Giorgio de Chirico at the Estorick, London
Born in Greece to Italian parents, Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) studied painting in Munich and was influenced by the German Symbolists. In Florence in 1910 he probably first became interested in Nietzche, whose metaphysical philosophy had a profound influence on him, inspiring some of his best compositions such as the series of Italian piazzas containing classical statuary and causing him to found Pittura Metafisica. De Chirico is famous for themes of nostalgia, enigma and myth and for the dream-like imagery of his work. He was on the edge of the Surrealist movement, but had an uneasy relationship with it. De Chirico’s sculptural oeuvre has tended to be neglected.
May I start by asking you about the idea behind the exhibition?
Girogio de Chirico is one of the most loved and well-known artists in 20th century Italian art ; out of all the artists we have covered in exhibitions de Chirico, Modigliani and Morandi are the three artists with the greatest name recognition in England and their shows are the most popular. In 2003 we put on the Giorgio de Chirico and the Myth of Ariadne exhibition, but we felt that this Myth and Mystery show was an area of de Chirico’s work that people were less familiar with and was therefore very exciting!
The Estorick is a small space so we can’t hold a retrospective on a major artist, but on the other hand it works well because it enables us to focus on special subjects like this and look at areas that have been overlooked.
How did de Chirico regard sculpture as part of his practice?
He worked in sculpture throughout his life, thinking in the third dimension was very important to him it was an integral part of his life and work. He did not see sculpture as separate, but as one aspect of his vision as an artist, an important form of expression. His sculptures are not just three dimensional versions of his paintings, they exist in their own right, and it is interesting to look at their relationship to the paintings.
What was the inspiration for him to start making sculpture?
I think it came about very naturally. The classical influence was an important part of his heritage; he was brought up with the classical sculpture of Greece and Rome. In his paintings he includes and features classical sculpture and also creates contrast with the later statues in the squares. It was a natural progression for him to start thinking of making sculpture.
Talking about his paintings, de Chirico said, ‘Tears and dumbstruck admiration are not enough’ and he explains how the paint itself can resonate. How do you think this translates to sculpture, when the material comes alive…
I think it adds an extra layer of mystery as to how that surface has come alive in that way. The material and the effect it would have were very important to him. One of the first effects you notice in his sculptures is that the shiny surfaces are mirror-like, but because this mirror quality gives another perspective to the viewer, you actually see yourself reflected upside down, and because it is concave you are distorted. The viewer and the environment are brought into the sculpture, so it’s not like the paintings where the sculptures are in the square and you look into that world, here you actually become part of the sculpture.
He talks about the physical act of ‘digging and scraping’ and drawing form out of the material, but when he depicts himself as a ‘water-diviner’, is there a sense of him not only physically bringing something forth, but he also bringing to life another reality, that other dimension…
Yes, and then Nietszche comes into this, as it is a mental as well as physical process, and de Chirico is always challenging what is there. He is interested in that other reality, he senses it is there and he sees himself as being able to bring it into being.
Although identity was an issue for de Chirico, do you think that is how he sees his role? For example, his subject matter suggests the idea of his search for fundamental truths and that alternate reality, The Archaeologists (1966) reveal the past, The Painter (1968) reveals the mysteries of life and The Great Metaphysician (undated) reveals sacred geometries…
I think he was very aware of his abilities and was always looking for those answers and questioning things. As you point out, he was not modest in stating that he felt he was the creator, and bringing forth his vision of that other world. This is a sort of dilemma within himself, he is always experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what is reality and searching for that metaphysical world.
Is The Great Metaphysician a personification of the geometer, Euclid or Pythagoras or a surrealist personage? How does sacred geometry function in de Chirico’s sculpture? He highlights his father’s working tools with the classical pediment…
I think there is a very strong sense of these elements running through both paintings and sculpture, with geometry suggesting underlying mysteries. They are decorative and also symbolic and loaded with meaning and significance for him. You can also read it as a surrealist personage and I think de Chirico liked to bring all these ideas together so that when you go back to the piece you can see something new in it, because it works on so many levels.
