He was of a soft beautiful ugliness like the violet mole on the face of an Italian fishwife […] I had told him how highly I prized his only published novel, Hebdomeros. My sincerity must have been apparent and he was pleased, and became as docile as you could wish. He offered to show me the manuscript of ‘Monsieur Dudron,’ perhaps I might arrange for its publication. 

Levy’s comments upon the manuscript — which de Chirico left in his possession — accompany its conservation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it is catalogued today as the “Levy-Dudron manuscript.” Itself a synthesis of memoir and fantasy, Levy’s strange (unpublished) text propagates the apocryphal story of Metaphysical painting’s origins — an oft repeated and unlikely tale.

It would seem that no one but Chirico has ever been so cruelly betrayed into greatness. In 1914 from fear of war and anxious to avoid the draft he hit upon a plan to prove his madness and so his ineptitude at warfare by painting careful and deliberately irrational canvases. These were what are now called his ‘metaphysical’ paintings and considered the best he has ever made.

Of course, de Chirico had developed his Metaphysical style well before 1914. Furthermore, his shirking of military duty in 1911 while living in Paris — later redressed by his service in Italy during World War One — had nothing to do with the evident irrationalism of his imagery.

Even still, the trope of madness crops up even in Monsieur Dudron. Responding to his friend’s tale of the Acropolis, Monsieur Dudron responds with equal parts admiration and apprehension.

What you have told me just now, my dear friend, the story of your adventure on the Acropolis, is a beautiful and profound thing. [...] I, too, have often dreamed and traveled in my fantasies along untraveled paths – paths down which the intellectual adventure prods one so far astray as to risk a descent into madness. This is what happened to Nietzsche.

As widely attested in scholarship and in the writings of de Chirico himself, it was an imaginary apprenticeship to Nietzsche — as much as a study of Renaissance painting and induction into modernist painting — which galvanized the painter’s evacuated cityscapes. These images’ displacement of incongruous, solitary objects stemmed from what de Chirico called a “pathos of distance,” culled from a reading of Nietzsche (particularly his late, anti-Wagnerian writing), and his insistence upon the mythical, vatic power of authors and artists. Indeed, Monsieur Dudron’s mention in this excerpt of the “profound soulfulness of the poet and metaphysician” alerts the reader to de Chirico’s lingering sympathy — in spite of himself — with the earliest impetus of his painting and writing.

Just as he set about working on Monsieur Dudron, de Chirico writes in an essay published in Prague in 1935 that objects “like to play tricks on us, to hide, to melt into the surroundings so that we pass right by without seeing them, as the hunter, rifle under his arm, sometimes passes near the immobile quail hugging a clod of earth whose color matches its plumage.” 4 The resonance with Monsieur Dudron’s friend on the Acropolis — melted into his surroundings — is plain. So, too, do the objects of Metaphysical painting, hiding in plain sight, come to mind. If, as Monsieur Dudron insists, thought is conveyed visually rather than verbally, it is the severing of linguistic thread — stranding us in Ariadne’s labyrinth — that his paintings so often undertake.


* * *


“The very origins of painting must be traced to certain aspects of human thought. Human thought is not expressed, as is falsely believed, through words. Along these lines, it is interesting to consider the question commonly asked of those who speak more than one language fluently: ‘What language do you think in?’ This is an absurd question, for one does not think in any language. Rather, thought consists of a string of images or figurations that pass with extraordinary swiftness through the human brain. These images or visions, of which the most eminent quality is form, express themselves with precision when an object is perfectly delineated and individualized; by contrast, they are imprecise if the object remains conceptual — that is, when the object bears a certain form, but lacks any details that set it apart. For the sake of clarity, I shall cite the following example: a person has a house; thinking of this house, this individual sees the house pictured in his psyche, with all the details that distinguish that particular house. In this case the image presented to the individual’s psyche is precise. When, instead, for whatever reason, a person is forced to search for a house that he does not know, he thinks of an unfamiliar house, his brain reflects the image of an indeterminate, generalized ‘house.’ This is an imprecise image which expresses the form of a house, but without the details that define it.

