De Chirico’s name is synonymous with the disquiet that cities can provoke
Giorgio de Chirico was born in Greece but sometimes called himself Florentine, for it was in Florence that he had the experience that shaped his seminal paintings. One day in 1909 he was sitting in the Piazza Santa Croce and, as the sun fell on a marble statue of Dante and the facade of the nearby church, he ‘had the strange impression that I was looking at all these things for the first time, and the composition of my picture came to my mind’s eye.’
The painting was called The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon, and many more in the same vein followed during the next decade. With bare arcades, deep shadows and brooding statues, the empty squares they feature are mysterious and eerie. Often cited by writers on architecture, De Chirico’s name is now synonymous with the sense of disquiet that cities can provoke.
Just a few minutes’ walk from Santa Croce itself, some of these early works by de Chirico are currently displayed in the magnificent Palazzo Strozzi. But the show’s significance lies in its attempt to track their later influence on many other artists - not just on household names (Max Ernst, René Magritte), but also on such lesser-known figures as the Swiss artist Niklaus Stoecklin.
There are some real discoveries here. The curators suggest that, in their different ways, all the artists try to capture something that’s inherent in reality but not immediately visible - hence the exhibition’s subtitle. Just as pertinent, though, is De Chirico’s attitude to all that surrounded him: ‘To live in the world as in an immense museum of strange things.’
’Whether emanating from a still life or a landscape, that strangeness is palpable in many of the exhibits’
As the show unfolds, we see how the surrealists took their cue from De Chirico, and also discover his impact on Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity) artists like Stoecklin, who paints such mundane objects as a shoe last or a wig stand with hyperrealist precision.
Alongside loans from museums are some fine pieces from private collections - notably Balthus’ superb large Parisian tableau Le passage du Commerce Saint André. Shops are shuttered, blinds drawn and the people all preoccupied, in a familiar but inscrutable scene. The works are thoughtfully installed in the high-ceilinged rooms and spaces of the Strozzi’s piano nobile, and all 101 of them are reproduced in the accompanying catalogue.
This includes an intriguing essay on the sources of De Chirico’s imagery, in which the writer argues that De Chirico’s squares are not as specifically Italian as is usually assumed, but instead are composites from his travels.
Towards its end, the exhibition returns to De Chirico, with paintings from the mid-1920s - among them, a bizarre interior in which trees climb towards the ceiling and waves lap across the floor. De Chirico’s later output is often disregarded, but these works are distinctly unsettling. Just like those early empty squares, these paintings make the world seem a place where we will never feel at home.
De Chirico, Max Ernst, Magritte, Balthus: A Look into the Invisible
Where: Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, Italy
When: Until 18 July