Giulio Paolini on Giorgio de Chirico

For Giulio Paolini, Giorgio de Chirico’s multifarious oeuvre has been not only a source of inspiration, but also a cornerstone of his way of considering art-making and the role of the author. The short anthology of texts presented here exemplifies this continuous and elaborate reflection. There are many pages of writings and interviews spanning a vast chronology where Paolini talks about the life, work, and thought of his predecessor. This anthology is the result of a selection, enough to grasp that the deep analogies between the two go well beyond what we usually think to see or capture in the younger artist’s work.

Giulio Paolini, Disegno geometrico [Geometric Drawing], 1960, Tempera and ink on canvas. 15.7 × 23.6 inches. Fondazione Giulio e Anna Paolini, Turin. © Giulio Paolini. Courtesy Fondazione Giulio e Anna. Photo: Mario Sarotto.

In the piece titled Controcampo [Reverse Angle] (2008), Paolini works in his familiar collage technique, weaving an imaginary dialogue. He cuts and pastes his voice alongside that of Hebdomeros, de Chirico’s “double,” from his 1929 novel of the same name. The two writings lie almost sixty years apart from one another, and yet the correspondences are striking. The month of September is for both of them a time of revelations and transformation. In autumn 1909, travelling from Rome to Florence, de Chirico experienced moments of profound concentration, and an “other” image of the world appeared to him, which also bore a new pictorial style, that for which he would become famous. Hebdomeros’s lazy way of facing life and the beginnings of Paolini’s artistic work match the “mythical” birth of Metaphysical art. On a September day in 1960, Paolini made his first and “last” work, that Disegno geometrico [Geometrical Drawing] with which everything starts and ends, an operational field encompassing every image.

In the text taken from Una costellazione, un mosaico indeterminato [A Constellation, an Indeterminate Mosaic] (2006), Paolini identifies with de Chirico to such a degree that he takes on the vitriolic criticism lodged against de Chirico by the Italian architect and designer Gio Ponti in 1942, when he was the chief-editor of Domus magazine. Ponti wrote about de Chirico’s bad old age, calling it a “juvenile bluff” finally revealed. Angered by the increasingly reactionary opinions de Chirico avowed as the years went by, Ponti pondered how badly old age had affected the painter’s critical skills. Paolini claimed (and still does) the opposite; as can be clearly seen in his 1988 conversation with Francesco Poli, he appreciates de Chirico’s “viewpoint that is very detached from and openly critical of mainstream art activity,” and how he was able to take his role as an artist not too seriously, “distanc[ing] himself from the entire avant-garde, which still viewed the construction of the image in a positive light.” And not only did he praise these traits—although alongside an inescapable awareness of decline and melancholy—but he also bought a small self-portrait of de Chirico (1948), a drawing on paper, where the old master had depicted himself outside of time, dressed in 17th-century costume. Paolini keeps this treasured drawing, now on view at CIMA, in a private place in his house.

Paolini’s view of de Chirico has not, however, always been a wholly sympathetic one. In Gli uni e gli altri [The Ones and the Others] (2010), the artist recalls the first time he met the master. It was April 1958, soon after Paolini had moved to Turin with his family, when he had the chance to attend a crowded lecture given by de Chirico. At the age of seventeen, he felt a sense of “burning resentment” for the painter’s strenuous rejection of new art forms. It took some years for his opinion to change altogether; his work of 1969 – 70, Et quid amabo nisi quod ænigma est [What Shall I Love If Not the Enigma], best exemplifies this turn of the tables, his first open homage to the older artist. Paolini borrowed the Latin motto de Chirico had written on a self-portrait in 1911 and turned it into a business card and a banner, bringing public notice to an utterly personal and subjective condition.

When reading Paolini, we see the reactionary de Chirico—mercilessly criticised by Ponti—replaced by de Chirico the “acrobat,” who attempts fearless exercises in the face of the modesty and norm of many contemporary painters. It is these visions, slightly blurred and repulsive at times, that according to Paolini plunge us into the fertile depth of de Chirico’s abyss and that constitute the most precious fruit of his art. In a conversation with Brigitte Paulino-Neto in 1985, Paolini stated: “I am attracted even to those works that critics generally despise… Maybe not all of his pictures are masterpieces, but he succeeded in defining the modern artist who alone was able to live to the fullest.” De Chirico’s ability to take a sarcastic stand against the pride of certain members of the avant-garde and his rejection of history (an open anachronism) are among the characteristics that Paolini seems to appreciate the most. With them, as can be inferred many times in the beautiful passages that follow below, comes a sense of edifying melancholy (Hebdomeros’s “necessary inutility”) that leads to the staging of Paolini’s own existence as an artist: “left home to face the day, and entering in the safety of my studio’s walls, […] I manage to pretend that I exist, […] staging a makeshift and calculated disorder to make myself believe that I am in the process of creating something.”


Giulio Paolini, Autoritratto (Self-Portrait), 1970. Photo emulsion on canvas. 15.7 × 31.5 inches. Private collection. © Giulio Paolini. Photo: Adam Reich.