Thoughts and visions undoubtedly have their respective colors. But their primary force resides in the expression of form. The abstract form which is expressed in these thought-images, the form that thought takes without the help of matter or a concrete form, has spurred man on to design and to paint.

In ancient Egyptian writing, the notion that thought is an image, or even a vision, is confirmed by the very fact that the first writings were drawn descriptions of things. It is important to note that these drawings sought primarily to evoke the object’s form and not its color.

Man thus sought to express his thought without recourse to an intermediary which, in this case, is the word. He turned directly to the image, which is the expression of thought through form, without the help of matter, whether concrete or mutable.

We must reiterate here that form, which is basis of thought, also serves as the foundation on which our intelligence is erected.

The forms reflected in our minds have given us the ability to think. It is immaterial form which has enabled our thoughts to multiply, to detach themselves more and more from reality and thus enter into abstraction. Philosophy, music, science: all of these are born of form. All of these creations of the spirit originate from, first, the forms created by nature, and second — and most of all — immaterial form, or the ideal.

This ideal or immaterial form derives from direct form or, in other words, derives from form existing in nature.

Thus, just as light from the sun is fixed and reflected by the moon, direct form is registered by the human brain which has projected it onto the world. This phenomenon has led to gradual development of human intelligence.

As soon as one grasps the importance of form, and as soon as one grasps the importance of form as a result of progressive evolution — necessary and fatal — then one reaches the conclusion that art which does not express perfect form (as does Greek art) or which does not at least approximate perfection in its formal expressions (as evidenced in subsequent periods of artistic production) or a plastic art from which form has vanished (as one sees today), are negative phenomena which prove that not only man’s genius, but even his good sense are in decline.

In contemporary art, whether painting or sculpture, form is practically nonexistent.

In modern sculpture, stiffness and rigidity have taken the place of plasticity and volume. The concrete form, which the old masters rendered with mysterious ineffability, that form which appears unreal even in its representation of reality, that magical form no longer belonging to our time, has disappeared like the past. And when I look at what sculptors make today, my eyes feel as if they were slamming into a rigidity which exaggerates the hardness found in everyday things.

In modern painting, form (or rather, the stains and splotched that pass for form these days) creates a monstrous impression, frustrating and anti-plastic par excellence. Instead of being convex, form in modern painting is concave; a fundamentally concave form represents the negation of form, or even the annihilation of form, which, in this instance, is replaced by the void.

The inexistence of form in modern painting is a consequence of the absence of volume, this despite the fact that things appear to us first through their volume, and only then through their color.

The explanations offered to justify this absence of form in modern painting in no way rectify the fact of its absence. Rather than rehearse these polemics I would simply affirm that form, in painting, is a form that can only be seized by the artist’s intuition. This form is then transformed and transmitted to us by the genius of the painter, without the artist’s human reasoning — which exists apart from genius — affecting it in any way.

This is the case because a work of art should never force the viewer nor the maker into an act of reasoning, or criticism, or exposition; rather, it should provoke only satisfaction, nothing other than satisfaction — that is, a condition in which reasoning no longer exists.

The avalanche of words, explanations, suppositions, anxieties, and senseless arguments generated by modern art simply demonstrate that modern art does not provoke satisfaction. The satisfied man is silent; this explains why all the admirers, producers, and enthusiasts of modern art prattle and prattle endlessly…” Monsieur Dudron’s friend, having finished reading this article by Isabella Far, remained silent. Monsieur Dudron, too, remained still. He relit his pipe and then rose from his chair and went to the bar to pay for the bottle of wine. He then returned to his friend and proposed that they walk a few blocks in each other’s company.

