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Il grande metafisico is one of the most famous of de Chirico's early masterpieces. One of the most enduring and influential images of the artist's entire oeuvre, this haunting and evocative painting of bizarrely constructed classical monolith stands as both an icon of metaphysical painting and as a poignant emblem of the dark years of the First World War during which it was created.
Il grande metafisico was painted by de Chirico in Ferrara in the autumn of 1917 during a leave of absence from his military duties. In some respects this painting, along with the two other great masterworks painted at this time, Il trovatore and Ettore e Andromaca, marks a return to the subject matter and ambience of the artist's earlier Parisian period of 1914. The predominantly dark atmosphere of foreboding and enigma that characterizes these mannequin-like reconstituted figures echoes the shadowy, autumnal feeling of mystery that suffuses de Chirico's earliest Parisian paintings, and owes little to the 'metaphysical interiors' that he had also done during his leave in Ferrara.
Il grande metafisico is distinguishable from the mannequins of Ettore e Andromaca, Il trovatore, and also of the later Le muse inquietanti, in so far that this figure is not actually a mannequin. It is instead a fabricated monument to the Metaphysical worldview. As Paolo Baldacci has written, the figure de Chirico represents in this work is "the colossal man of the future foretold by the Metaphysical artist, the Nietzschean superman and the man of iron described by Savinio in his Realt' dorata" (P. Baldacci, Giorgio de Chirico: The Metaphysical Period, London 1997, p. 372). Towering over the Piazza Ariostea in Ferrara, a town square dominated by a marble monument to the Renaissance poet Ariosto, this constructed Metaphysican stands with his back to the viewer contemplating the artifice of the stage-set-like reality of the scene like an icon and symbol of the "New Man" and his new vision. The format of this work echoes the visual language of great 19th century Romantic painting, in particular, Caspar David Friedrich's 1818 Wanderer above a Sea of Mists and, a favorite work of de Chirico's, Arnold Böcklin's Odysseus and Calypso of 1883. Indeed, the figure of Böcklin's Odysseus actually makes another appearance in this work as he had done in so many of de Chirico's early paintings, standing deep in contemplation at the far end of the piazza - a mysterious and poignant echo of the figure of the metaphysician himself.
It is clear from de Chirico's writings, and from the consistent aesthetic of his art at this time, what kind of figure his "Great Metaphysician" represents. Drawn from his reading of Nietzsche, the figure of the metaphysician embodied the notion of a "New Man" one who could see through the artifice of all things and whose vision would lay the foundations for a new world. Nietzsche wrote in The Birth of Tragedy that "The man of philosophic turn has a foreboding that underneath this reality in which we live and have our being, another and altogether different reality lies concealed, and that therefore it (the latter) is also an appearance" (in O. Levy, ed., The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, New York, 1911, p. 23). De Chirico's metaphysical painting aimed to demonstrate both the artifice of reality and to reveal the innate poetry of the enigma hidden beneath and between the appearance of all things. His "Great Metaphysician" is a figure who not only perceives the world in this way, but is himself shown to be constructed according to the new logic and rationality of such a fragmentary and deconstructed world view. Partly classical sculpture which has been seemingly boarded up--as many of the statues in Italian town squares were during the war years--the figure of the Metaphysician is formed out of a quasi-cubistic assemblage of set-squares, rulers and other seemingly mathematical and geometric apparati. He is a supra-logical construction--a figure, increasingly common in de Chirico's art of this period--seemingly both enigmatic and tragic, who exists on a plane beyond that of rational thought.
Executed after three long years of war, the somewhat comic and claustrophobic qualities evoked by the strangely constructed monolithic figure of Il grande metafisico can also be seen, like those of the mannequins of Ettore e Andromaca, as an indictment of the suffocating effect of the war on human creativity. Having been transferred from one reserve military barracks to another over a period of three years, this was an experience de Chirico knew firsthand. He had titled his painting of two kissing mannequins Ettore e Andromaca not only to poke fun at a well-known subject of 19th century painting (the scene in which the Trojan hero Hector bids his wife a last farewell before departing for the battle in which he would be slain), but he was also presenting, in a deliberately inanimate and coldly dispassionate way, a scene of separation, and of undeniable pathos and human emotion, of the kind that was taking place on a daily basis all around him in wartime Italy.
