MILAN, Italy — The aesthetician Richard Wollheim summarized the way that traditional historians understand visual style. In his essay “Style Now,” published in the anthology Concerning Contemporary Art (Oxford, 1975), he notes that, in their view, style “has a unity,” and that like a language this unity involves law-like regularity. There thus is an orderly structure in the stylistic development of an artist. And this implies that it makes sense both to speak of artists searching for and finding a style, and also, on some unhappy occasions, losing that personal style.
Great artists like Nicolas Poussin, who was Wollheim’s favorite painter, have the capacity for radical stylistic development, which when reconstructed shows how influences from other artists were incorporated by continuous stages into their artworks. Finding a style is a real achievement: not everyone can do it. And art only has real value, he claims, insofar as it displays a style.
It is hard to think of any major artist who more dramatically challenges this familiar view of style than Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). Like many of his American admirers, I formed my first impression of his art in large part thanks to the 1982 MoMA exhibition, a show that focused almost entirely upon his cityscapes from the second decade of the 20th century. In those days, his later anti-modernist works were dismissed out of hand, with very little of his art made after 1920 taken seriously, a situation made worse by the self-plagiarisms of his Metaphysical paintings that he made after World War II. Then in the late 1980s, in a reaction to this linear view of modernism, ‘bad painting’ was briefly in vogue, and the previously unfashionable, unaesthetic work of Rene Magritte, Francis Picabia and late de Chirico attracted attention. As, also, did Pablo Picasso’s very late pictures.
Now, however, we are prepared to look seriously at all of de Chirico’s art. How dramatically our sense of things has changed! De Chirico at the Palazzo Reale in Milan is a timely retrospective that offers an almost full presentation of all periods of his painting. We get “Departure of the Argonauts (1909), with Castor and Pollux, backs turned to us in a naturalistic beach scene, presented as precursors of the two de Chirico brothers (Giorgio and Andrea Francesco Alberto, better known as Alberto Savinio), who in that year migrated from Greece to Italy.
The exhibition also offers “The Poet’s Pleasures” (1912), a depopulated Turin scene with architectural constructions — a fountain in the middle, deep shadows on either side, and a station and steam-driven train at the background — but with no human figures. And it includes “Metaphysical Interior with Lighthouse” (1918), which frames a painting-within-the-painting of a lighthouse inside a series of mysterious wooden structures that run deep into the pictorial space.
There is also “Self-Portrait” (1924-25), a realistic image in which most of the artist’s body seems to turn, as it were, to stone, but leaving flesh tones on his face, with his eyes turned towards us. The amazing “Ulysses” (1921-22) presents de Chirico himself as the naked hero, legs crossed, resting against a dark laurel bush. And “The Philosopher,” a single framed painting (1927), mysteriously identified in the wall label as “central section of the triptych,” shows a sitting, blank faced mannequin holding books and small sculptural fragments.
What strange, brightly colored figures, landscapes, and objects we are seeing, eyes wide open! To call these pictures dreamlike is misleading, at least if my dreams, which upon waking are usually vague, and so hard to recollect, are a model. What, rather, we view in this show are very real-seeming things whose relationships within the picture space are obviously illogical and so in need of explanation. “The Lobster (Still life with Lobster and Plaster Cast)” (1922), for example, shows the lobster and four fish — familiar still life objects — on a cloth set before a plaster bust of a head; in the background, there is a window, or a painting, presenting a small sailing boat. Each of these objects is ordinary — it’s their juxtaposition that causes bewilderment.
In a very striking, highly effective example of Italian design, the irregularly angled temporary walls constructed for the exhibition amplify the irrational theatrical spaces depicted in many of the pictures. De Chirico, it’s worth recalling, himself designed opera stage sets for the theater in Florence.
I want to resist any temptation to interpret these pictures, to reveal ‘meanings,’ in favor of acknowledging the ways that they underscore the strangeness of juxtapositions that routinely disrupt the banality of the workaday world. In central Milan, after viewing this exhibition, we went to a café with a painter I greatly admire, who often does political art. As we were served our drinks, as if on queue, a loud demonstration appeared in the street right by our table, complete with lively colorful banners and a police escort. Often everyday life is strikingly de Chirico-esque, at least in Italy!
The Frank Stella of modernist Italian figuration, de Chirco presents relentless change across the body of his art — sequences of very varied subjects linked together presumably by some private association that remain enigmatic to outsiders. What, indeed, can a stylistic analysis make of “Genealogy of the Dream” (1927-28), in which a faceless manikin holding a tree is set in one corner of a marvelously decorated bedroom? Of “The Gladiators” (1929), in which a group of warrior-figures cluster around the center of a bare room? Or of “Orpheus, Tired Troubadour” (1970), in which the weary, mannequin-like Orpheus lays down his musical instruments amid a metaphysical cityscape so common in his art from 50 years before?
In my opinion the only truly bad works here are the “Self-Portrait in Bullfighter’s Costume” (1941-42), which is just silly, and “Grand Canal in Venice” (1952), in which one gondolier is dressed like a typical de Chirico figure and the waters, patently out of scale, open up a very wide space, as if the Grand Canal had become a lake. I’ve seen better pictures in provincial Italian restaurants. And yet, no one would confuse the art in this show, even these gawky works, with any pictures by Magritte, Picabia or Picasso. De Chirico’s paintings are always unmistakably his, which is to say that the claim that, circa 1920, he lost his style cannot be correct. How astonishing that he was able to incorporate such diverse pictorial content into his paintings. Developing an account of visual style adequate to this exhibition is going to be a real challenge for our aestheticians, one that I hope they will pursue.
De Chirico continues at Palazzo Reale (Piazza del Duomo, Milan, Italy) through January 19, 2020.