“With pleasure, my dear friend,” his companion replied, “I would love to walk a bit with you. It is a marvelous evening, calm and warm. After reading this lovely essay I would love to tell you of some extremely interesting things which have nothing to do with painting, but which would surely be appreciated by a man of your spirit — a spirit that marries the eminently concrete aspects of the artisan with the profound soulfulness of the poet and metaphysician. You must know, my dear friend, that near the city where I live there is a summit, a kind of giant crest. On one side it is enclosed by a cliff that seems hewn from the profiles of Gothic apostles, plunging directly downward to the white expanse of houses below. On the other side it is hemmed in by a gently sloping incline which descends gradually from peak to plain. Up on this hill one can see the silhouettes of temples, sanctuaries, and other ancient monuments. More than anything, these are only the ghostly outlines of these edifices, for the actual monuments exist in various states of ruin, their fragments lying dormant on the floor beneath those few parts that remain standing. On evenings when the air is clear, and when the moon bathes the sleeping acropolis in its sweet light, the spectacle is so compelling, so present, one has such a vivid sensation that here exists a different sort of happiness, one of unfathomable profundity, that only great poets and thinkers, strolling beneath the trees of Paradise could comprehend it. The atmosphere here is so different from all that surrounds it, that on more than one occasion I have been tempted to spend the night here – a night with a full moon, alone, amidst the ruins, with the city at my feet plunged in its nocturnal repose, and above my head the immense vault of the sky.

I have visited the acropolis so many times, I have spent so many unforgettable hours there, losing myself in fantasies and meditations of every sort before these sublime remains of a glorious past. But, alas, this happened only in the light of day, amidst the throngs of tourists and visitors, beneath the irritated gazes of guards, while what I really wished for, the dream that I coveted, was to spend an entire night there, a lovely moonlit night, completely alone. But this is not such an easy thing, since after sundown the entrance gates are closed, just like the doors of a museum are shut at closing time.

Indeed, that acropolis is now considered exactly like a museum and not a place of poetry and meditation where one can enter freely, as if into a church.

In my father’s time, the acropolis was accessible day and night. Today things are different. You must pay an entrance fee during the day, and at night, however strong your desire to go there, there is nothing that can be done. Tough luck. Rumor has it that this is the case because of the young couples that went there at night amidst the ancient ruins to give themselves over to less than chaste amusements. That may be the case. But one would simply have to post a few night watchmen there and impose a stiff fine, even a month of imprisonment, for whoever violated the rules or offended the moral rectitude of others.

Last summer, in fact, unable to resist any longer, I started to think in earnest of how I could sneak into the acropolis before closing time and spend the night there.

It occurred to me that on many occasions I had observed those insects called millipedes, since they had seemed to me tiny pieces of ambulatory excrement. When one of these insects crawls along a wall or another surface and finds a mark that seems to reflect its own coloring, it stays on top of that mark a remains motionless, since it intuits that it will be less visible and hence has a better chance of escaping the danger that constantly threatens it. The quail does the same thing. My father, who was a great huntsman, and who hunted even into his old age, once told me of this migratory bird. When it alights in an area that has the same color as its feathers, this quail, whose head, as you yourself, my dear Monsieur Dudron, have often remarked to me, is greatly disturbing, does not move. It avoids making even the slightest movement even when the hunter draws near, and it often happens that the hunter passes nearby the quail without seeing it.

I was thinking of these strange instincts of animals and insects alike when the idea occurred to me of dressing myself in white in order to be less visible amidst the ruins. So I procured for myself an outfit of white fabric, white shoes with rubber soles, and a white beret. Into my pocket I stuffed white gloves, and a small box full of talcum and white rice powder. I shaved meticulously, and on a day when I knew there would be a full moon, I paid my entrance ticket and with the most unaffected air climbed up to the acropolis.

I began to pass through the temples and sanctuaries; I looked out to the view that stretched out to the sea which glistened on the horizon; I amused myself in the movements of visitors who, guide books in hand, glanced up at the monuments and then consulted their books, and then looked again at the monuments, while their faces revealed what could only have been a relative pleasure. It is funny, I have long asked myself how so many adults, adults perfectly conscious of their own actions and disposing of entire days, foist upon themselves the burden of passing entire days in and out of museums, tiring themselves and developing stiff necks looking at frescoes or ceiling paintings; and I also asked myself how it is that other adults (often the very same individuals) who are perfectly free and in control of their actions, oblige themselves to go to concerts and to remain seated for long periods, immobile but visibly fatigued, just to listen to interminable symphonies which often last longer than an hour.

Along these lines I remember that, when I was a boy, my mother took me on trips, and when we visited a city with an important museum, we went to the museum, and, after having looking at pictures that did not much interest me, I returned to the hotel exhausted, as if falling victim to a rabid influenza. But I was very young then, I couldn’t do otherwise since I had to obey my mother. Had I been free to do as I wished, you can be sure, my dear friend, that I would never have worn myself out in such a way; I would have much sooner passed the entire day in a patisserie eating sweets with cream or chocolate gelato.