Implicit within Il grande metafisico too, is this same satirical notion of the human being as a mere empty-headed automaton, a mechanical robot who fulfills his role in a bizarre mechanical universe. This striking feature of 1917 paintings soon taken up and developed into an overt form of protest by many artists, most notably the Berlin Dadaists, such as Raoul Hausmann and George Grosz, whose puppets and automatons were soon fiercely satirizing the brutally mechanical bureaucracy of the German military.
De Chirico's transmutation of the human into a dummy or a mechanical object is nevertheless intended less as a critique of man's slave-like obedience to the powers that be, than as a psychological portrait. The impossible angles and geometry of the constructions that form his "Grande metafisico" or his "trovatore" are architectural elements that for him, are an attempt to map and outline the contours of the poetic soul. The very fakeness, illogicality and physical impossibility of the elements that constitute such a construction as the "Grande metafisico" is intended to underscore the complexity and supra-rationality of the figure depicted.
Metaphysical painting intended to demonstrate that the world of everyday reality was but a façade, and that a richer deeper undefinable and mysterious poetry lay beneath the appearance of the ordinary. For de Chirico, his "Grande metafisico" was a figure whose mentality and worldview clearly transcended our one-dimensional stage-set-like world of external appearances and was one that existed on an altogether different, deeper and more fundamental level. Encumbered by all the props and artifice of physical construction, the figure de Chirico presents in this painting is one that hints at this alternate transcendent reality at the same time as it criticizes the density and clumsiness of ours. A monument to a higher unknowable geometry and mathematics, this sculptural portrait of the "Grande metafisico" is an apparition, one that has suddenly materialized at this strange twilight hour, in the middle of this Ferrarese piazza. In this respect it is perhaps interesting to note that the next major painting that de Chirico undertook was the complex work Il ritornante, which is also a picture of an apparition that recounts the bizarre encounter between a constructed mannequin and the physical materialization of a ghost.
In mid-1917, de Chirico ceased sending his paintings to Paul Guillaume for sale in Paris, seeking instead to organize his own exhibition in Italy. The majority of his works from this year, including Il grande metafisico, went to Mario Broglio, de Chirico's Italian impresario, in 1918-1919. It is believed that this painting at one time entered the collection of Alfred C. Barnes before being sold to Philip L. Goodwin, who bequeathed it to The Museum of Modern Art in 1958.
(fig. 1) Giorgio de Chirico, Ettore e Andromaca, 1917. Private Collection.
©c 2004 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York SIAE, Rome
(fig. 2) Giorgio de Chirico, Il trovatore, 1917. Private Collection.
©c 2004 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York SIAE, Rome
(fig. 3) Giorgio de Chirico, Le muse inquietanti, 1918. Private Collection.
©c 2004 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York SIAE, Rome
(fig. 4) Arnold Böcklin, Odysseus and Calypso, 1883. Bale, Offentiliche Kunstsammlung.
Il grande metafisico
Oil on canvas
Property from The Museum of Modern Art, sold to benefit the Acquisitions Fund
Signed and dated 'G. de Chirico 1917' (lower right)
Giorgio de Chirico
Rome, Galleria dell'Epoca, Mostra d'arte indipendente, May-June 1918, no. 4.
Viareggio, Kursaal di Viareggio, Pittura d'avanguardia Italiana, August 1918.
Berlin, Nationalgalerie; Hannover, Kestner Gesellschaft; and Dresden, Kunstausstellung Emil Richter, Das Junge Italien, April-October 1921, no. 15.
Florence, Palazzo del Parco di San Gallo, La Fiorentina Primaverile, April-July 1922, no. 6.
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Twentieth Century Italian Art, June-September 1949, p. 129, pl. 36.
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Paintings from Private Collections, May-September 1955, p. 8.
