De Chirico and his Fantastic Landscapes

I’ve spent the past few days scouring my art books in search one specific artist. I recalled seeing his fantastic landscapes that seemed so desolate, jet full of energy. In this world, Greco/Roman-styled buildings stood solitary with shadows that stretched all the way across the painting.  I wanted these to be the inspiration for the world of the Tarot. After quite a bit of time, I finally found what I was searching for: the art of Giorgio de Chirico.

Piazza d'Italia 
signed 'g. de Chirico' (lower left) 
oil on canvas 
11 7/8 x 15¾in. (30 x 40cm.) 
Painted circa 1956

Piazza d’Italia circa 1956. This painting is exactly what I picture a dreamscape to look like. On the surface it looks simple and straightforward, but then I start to wonder. What is that train doing in the background? Who are those two people talking?

Technically, de Chirico wasn’t a surrealist. He worked with some of the artists at that time, but he art was more symbolic and used dream imagery. This is what drew me to him.

La Torre Rosa 1913

La Torre Rosa 1913. This was painted during de Chirico’s stint in Paris. You can see the long shadows that characterized his work.

Giorgio de Chirico was born in Volos, a town in Greece on July 10, 1888. When his father died in 1905, the family moved to Munich. At the age of seventeen, de Chirico studied at the Academy of Fine Arts where he was introduced to the ideas of Nietzche. De Chirico also found inspiration in the European Symbolist artists like Franz Stuck and Carlos Schwabe. De Chirico loved their use of dream-like imagery. His earliest paintings used Symbolist ideas with his love of Greece and Italian antiquities. His paintings also represented his musings on the true nature of reality.

La Grande Torre 1919

La Grande Torre 1919. Again, this tower seems so simple on the surface, but the depth of the shadows draws me in. What lives inside that tower?

After settling in Florence, de Chirico traveled to Paris in 1911. There he met a number of avant-garde artists and writers, including Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brancusi. He also exhibited his work to the public. It was during this time (1911-15) that De Chirico created many of his most influential paintings such as “The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street” (1914). His paintings showed scenes with classical architecture where only a single lone figure or monument was present. Often long shadows hinted at other elements or figures just out of view. This creates an unsettling mood.

Mystery and Melancholy of a Street 1914

Mystery and Melancholy of a Street 1914. This is one of de Chirico’s most famous paintings. Notice the shadows of two figures just out of view. That creates an unsettling image for me as my mind desperately wonders who or what they are.

The Great War (World War I) forced de Chirico and his brother into the Italian Army in 1915. De Chirico was stationed in Ferrara, but soon had a nervous breakdown and recouped in a military hospital. In 1917, he met artist Carlo Carrà, who helped him create his style of “metaphysical painting” that emphasized the hidden significance of ordinary places and objects.

The Predictor 1919

The Predictor 1919. Landscapes weren’t the only subject de Chirico painted. He often included these mannequin creatures with oblong blank heads.

De Chirico and Carlo Carrà created a style known as Pittura Metafisica. This type of painting showed recognizable items, but displayed in an unusual manner. De Chirico created city squares with arcades and distant walls. The scenes were dominated by classical statues or his metaphysical mannequins, which were derived from tailor’s dummies. Sometimes, these figures were the only “human” presence in the painting.

Mystery

This painting of a mannequin draws me in, yet I cannot find the title or the year it was painted. I see de Chirico’s signature on the painting. I know that there were some paintings created by other artists with his signature and this might be one. However the cubist shape of this mannequin is compelling.

De Chirico developed this technique from his readings of of the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer and Otto Weininger. He became interested in Nietzche’s idea of the eternal return and the circularity of time. In this philosophy, true reality was always hidden behind the reality of appearances and visible only to the ‘clearsighted’ at enigmatic moments. De Chirico wanted to unmask reality and show the mystery that lay underneath.

Giorgio de Chirico (1898 - 1978. Grêce). Visite aux Bains mystérieux I, 1935

Visite aux Bains mystérieux I, 1935. This is perhaps the most surreal of de Chirico’s paintings. I wonder what happens inside that tiny building? Is it more than just a changing room?

What mystery lies beneath the surface of our reality? De Chirico sought to find it through his painting. His work encourages us to look deeper and see beyond the obvious. We are all seekers of the truth.

Tim Kane

Have a Blue Fish Day (Using Surrealism in Your Writing)

When I was younger, sometimes I would declare that such and such a day was a blue fish day, meaning it had that ethereal quality as if waking from a dream.

What I later learned, was that I was utilizing the the paranoiac-critical method to unlock my unconscious mind. It might just sound like I made those words up. I didn’t. Salvador Dalí did. He was fascinated by the unconscious mind and dreams. (He plagued Freud with letters begging for an audience).

Paranoiac-Critical Method
Typically we’re taught to associate rational cause and effect explanations to events in our lives. Dalí wanted the reverse. A sort of stream of consciousness where irrational thoughts could be attached to events. He described the paranoiac-critical method as a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena.”

Ballerina in a Death's Head is an example of the paranoiac-critical method. Do you see a skull or a ballerina?

In short, this is the ability of the viewer to perceive multiple images within the same configuration. All of us practice the paranoiac-critical method each time we gaze up at clouds in the sky and imagine different shapes. In fact all those sighting of Jesus on a slice of toast or a stucco wall are simply the Paranoid Critical Method in action.

A great introduction to Dalí and the whole surrealist world comes in the short film “The Death of Salvador Dalí.”

But you don’t have to sit idly by to create these associations. There are certain games you can play to help activate this irrational side of your brain.

Exquisite Corpse
This is a game played often by the Surrealists. In this, each person writes part of a sentence, and then folds the paper over so that the next person has no idea what was written. In this fashion, a collage of words creates a bizarre sentence. The name derives from the first playing of the game: “Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau.” (“The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.”)

The game was also played with pictures. One person might draw the head and then fold the paper over so that only a few connecting lines could be seen. This would continue until a total figure had been created.

4-part Corpse drawing; Man Ray, Yves Tanguy, Joan Miro, Max Morise

Cut Ups
It seems the surrealists did have their limit as to what they’d accept. At a surrealist rally in the 1920s Tristan Tzara built a poem from scratch by pulling words out of a hat. A riot broke out and wrecked the theater. Andrè Breton expelled Tristan Tzara from the movement.

Not until forty years later did this technique reemerge. Brion Gysin, a painter and writer, noticed that he’d sliced though the New York Herald Tribune on his cutting board. The cut sections lined up and could be read across. He loved the idea so much that he fashioned and essay called, Minutes to Go. Here’s an excerpt.

“Sickle moon terror nails replica in tin ginsberg. Replicas of Squareville — grey piebald pigeons — pointedly questioned, mimic each other.”

I used this technique to write the opening line to my first published short story. I was stuck and wanted a jarring image to pull the reader in. Sitting in a coffee shop, I picked up the newspaper and started tearing (I didn’t have scissors). I had to do two or three tries until something decent came up, but I think you’ll agree, the technique works.

Unfamiliar puddles of light lurked in the crevices like cancer.

So the next time you’re stuck with a scene or a character or even an idea, turn to the Surrealists for help. As your rational brain gets stuck in rut, unwilling to deliver words on the page, kick it in the but by unlocking your irrational side. Make your day a blue fish day and see what happens.

Tim Kane