Although he uses the same iconography throughout his work he always seems to be reaching for new possibilities…
In some ways, his work can be formulaic and repeats itself, but it is never exactly the same. There are always small changes as he creates new worlds. As you say, the exploration goes on it is not repetition, he is looking at new combinations to express that other level of reality. There are always different perspectives on the concepts and theories that he deals with.
De Chirico utilises the iconography from his paintings, but now they are removed from that context and in a three dimensional form, what does he focus on? The psychology and emotional significance of gesture and body language seem at play. The faceless mannequins in The Archaeologists (1966) exude a sense of unease with the gripping hand on the shoulder and nervous movement backwards, yet there is human- like intimacy…
Yes, it is that really interesting play, as they are mannequins but they are also figures, they are human-like and their join is more fluid, and it is that relationship that you focus on, and think of what it might mean. You can look at the behaviour and study their gestures and again it is that mystery and ambiguity.
Do feel that is where the tension and ambiguity lies, as de Chirico says that the more human they want to be, the more monstrous and repulsed we are. He wants us to feel pathos…
Exactly, it is somehow sad. Your immediate feeling is – what are they? It so unsettling and strange to us, which is the exact sensation of unease that de Chirico wanted to create. He confronts us with a strange reality that we do not find at all comfortable. He is playing with us, he is always on the edge and does not reveal the answers. Perhaps he had not resolved this within his own mind.
He was very close to his brother, Alberto Savinio, do you think he was influenced by the Poltona Vedova and the notion of the figures melting into the sofa, and his focus on those exaggerated hand gestures?
I am not sure you could point to who did what first as it’s a vision they shared. They were always aware of each others work, so there was a natural empathy there, as they were so close. They considered themselves as twins and so thought very much along similar lines. I think there is a mutual interest and involvement in the language of gesture and the idea of communication, which runs through many of his other sculptures and links their work closely.
Some writers link the dissolving technique of the fluid join he uses to his similar brushstroke of the period, or is it a separate sculptural technique to create that atmosphere of fluid intimacy?
I think it is more about the possibilities of the bronze and the technique he can use to make that feeling between the two figures, and they can come alive in a particular way with his use of the material. I think it is a separate solution and a technique he uses to show that way the figures are completely fused.
The later The Archaeologists (1969) is more emblematic, they are presented together like a king and queen on a throne, a surrealist paradox as the sofa gives the sculpture a cosy, comfortable feeling…
As you say, it works on those levels which make it seem very quirky, disarming and unexpected in a surreal way. He loves to play with these ideas, so we are not quite sure what we are looking at, and his subtle sense of humour really comes through. This incongruity links to his whole vision, where you might find biscuits in the paintings, thrones that are actually just sofas, he wants it to be unsettling for you.
In The Comforter (1970), the title is very ironic there is a physical and emotional distance between them, she is reflective and melancholic and although he puts his hand on her shoulder, there is no real communication. The polished surface also accentuates that sense of dislocation…
It is a very cold image in every sense, as there is no real connection between them. I think there is also an element of performance, just as in the paintings, you get the feeling that something is ready to start or just finishing, and that the viewer has just caught a moment between them. It is even more apparent here in sculpture as it’s in three dimensions, so you are physically there witnessing and interacting with it.
In The Disquieting Muse (1970) do you feel de Chirico uses the negative space between the figures for psychological effect? The draped figure is moving forward gesturing, but the other figure is static and reserved, his hands hidden. How does the space affect the relationship between the figures as they confront each other on that small base?
I think it is a very interesting point and it links to the paintings. De Chirico is very interested in this idea of space and what it can convey. The negative space of the gap is very important. It is the tension, the figures have been placed in a very particular attitude and relationship together. The gap is just as important as the figures themselves and is atmospheric…very charged.
How does myth function in de Chirico’s sculpture?
I think the myths are so ingrained within him, and always in his mind, they are very much a part of his life and his thinking. They mutate according to his feelings at the time. They have been worked through and reshaped so much that they have become part of his imaginative vocabulary. They are very processed through his mind and experience, he enjoys returning to them time and time again, each time with a different outcome.