Anthology (in chronological order)


1. Excerpt from Brigitte Paulino-Neto, “Giulio Paolini,” Beaux-Arts Magazine, 25, Paris, June 1985, 36 – 41.

PAOLINI: I am attracted even to those works [of Giorgio de Chirico] that critics generally despise, the ones after his Metaphysical period. He is an artist who has always worked for himself, indifferent to the critiques and mockery that his work has elicited. He was able to choose his own destiny as an artist, with great elegance. Maybe not all of his pictures are masterpieces, but he succeeded in defining the modern artist who was able to live to the fullest.

PAULINO-NETO: What is this notion of the modern artist?

PAOLINI: First of all, de Chirico is an artist who resists categorization. I admit that this is a slightly romantic answer, but I truly mean it. I believe an artist is the one who expresses himself the least. His destiny implies, contrary to appearances, a withdrawal from the scene. We are used to thinking that the artist is always in full control of his expression. Personally, I believe he is present even when absent.

2. Excerpt from Francesco Poli, “Between Space and Time,” Contemporanea (international edition), vol. I, n. 2, New York, July – August 1988, 92 – 97.

He [Giorgio de Chirico] is one of my closest relatives, because as a figure, almost outside of his work, he represents a viewpoint that is very detached from and openly critical of mainstream art activity. It seems that in his case, whatever it was he did, in every period of his career, there was always a stance that was specifically that of the artist of our time, one that de-dramatized his role without devaluing it. It is a lateral position with respect to the frontal one of contemporary art culture, an exemplary position. De Chirico understood, better and earlier than others did, the inevitable retreat of the work in the face of the why of the work. He, more than anyone else, even while he continued to produce, managed to diminish the imperative of meaning, distancing himself from the entire avant-garde, which still viewed the construction of the image in a positive light.

3. Excerpt from Giulio Paolini, “Una costellazione, un mosaico indeterminato,” Quattro passi. Nel museo senza muse (Turin: Giulio Einaudi Editore, 2006), 15 – 16.

Reading Giorgio de Chirico’s Considerazioni sulla pittura moderna [Considerations on Modern Painting], one realizes that one of the hardest things for a more or less famous man to do is to age well. We have witnessed and continue to witness disastrous examples of this inability, especially in the field of the arts. Men who, thirty years ago, claimed to be pioneers of taste, who lived (in the spotlight) in the most thriving international intellectual landscape, who produced with their own ideas and example that admiration always instilled in the young by such pioneers have now become—due to who knows what collapse (moral, economic, political, or artistic?)—grumpy, naïve, disgusted, reactionary old men who desperately scribble in an effort to remove any coherence from their relatively gloriously conquered past. These cases of flagrant apostasies, superfluous regrets, and pitiful sacrifices (which do not refer only to the “de Chirico” phenomenon) help us to understand that at the end of one’s life there is often that rigorous and inexorable explanation that a “juvenile bluff” could masquerade with the zeal of a youth spent in good company (G.P.).

This signature of G.P., as will be clear from what follows, clearly does not stand for me, but for Gio Ponti, the director of Domus at the time. If only it had fallen to me to counsel on how “to age well” at the age of sixteen months (given that the text dates to March of 1942)—the age in which we start formulating words. Although it would be an honest and honorable thing to take on the legacy of those “superfluous regrets,” I am not, as stated above, the object of Ponti’s criticism—rather it is Giorgio de Chirico. Over the years, I have written a long and bitter story in segments not yet concluded, and I truly wish I could attribute to myself such a delicate and demanding legacy. And there is also the coincidence that de Chirico wrote his Considerazioni in 1942, at the age of fifty-four, and I wrote Lezione di pittura [Painting Lesson] in 1994, when I was at the same age.

4. Giulio Paolini, “Controcampo,” Giorgio de Chirico. Werke 1909 – 1971 in Schweizer Sammlungen, Gerd Roos and Dieter Schwarz Eds. (Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2008), 219 – 221 [in German], 224 – 226 [in Italian].

He was only happy when nobody took the slightest notice of him; to be dressed like everybody else, to attract no attention, never to feel others’ glances piercing his back or sides, even if they were kindly gazes…

– Giorgio de Chirico, Hebdomeros

Although I am not able to demonstrate that this really took place (in fact, it is an absolutely gratuitous choice), I allow myself to transcribe (but not to document) a dialogue that I was able to reconstruct thanks to a reciprocal exchange of words (as it appears to me), though pronounced and published at different times, between Giorgio de Chirico and whomever writes in these two books, each unbeknownst to the other [Giorgio de Chirico, Ebdòmero (Milan: Bompiani, 1942); English translation: Hebdomeros (London: Owen, 1968); and Giulio Paolini, Ancora un libro, Bruno Corà Ed. (Rome: Editrice Inonia, 1987)].

Giorgio de Chirico: Tired of all these terrestrial and metaphysical adventures, Hebdomeros went to bed and didn’t awaken the following morning until very late. Once awake, he could not decide to get up, so he remained for several hours in his bed meditating, and finally deciding to look at his watch, which he always kept on a chair beside his bed, he found that it was 5:00 in the afternoon. This is the hour, thought Hebdomeros, that in the twelve months of the year corresponds to the month of September.