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Giorgio de Chirico, September-October 1955, pp. 109 and 129 (illustrated in color, p. 133; illustrated, p. 144).
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Two Exhibitions: Works of Art: Given or Promised; The Philip L. Goodwin Collection, 1958, p. 7.
Milan, Silvana Editoriale d'Arte, Arte Italiana del XX Secolo da Collezioni Americane, 1960, p. 81.
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Paintings from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, December 1963-March 1964, p. 66.
New York, The Sidney Janis Gallery, Masterpieces of Twentieth Century Art, January-February 1969.
Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Fünfzehnte europäische Kunstausstellung, Tendenzen der Zwanziger Jahre, Surrealismus, August-October 1977, no. 7.
Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Giorgio de Chirico, November 1981-January 1982.
Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, De Chirico, February-April 1983.
London, The Tate Gallery, De Chirico, no. 73.
Brussels, Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Surrealism, no. 8.
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA 200, Modern Starts: People, Composing with the Figure, October 1999-February 2000, p. 103.
Tokyo, Ueno Royal Museum, Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, 1900-1955, October 2001-February 2002, pp. 48-49 (illustrated in color, p. 49).
41¼ x 27 3/8 in. (104.8 x 69.5 cm.)
A. Savinio, "Arte = Idee Moderne," Valori Plastici, year I, no. 1, Rome, 15 November 1918, opposite p. 16.
T. Daübler, "Neuste Kunst aus Italien," Der Cicerone, no. 9, Leipzig, May 1920, p. 351.
P. F. Schmidt, Die Kunst der Gegenwart (Die sechs Bücher der Kunst, Sechstes Buch), Berlin, 1922, p. 92, no. 143 (illustrated).
U. Nebbia, "Sul movimento pittorico contemporaneo (1913-1924)," Emporium, vol. LIX, no. 351, Bergamo, March 1924, p. 184 (illustrated; dated 1918).
H. Arp and E. Lissitzky, Kunstismus 1914-1924, Leipzig, 1925, p. 26, no. 14 (dated 1919).
F. Roh, Nach-Expressionismus. Magischer Realismus, Leipzig, 1925, pl. 4.
P. Westheim, Künstlerbekenntnisse, Briefe, Tagebuchblätter, Betrachtungen heutiger Künstler, Berlin, 1925, p. 296.
C. Einstein, Die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, Berlin, 1926, p. 350.
C. Einstein, "Giorgio de Chirico," Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration, XXXI, vol. 61, Darmstadt, January 1928, p. 348.
R. Hamann, Geschichte der Kunst von der altchristlichen Zeit bis zur Gegenwart, Berlin, 1933, pp. 885-886 (illustrated, p. 885).
J. T. Soby, Giorgio de Chirico, New York, 1955, p. 132 (illustrated in color, p. 133; illustrated again, p. 144).
The Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, XXVI, Fall 1958, p. 7, no. 1.
E. Potter, Painters on Painting, New York, 1963, p. 220.
W. Haftmann, Painting in the Twentieth Century, New York, 1965, vol. 2, p. 1986.
C. Bruni, Catalogo Generale Giorgio de Chirico, vol. I, Milan, 1971-1987, no. 40 (illustrated).
H.H. Arnason, The History of Modern Art and Architecture, New York, 1977, pp. 296 and 298 (illustrated in color, pl. 126).
A.H. Barr, Jr., Painting and Sculpture in The Museum of Modern Art: 1929-1967, New York, 1977, pp. 155 and 532.
M. Fagiolo dell'Arco, L'opera completa di De Chirico 1908-1924, Milan, 1984, p. 101, no. 125 (illustrated, p. 102; illustrated again in color, pl. XXXII).
A. Legg and M.B. Smalley, eds., Painting and Sculpture in The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1988, p. 25.
E. Braun, ed., Italian Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture, 1900-1988, London, 1989, p. 66.
Mario Broglio, Rome.
Albert C. Barnes, Merion, Pennsylvania (by 1924).
Georgette Passedoit Gallery, New York (on consignment).
Philip L. Goodwin, New York.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York (gift from the above, 1958).