Giorgio de Chirico, The Enigma of the Hour (1910): The First Conceptual Work of Art
The Enigma of the Hour, painted by Giorgio de Chirico in Florence in 1910,1 can be considered the very first conceptual artwork in the history of art. In creating this artwork, the artist did not seek to find a new way of rendering that which is visible, as Picasso did, or to express an emotional state through abstract forms and colors as did Kandinsky; rather, de Chirico’s aspiration was to translate a thought or philosophical concept into the forms of the plastic arts. He did this before Duchamp, Man Ray, or Picabia—artists who are often considered the precursors of Conceptual art. Such a misconception stems from the fact that Duchamp and his contemporaries’ visual repertoire was far closer to the canonical conceptual art of the 1960s than that of de Chirico. The former were pioneers in relegating the aesthetic aspect and emotional responses and formal enjoyment of the work of art to a secondary position, focusing on ideological content to the point of completely devaluating the tangible aspects of the artwork. It is essential not to underestimate the importance of de Chirico’s revolution as a turning point in contemporary art. With The Enigma of the Hour, de Chirico broke away from his Symbolist and Romantic past and opened up completely new perspectives on art rooted in philosophical thought.
De Chirico was certainly not the first Western artist who aspired to express ideals through painting. However, artists before him translated such content into allegorical or symbolic forms that were difficult to decipher. Only in rare cases were artists such as Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Raphael, or Poussin able—consciously or not—to produce a formal impression capable of transmitting conceptual thinking about the world and the universe through abstract and geometric compositional structures.
Drawing influence from late German Romanticism and meditating profoundly on the work of Raphael, de Chirico was able to create works that were rigorously conceptual in nature, without abandoning the aesthetic experience of the painted object, thanks to his use of archetypal shapes and figures, which he invested with significant new power.
The Enigma of the Hour is a metaphor of the Nietzschean and Schopenhauerian idea of time objectified in plastic and architectural forms. Its radical composition—which was the result of months of work and reflection that took place in Milan and Florence—makes it one of the most important and significant paintings of the 20th century.
During the second half of 1909, while painting The Enigma of the Oracle and The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon, de Chirico realized that he could transform his sensations into a vocabulary of forms that were capable of eliciting in the viewer not only an understanding of specific concepts, but rather emotions and sensations similar to those from which the work originated. De Chirico was aware of this characteristic, which he noticed every time he observed and studied his works, as if he were testing them.2 In Florence, he began to master the phenomenon and employ it methodically in his creative process, archiving sketches of completed or ongoing artistic translations of his perceptions—or details of these, such as an arch, a pilaster, or the corner of a building—so that he could draw on them later for subsequent artworks. Using a combination of these elements, he constructed his paintings—often reusing elements, either separately or reconfiguring them with others, in various series of works. Once de Chirico landed on an iconic image—be it an aspect of a building, a portico, a particular perspective, a statue, a fountain, or a human figure—he exploited it in all of its various possibilities, often coming back to these motifs after long periods of time.
In the spring of 1910, de Chirico took an important step towards defining and controlling his creative process. He consciously reduced every shape to an archetype, stripping and simplifying it in order to fulfill its role as a metaphor. Every element was rigorously studied and calibrated to serve this purpose: light and shadows, angles, shifted perspectives, colors, transparencies, and tones.
Filling the entire composition of The Enigma of the Hour is an architectural structure pierced by various openings (arcades, windows, loggias with openings on both sides), which divides the space into two parts while simultaneously acting as a link between the two parts. One part is directed towards the viewer and is clearly visible, while the other extends out of sight. It is as if one part of the space flows into the other in the same way that air flows through the openings of the building.3 A clear, pure sky shines through the loggias and windows that open onto the back of the building, culminating with a blue-green streak that closes the composition and conveys the sense that the element in which the rigid structure is immersed is a universal body that englobes the entire piece. The light derives from a source behind the construction on the far left of the pictorial plane, illuminating the front of the building indirectly and reverberating from the side of the viewer. Between the loggias a large clock reads 2:55 p.m., on what would seem to be an autumnal or winter afternoon, given the length of the shadows. The foreground, most of which lies within the building’s shadow, features a low fountain that shoots a jet of water into the air.
Three human figures animate the scene. One lurks in the shadows of the second arcade from the right, dressed in dark, modern clothes; while another—who appears to be a meditating philosopher—stands in the sunlit sliver of the foreground dressed in a white chlamys, projecting a long shadow. The third figure looks out from the loggia on the left, staring into the immensity of the sky.
The painting’s perspective seems rigidly centralized and stabilized by the low-slung basin of the fountain. However, upon close observation, it becomes clear that the perspective is skewed, as if the view of the fountain were from the center and the view of the building from the left. This perspectival shift, which de Chirico applies here for the first time, is key to interpreting the work.
De Chirico’s paintings have always been associated, perhaps erroneously, with immobility. In the context of Metaphysical painting, the work of Carlo Carrà and Giorgio Morandi gives a much greater sense of rigidity: a sense of stability, solidity, and faith in the reality of the world that their painting transmits to 20th-century Italian art. De Chirico’s immobility, on the other hand, is transitory and precarious; it is a fleeting, unstable interruption of movement in the universe, which transmits a sense of anxiety within the apparent calm. The sensation is similar to that which one experiences when entering the Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa for the first time. One has the impression, particularly when the square is deserted, that time stands still for a moment, and that the tower is about to resume its fall. De Chirico’s use of perspective thus gives the impression that space moves, deforming or bending itself, and that its dynamic torsion is still for but a moment. A series of stagnant forms that slide toward different focal points give balance to the piece.