Giulio Paolini: It took me almost twenty years finally to draw two diagonal red lines (one September day in 1960), and from those to determine four points—and from those four to determine the other four—necessary to define the portion of space that I have called Disegno geometrico [Geometrical Drawing].

de Chirico: When the hands marked the hour that corresponded to the month of September, he should profit by this good luck and not look for, as they say, midday at 2:00. He knew that what he was waiting for was not happiness, as the general run of men understood it…

Paolini: I went as far as turning portion into “proportion,” memory into “duration,” but (now I know) I did not know. Maybe another twenty years have to pass in order to take that step back that brings me back to today’s date (May 26, 1986), both here and yesterday, so to speak.

de Chirico: It was a feeling of security that was going to envelop him and he prepared himself to receive it with dignity, with composure, in the form of the host or otherwise, the God he believes in. Hebdomeros opened the window of his room but he avoided taking in deep breaths of the outside air like a liberated prisoner or an invalid who feels better, etc., etc.

The outside air was, in fact, neither purer nor fresher than the air in his room; that does not at all mean that the air was bad, on the contrary, only that the air outside resembled it perfectly, as one drop of water resembles another, its sister.

Paolini: I am in the countryside, near Siena, where I currently reside: in front of me is a Broom Tree, fully blooming, and cypresses spotted with irises in the vicinity… Is it “this” thing—which I cannot yet mention (but have included in cursive)—the “thing” that will reappear one day, as an urgent and unexpected complement of this picture that I referred to (in the first line at top) in a later written-word version? Will it be this—so definitively beautiful and transparent, showered with an inimitable light, both its own origin and a theatrical spectacle of itself, its own description and pure truth—the “after” that we are unable to renounce that is waiting on the secret stage of our gaze?

de Chirico: He did not like to do useless things unless it was a question of what he called the necessary inutility, but in this case, it would no longer be a question of an inutility. His theories of life varied according to the sum of his experiences. What could he in this case conclude, if not that the secret of happiness, that inestimable secret that most philosophers exhaust themselves in seeking theoretically and that the immense majority of men strive practically to discover, consists, perhaps, in admiring nothing, in loving nothing?

Paolini: There is nothing left to do but to trust in the passing of time, in order to join together—beyond that which we can now see—something plausible or obvious with something improbable or even absent.

de Chirico: And once more it was the desert and the night. Once again all slept in immobility and silence. […] Hebdomeros, his elbow on the ruin and his chin in his hand, pondered no longer… He yielded slowly and ended by abandoning himself altogether.

5. Excerpt from Giulio Paolini, “Gli uni e gli altri,” Gli uni e gli altri. L’enigma dell’ora, Daniela Lancioni Ed. (Milan: Skira, 2010), 33 – 35.

That which ties me to Giorgio de Chirico began a long time ago. In 1958, when I was seventeen, my family had recently moved to Turin. Having left my childhood friends behind me, I suddenly found myself behaving like an adult or a precocious adolescent; I spent entire days alone in theaters and cinemas, on trains, in cafes, but above all in museums, where sometimes I managed to stay until closing time. I was overcome with a vivid excitement for all the things that represented autonomy and modernity. For this reason, I remember that crowded conference held by Giorgio de Chirico at the former location of the cultural union, at Palazzo Carignano, when the Maestro went as far as to say that “all modern painting is deceit, nothingness.” I remember my burning resentment, the passionate refusal and opposition I felt to his speech, from the first to the last word.

A few years later, I had to reconsider my judgment; the man that I considered an enemy to defeat, a target to hit, became my illustrious model, the personification of the idol. Never could I have foreseen that Giorgio de Chirico, after having kindly kept an eye on the first steps of my now long career, could guide those that are to be the steps of my tomorrows.

As his habit dictated, every morning at the same time the artist left his home in Piazza di Spagna and walked the short distance to the Caffè Greco, where he would occupy the same table, in the same room. There he would stay for hours by himself in silence, in his voluntary exile.

So I too, once I have left home to face the day and have entered into the safety of my studio’s walls, can count on my most trusted and habitual working tools (pencils, triangles, compasses…). There I manage to pretend that I exist, to put order to my papers; in other words, staging a makeshift and calculated disorder to make myself believe that I am in the process of creating something. Nearby (only a few steps separate me from No. 6 Carlo Alberto street) Friedrich Nietzsche signed his Letters from Turin and climbed to the top floor of that building to cross the threshold of his mental disorder, giving in to the vertigo and venturing into a blind alley.

English translations of texts 1, 3, 4, and 5 by CIMA interns Sofia Cangiano, Giulia Buganza, and Federica Mei.


Fabio Cafagna

FABIO CAFAGNA, who received his Ph.D. from the University of La Sapienza in Rome, is the 2016 – 17 MiBACT Fellow at the Center for Italian Modern Art, working on a research project about the Italian artists represented by the John Weber Gallery in the 1970s.