The paintings of Giorgio de Chirico invariably call to mind a cluster of adjectives: haunting, enigmatic, evocative, poetic. But unlike many artists whose poetry remains wordless and confined to the canvas, de Chirico was also a writer whose texts have been praised and even translated by such art-world luminaries as Louise Bourgeois and John Ashbery. A new collection provides us with more of de Chirico’s writings. Translated into English by Stefania Heim, Geometry of Shadows presents the relatively compact totality of the artist’s extant poems and poetic fragments written in Italian, complementing his memoirs and the novel Hebdomeros (in French), which have been available in English for some time.
Spanning seven decades, Geometry of Shadows is nonetheless pocked with large chronological gaps due to de Chirico’s sporadic output in Italian. Perhaps inevitably, his writings reflect his career as a painter and its various twists and turns—or, if you like, the puzzling free fall that ensued after an initial period of astonishing brilliance. An early constellation of 11 poems, written after his return to Italy from France during World War I, bears an intriguing relation to his metaphysical paintings of the period, whereas his sparse writings from the 1970s are in fact reworkings of texts he had composed in French, recalling his fairly dubious habit of fashioning new iterations of his earlier paintings in his later years.
The works from the 1910s translated here were mostly composed during a period of extended convalescence at the Villa del Seminario, a facility for the treatment of nervous disorders outside Ferrara. Unsurprisingly, the poems completed in this enforced retreat communicate a sense of unreality and expectancy: “Everywhere is the wait and the gathering,” concludes “Resort.” A kind of soporific haze has seeped into de Chirico’s imagination, asserted through evocations of sleeping and dreaming. Even the violence and ambiguous sexual imagery of “The Mysterious Night” yield to a final note of definitive somnolence: “Everything sleeps; even the owls and the bats who also in the dream dream of sleeping.”
And yet these poems, though sometimes languorous, never feel listless or enervated, mostly because de Chirico, then in his late 20s and in the latter stretch of an extraordinarily fruitful phase as an artist, succeeds in channeling his restlessness and “the algebra of my longings” into uncanny, animated visions. “My room,” he writes, “is a beautiful vessel,” and from there he propels his imagination outward across space and time, geography and history. Indeed, “faraway” (lontani, lontano) is one of his favorite adjectives. He daydreams of Mexico or Alaska and invokes a future-oriented “avant-city” and a distant day where he is immortalized, albeit in an old-fashioned mode as a “man of marble.” From his visionary expeditions he offers testimony of his discoveries and, as in the prose poem “Zeuxis the Explorer,” the lessons revealed to him:
“The world is full of demons,” Heraclitus of Ephesus would say, strolling in the shade of the porticos in the hour pregnant with high noon’s mystery, while in the dry embrace of the Asiatic gulf, the salty water was simmering beneath the southwestern wind.
You must find the demon in every thing.
The aura of fraught “mystery,” the classical ambience, and the traces of an enchanted, archaic world enduring in modernity call to mind de Chirico’s roughly contemporaneous metaphysical paintings.
The writings that come later in Geometry of Shadows lack the shifting, kaleidoscopic textures and suggestive depths of the poems written in Ferrara. Changing course between the wars, de Chirico adopted a neoclassical style as an artist and fell out with the Surrealists; he eventually would sign works “Pictor optimus,” Latin for “the best painter.” His “Morning Prayer of the Perfect Painter,” a mock-devotional exercise, uses its final prayerful request to launch a potshot at “critics and intellectuals,” souring for me an otherwise amusing diversion with a reminder of the artist’s characteristic petulance. “Vale Lutetia,” a long poem in praise of Paris dating from the 1920s, is not without its charms—as when he recalls drifting into a cinema to watch Cecil B. DeMille’s first Ten Commandments movie—but it is a shapeless mess, given to digressions and untenable idealizations of the city. And by now the making of comparative references to antiquity begins to seem a reflexive habit rather than, as earlier, an organic outgrowth of de Chirico’s imaginative sensibility.
Jumping ahead to texts from the 1970s, Geometry of Shadows closes with a sequence of poetic utterances that are spare, direct, and for the most part intended to convey a unified impression. They belong to a wholly different register than the earlier work. The themes expressed are very much those of an artist in later life: mutability and mortality above all, but also the refuge of aesthetic expression and the vanity of human pursuits.
These brief poems seem premised on a minimalism that just barely crosses the threshold of silence. In “Sunday,” for instance, he speaks only with the most basic vocabulary, using words a child would understand: “It is Sunday, it is morning, it is winter / Yesterday I finished my painting. / But the heart is very sad.” The late writings also show de Chirico circling back to sentiments voiced decades before. Distant realms still beckon:
Toward a faraway country
where my sun shines,
beyond the cities, beyond the mountains
beyond the dune,
I wish, o night, that I might voyage in sleep
upon your white clouds
lit up by the moon.
The dreaming of the Ferrara period, the yearning to make far-flung poetic voyages, has returned, but here, toward the end of de Chirico’s life, it is joined by a note of humility that we don’t readily associate with an artist who once claimed perfection for himself. This delicate poem, which I can’t imagine read above the level of a whisper, suggests that the creative artist won’t always be able to venture out imaginatively as an assumed birthright. Ultimately, before embarking on such journeys, even the best artists have to give themselves over to hope.