The Enigma of the Hour is the enigma of the meridian hour marked on the quadrant of the clock, but it is also the enigma of the hour as a segment of time—the hour as an instant, a nunc, a particle immobilized in the endless movement of time from the past to the future, while the water jet from the fountain represents the circular theme of the eternal return.
The architectural structure that fills the composition of the pictorial plane symbolizes the present, the unstable and fleeting instant similar to de Chirico’s unstable perspectival construction—the only possible eternity intersected by the flow of creation that continuously propels the future into the past. The light lies in the area of the composition that represents the future, the time beyond the present, whilst the shadow represents the place where time has already passed.
The line that profiles the edge of the fountain, demarcating the light and shadow generated by the rigid structure of the building, also represents the eternal moment in which man participates simultaneously in the past and the future, hanging in the balance between the “will” of the sun and the “consolation” of the shadow.4
The philosopher mediates on the threshold of this demarcation. His figure stands in the light but his body emerges from the shadows. He is a dividing mark, a sign, similar to the axis of a sundial that marks the enigma of the hour; his presence stands out in comparison to the two other human figures. He lies on the point of separation, submitting to the power of the blazing sun and intent on contemplating the shadows. The regular human beings instead are protected by the architecture and are thus capable of walking under the arcades in the reflected light, without noticing the enigma of time, thus moving towards the future without any awareness of the past.
It is probable that the painting, conceived as the visual objectification of Nietzsche’s idea of time (to which the flowing fountain refers), was influenced by an excerpt from Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, in which the author, who directly inspired Nietzsche on this same topic, describes in a suggestive manner the eternal present as the only possible experience of time. In particular, the representation of the present as a rigid and immobile structure stretched between two spaces as an element of both separation and connection could be directly drawn from the writings of Schopenhauer.5
- A more precise dating is impossible to establish at present. The painting was initially signed ‘G.C.’ and was subsequently signed and dated in Paris as, apparently: “Giorgio de Chirico/1911.” However, the last digit of the year is small and illegible and could therefore be interpreted as a zero. A meticulous reconstruction of de Chirico’s Milanese and Florentine period (May 1909 – July 1911) suggests that it could be dated to 1910 instead of the first months of 1911, as I myself originally thought.
- Giorgio de Chirico, Il meccanismo del pensiero, Critica, polemica, autobiografia 1911 – 1943 (Turin: Einaudi Torino, 1985), 32. “Chaque fois que je regarde cette peinture je revis ce moment.” [“Every time I look at this painting, I live this moment again.”]
- De Chirico presents here for the first time the idea of the “casa passatoia,” a house that allows us to see the sky through its openings—a concept the artist took from the poet Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone [Miscellany], a notebook of observations written in the 1820s, but published finally only in 1898. Paolo Baldacci, De Chirico: The Metaphysical Period, (Boston: Bullfinch, 1997), 102.
- Giorgio de Chirico, Il meccanismo del pensiero, Critica, polemica, autobiografia 1911 – 1943, 37. For the importance that de Chirico attributed to this line of demarcation between light and shadow, see his conversation with the artist Dimitris Pikionis at the beginning of 1912: “The thin line on the rain-drenched ground that separated the light from the shadow was an enigma.” (P. Baldacci, 1997, 109, footnote 74).
- Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne, (New York: Dover Publications, 1966). Vol. I, Book IV, par. 54: “No man has lived in the past, and none will ever live in the future; the present alone is the form of all life, but it is also life’s sure possession which can never be torn from it. The present always exists together with its content; both stand firm without wavering, like the rainbow over the waterfall. […] Of course, if we think back to the thousands of years that have passed, to the millions of men and women who lived in them, we ask, what were they? What has become of them? […] Or, more briefly, although strangely: why is this now, his now, precisely now and was not long ago? […] Therefore everyone can also say: “I am once for all lord and master of the present, and through all eternity it will accompany me as my shadow; accordingly, I do not wonder where it comes from, and how it is that it is precisely now.” We can compare time to an endlessly revolving sphere; the half that is always sinking would be the past, and the half that is always rising would be the future; but at the top, the indivisible point that touches the tangent would be the extensionless present. Just as the tangent does not continue rolling with the sphere, so also the present, the point of contact of the object whose form is time, does not roll on with the subject that has no form, since it does not belong to the knowable, but is the condition of all that is knowable. Or time is like an irresistible stream, and the present like a rock on which the stream breaks, but which it does not carry away. […] The form of the present is essential to the objectification of the will. As an extensionless point, it cuts time which extends infinitely in both directions, and stands firm and immovable, like an everlasting midday without a cool evening, just as the actual sun burns without intermission, while only apparently does it sink in the bosom of the night. […] The earth rolls on from day into night; the individual dies; but the sun itself burns without intermission, an eternal noon. Life is certain to the will-to-live; the form of life is the endless present; it matters not how individuals, the phenomena of the Idea, arise and pass away in time, like fleeting dreams.”
Paolo Baldacci, author of numerous books and articles on Giorgio de Chirico and other Italian 20th-century artists, is president of the Archivio dell'Arte Metafisica.