As I was saying, there is a vast number of adults, all free to do as they wish, adults whose understanding of painting is perhaps inferior to mine when I was just a boy, and yet who force themselves to do things disagreeable to their own sensibilities, with a discipline worthy of a more noble cause.

But let us return to my visit to the acropolis. So there I was, passing amidst the ruins and waiting anxiously for the time when the gates would close. Time passed and the sun sank below the horizon. The sounds of the city wafted up to my heights; I listened to the thick sounds of that immense conglomeration made up of white die serried into rows; but even this noise diminished little by little, until I finally heard the nasal voice of a guard shout ‘Closing time!…’

The moment of truth had arrived. With an air of feigned distraction, and pretending to head towards the exit, I hid myself behind a heap of ruins. I slipped on my white gloves and generously powdered my face and my neck. I crouched tightly between the stones so as to be as unnoticeable as possible.

Towards the east, behind the violet procession of hills, the moon had risen. A full moon — majestic, stately, swollen. It rose slowly, still shrouded in a haze of afternoon heat. The sky darkened. The last tourist exited. Above my head bats began to flutter in the twilight like drunken birds. One could hear the distant sound of a dog barking and a train chugging northward. I decided not to move until night had completely fallen. I had been smart not to stir, because a few moments later I heard the footsteps of a guard walking precisely towards where I was hidden. A shudder made its way down my back. The guard stopped a few feet away from me; he had no idea of my presence whatsoever; a nervous itch wracked my entire body; I looked at the guard and consoled myself with the thought that I was not a leper, nor he a hunting dog; ‘he can’t smell me,’ I told myself. I kept my eye fixed on him, holding my breath and straining to resist even the slightest movement. He stood twisting his mustache, staring into the distance; then coughed, spat, took out a pipe from the pocket of his uniform, and filled it with tobacco.

I thought of hunter next to the quail that he does not see. The seconds seemed like hours. The guard lit his pipe, spat again, and then, slowly, made his way towards the exit. I began to breathe freely. But I decided not to move or to stretch out my legs, which were burning with stiffness, until I heard the front gate lock. Then I knew that I was completely alone. Night had come. On the horizon, where the sun had set, a pale glow still lingered. In the other direction, now freed from the haze of the summer evening, the moon continued to rise in the sky. Its sweet smoldering, its sweet and solemn smoldering caressed the columns and ruins and stretched their shadows along the ground. The silence thickened. Suddenly I heard a strange sound, as if over my head a enormous velarium had been opened.

The superhuman masks of the ancients had emerge like giant models hung against the backdrop of the sky, which seemed low, very low. It seemed, in fact, as if the sky had settled near the earth in a rather disquieting way. I had the impression that if I stood on the tip of my toes, or climbed up on one of the massive fragments that littered the ground, I would have been able to touch it with my finger. The divine masks smiled. An unnamable faith pervaded everything and in the ineffable sweetness of that grand night I felt that everything evil had disappeared. Debts had been paid, punishments absolved, bad dreams were all interred down there, in the endless sands of iniquitous deserts. Everything in life that I had loved, every good fortune that had ever graced me, was with me at that moment.

I wanted to look down, to find again the city lights, since all of this beauty and happiness had begun to trouble me seriously; the value and the worth of everyday annoyances and displeasures appeared to me in all of their importance.

I would have liked to have looked down, but I didn’t see anything… A sweet sound had risen up from the plain, and on that new sea the acropolis, its anchor cut, set sail as if nudged along by the wind…”

Monsieur Dudron’s friend became quiet. Monsieur Dudron said nothing either, and the two men kept walking in silence in the night, side by side.

Meanwhile, they reached the city gate. Since they were both rather tired from having walked for so long, Monsieur Dudron invited his companion to come up to his apartment so that they might rest a bit and perhaps drink something.