De Chirico likens sculpture to a ‘ghost’ when it loses its context and function of adorning and suddenly appears in a gallery, he delights in that surprise…
I think there is a link here with the paintings, with the sculptures in the squares, it is the moment when you walk through the square and the sculpture appears in the middle. However, when it is three dimensional, it is much more unexpected, you have the sense of these things just appearing within a museum or gallery space. There is nothing else in the room so you have to focus on the work and interact with it, it is in a void.
What do you think about post-modern readings of de Chirico where he is consciously parodying his own work?
Yes it’s considered very modern for that, almost like Warhol! For certain things he goes back and repeats himself as he knows it was successful, but it also becomes like an obsession. In repeating it like a series the colours are very modern acid and vibrant. He had such a long life beginning with the avant–garde and ending as a post-modern!
When he was alive, how involved was he in the whole casting process, with the finish?
He was quite involved, and you can see the photographs in the catalogue of him with the sculpture. He was very concerned with the patina, and the gold and silver finish was all his decision, his stylistic choice.
Did he use the same foundry all the time?
There were three main foundries with which de Chirico collaborated Fonderia Gi-Bi-Esse in Verona, Fonderia Fratelli Bonvicini in Somma Campagna and Fonderia Cavallari in Rome.
Did he make limited editions?
Yes they are all limited editions.
Are there any unique casts?
Not as far as I know
Did he leave any instructions about posthumous casting?
Everything with de Chirico is a bit complicated, the ones we have here were all done throughout his life, but he was very interested in making money, and so there are a series of authorised casts done after he died which he set up, so they are posthumous. There is a Foundation in Rome and they supervise this.
What is the name of this Foundation? Did de Chirico set it up to make posthumous casts?
The Foundation is the Fondazione Giorgio e Isa de Chirico, Rome. The Foundation was not set up by de Chirico himself, nor is its sole task to oversee the production of posthumous casts. The role of the Foundation is described on De Chirico Foundation website.
You say all the casts in the exhibition were cast during de Chirico’s lifetime. I expect that you read Brian Sewell’s review of the exhibition in The Evening Standard in which he said the figurative sculptures in the exhibition are given dates from the mid sixties to mid seventies, with the exception of three casts which have no date and one which is given the date 1967-1987, which he says must be a posthumous cast. How do you know the three undated casts are lifetime ones and also the fourth cast dated 1967-1987?
We can’t actually be sure they were all produced during his lifetime. However, all casts of de Chirico’s works were authorised by the artist prior to his death.
Sewell also calls for a catalogue raisonné of the casts giving the dates and edition numbers – Do you agree this is needed?
Any addition to the scholarly literature concerning an artist is welcome.
Can you talk about the installation, is this a very planned or developed in an organic way?
It is very hard to install sculpture, as you realise that the permutations are endless, and you feel impelled to get the right configuration. I always start with a chronological basis but it is quite organic and waiting for things to click. I like to get a sense of the views and vistas, and involve the whole space in that way. The pieces have to work together and with the room itself, so many things come into play.
With the installation, what particular challenges did the sculptures present with their varying surfaces?
When they arrived and we had them all together on the crates it was very difficult, with all the different surfaces. It was most disturbing with so many reflections in the surfaces! They seem to meld into each other – quite a scene! In one of the galleries I had an idea to put three of the sculptures together, and that it would be interesting to see the variation, I was so sure that it would look right, but it somehow it did not work at all. The contrast in the polish was always going to be difficult to display. My first reaction to the works was that they were too shiny for my taste, but I have learned to like them. It was important that the first impression of the show was not that the pieces seemed too gold-like and shiny, so there had to be a balance in the display of the works with a juxtapositioning of the different polishes.
What do you feel will be the legacy of the exhibition?
Visitors were very excited about the exhibition, and it has had so much attention, I think it will really bring light to this unknown area of his work, people will think of de Chirico as a sculptor as well as a painter, and that will bring a richer understanding of his work.
Main image: Installation view, Giorgio de Chirico: Myth and Mystery (photo: courtesy of the Estorick Collection, London)