When they entered his studio, Monsieur Dudron asked his friend to make himself at home on the couch and to stretch his legs out on the hassock, so that he might rest even more comfortably. Monsieur Dudron then grabbed an old bottle of wine and two glasses, and while he settled himself into another couch, after pouring the wine and lighting his pipe, he began, “What you have told me just now, my dear friend, the story of your adventure on the Acropolis, is a beautiful and profound thing. It has struck me very much, all of this, and it pleases me to think that I have friends capable of such unusual feelings, such unique sensations. I, too, have often dreamed and traveled in my fantasies along untraveled paths — paths down which the intellectual adventure prods one so far astray as to risk a descent into madness. This is what happened to Nietzsche.

We artists, and especially we painters, need something different these days, especially today when painting has been plunged into such a decadence as never before encountered in the history of art. The worst part is that there are so many individuals today who deny the existence of this decadence, because it is in their interest to deny it. They invent new theories in order to hoodwink the next person. Unfortunately for them such theories reek of opportunism from miles away. There exists today a certain bourgeoisification of art, a cowardliness that takes refuge under the aegis of modernism, it curls up under the covers of that which goes by the name of the avant-garde. These theories, to the misfortune of those who concoct them, are flawed, deeply flawed: they make one think of the fable of the fox and the grapes. In such theories one senses all of the anxiety, all the discontent that torments their authors, and also the envy that they feel towards those who are able to reach the grape…”


  1. Michel Leiris, Review of Hebdomeros, Documents no. 5, 1929, pp. 311-12.
  2. Giorgio de Chirico, Il Signor Dudron, (Florence: Le Lettere, 1998). The Archivio dell’Arte Metafisica has undertaken extensive research on the vicissitudes of the Monsieur Dudron project, publishing its findings with regard to various discrepancies and divergences.
  3. Kandinsky Archives, Centre Georges Pompidou. Giorgio de Chirico, postcard to Pierre Roy, dated 14 juillet 1949 [mailed from Rome]: “Moi j’ai fait en mai et juin une grande exposition de 100 tableaux à Londres. J’ai tenu aussi des conférences. Depuis longues années je lutte contre le soi-disant modernisme et maintenant je commence à constater que ma lutte porte des fruits.”
  4. De Chirico, “Some Perspectives on My Art,” in John Ashbery, ed., Hebdomeros and Other Writings (Cambridge MA: Exact Change Press, 1992) p. 254.


Giorgio de Chirico

Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), born to Italian parents in Volos, Greece, studied painting in Munich from 1906 to 1909, and lived briefly in Florence and Milan before settling in Paris in 1911. His studio in Montparnasse brought him into contact with a wide swathe of the Parisian avant-garde, including the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, an early champion of the painter’s so-called Metaphysical painting. Despite their lingering “literary” redolence, de Chirico’s spare cityscapes earned him critical praise and, eventually, representation by Paul Guillaume’s formidable gallery. After Italy entered World War One, de Chirico moved to the city of Ferrara to serve in the army, joined by with his brother and perennial collaborator, Alberto Savinio (né Andrea de Chirico). Their appointment as clerks spared them front-line combat, and de Chirico found time to hone his Metaphysical imagery, now centered upon compact rooms filled with scraps of colored wood, canvas stretchers, and other objects glimpsed in the city’s former Jewish ghetto. After the dissolution of a short-lived “Scuola Metafisica” in Italy, de Chirico returned to Paris in the early 1920s, where his reception by the newly formed Surrealist movement lent fresh momentum to his pre-war imagery. His relationship with the Surrealists soured after he abandoned his Metaphysical style for more pedantically neoclassical imagery, steeped explicitly in ancient myth. De Chirico’s notorious self-copying of his Metaphysical paintings further compromised his rapport with the avant-garde, and his eventual return to Italy witnessed successive styles – from various neo-Delacroix, to neo-Renoir, and numerous others – increasingly distanced from the architectonic imagery by which he made his early mark on modernism.

Ara H. Merjian

ARA H. MERJIAN is Associate Professor of Italian Studies at New York University, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and the Department of Art History, as well as Director of Undergraduate Studies and Acting Chair. He the author of Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City: Nietzsche, Paris, Modernism (Yale University Press, My 2014), and Against the Avant-Garde: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Contemporary Art and Neocapitalism, 1960-75 (University of Chicago Press, 2019)


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