Looking at Late de Chirico:
Matvey Levenstein, Stephen Ellis, and Lisa Yuskavage
Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA) Fellow Giovanni Casini moderated the conversation, held at CIMA on March 21, 2017. In advance of the program, he asked the artists a series of questions, such as when they first became aware of de Chirico’s Post-Metaphysical work, which is not easy to see in museums in the United States. He wondered, too, what they thought of de Chirico’s use of color, his depiction of masculinity, his kitschy self-portraits in baroque costume from the 1940s and ’50s? Do they see irony in late de Chirico? And what are the implications of becoming reactionary—to some extent associated with traditional painterly technique—and how might such a stance affect an artist’s reputation, reception, and legacy?
Matvey Levenstein: I’ve been interested for a while now in de Chirico’s later work—also as part of a larger group of people, artists such as Picasso, Picabia, and Malevich, who pushed art history forward, took their place in the history of avant-garde, without whom the history of modernism would not be possible. All of them later rebelled, turned against the march of the avant-garde, and circled back to the past of painting, the past of their own work. It’s interesting how the late works by these other artists are generally accepted now, but de Chirico’s late work is still considered extremely suspect.
So how does an ur-avant-gardist of the moment become a reactionary? What motivates that person? What fuels an avant-gardist impulse in the first place is a desire to overthrow the oppressive deadweight of tradition. But what happens if the avant-garde or modernism itself becomes institutionalized? Where can a radical impulse turn to? In a sense, ironically, perversely, through turning to the past. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.” The past is not a problem, academicism is: all these “dos and don’ts,” rules and regulations. You know an academic moment has arrived when the contrarian spirit had been snuffed out.
The creation of a dogmatic, linear, progressivist art history becomes a form of oppression for them. The whole point of overthrowing the ancien régime was to be free—what is the point of becoming a foot soldier in the march of Hegelian art history? You can also see it as a kind of anti-Futurist impulse. Futurists saw the past as something to be killed, the future as a glorious thing. The anti-Futurist impulse, people like de Chirico or Morandi, they saw the future as at best stupid, at worst, possibly murderous. You have this phenomenon now, for example, of Bob Dylan singing Frank Sinatra’s tunes. You can’t imagine two more opposite characters. Why would he want to do that? Or to somewhat misquote the late, great Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in the wall. That’s how the light gets in.” The point is to create a crack in the wall. Whether it comes from the avant-garde or from a rear guard really does not matter. There are people who like to build the walls, and people who like to crack them. You can see [André] Breton [founder of Surrealism] as a kind of Donald Trump of modernism, and de Chirico as someone who chafes under those expectations.
David Salle in his new book How to See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking about Art—thinking about late [André] Derain and his turn to the past, neoclassicism, and tradition—writes,
Derain’s story interests me, in part, because he exposes the “narrow and cracked determinism,” to borrow a phrase from Joan Didion, of contemporary art history, the more or less complete failure of that history to take into account what it actually feels like to make something, the why of it—why someone would want to go to the trouble—as well the special feeling of looking at it.
Stephen Ellis: Philip Guston introduced me to the late work of de Chirico when I was in school. I was initially shocked, as I really thought these works had been consigned forever to the dustbin of history. I still find them difficult to love, but very interesting to think about. I want to share two epiphanies I’ve had. The first is about the idea of the enigma in de Chirico’s Metaphysical period. He actually uses that word in the title of some of his works, such as The Enigma of the Hour here at CIMA. De Chirico’s work is enigmatic in a variety of interesting ways that change over the years. In the Metaphysical paintings, the enigma revolves around the image itself, the syntax of the paintings, the fact that they refuse to come to rest. In the later work, to me, the enigma revolves around the nature of the irony being employed, or even whether there is irony at all.
So, the question I think about, concerning these Metaphysical paintings, has to do with de Chirico’s childhood in Greece, where he lived until he was eighteen, when he moved to Munich. The recurring images in these paintings emerge from a childhood embedded in history. A conversation I had recently with a Cretan woman in Athens made a big impression on me. In mid-conversation she suddenly exclaimed that the Parthenon is “something we can never get past; it’s like a vulture hanging over us.” We have no comparable experience in the U.S. We continue to think, however ridiculously, of this country as new. I imagine that for de Chirico, his personal experience of the conflict between antiquity and modernity—between Greece and the more cosmopolitan spheres of Munich, Paris, Rome, where he lived subsequently—was particularly intense. You see him borrowing elements from the pictorial grammar of Symbolism (from artists such as Arnold Böcklin, Max Klinger, and James Ensor, whom he would have been exposed to at the academy in Munich), and then combining them in a loose way with the newer pictorial language of Cubism. I think it is this unique synthesis of Symbolism and Cubism, past and present, antique and modern, that made these paintings so fecund for the Surrealists ten years or so later.
The second kind of enigma—the nature of de Chirico’s irony—is linked also to his roots in Symbolism. And that raises a second point, the way artists constantly reclaim and repurpose material from their predecessors. How de Chirico reworks Symbolism is a particularly powerful and interesting example. In this presentation I will show you some of the most bizarre paintings in art history—including my candidate for worst painting in Western art history: Böcklin’s St. Anthony Preaches to the Fishes. I can’t see these Böcklin paintings as in any way ironic; I think they are completely in earnest, which is sad and moving, but there you have it. But there are other tendencies in Symbolism, which we can see in James Ensor’s Self-Portrait with a Flowered Hat of 1883. The painting is clearly not meant to be taken entirely seriously. It’s that rare painting that is both great and hilarious. Unquestionably, de Chirico would have known this work. It’s just too similar to his later self-portraits to believe otherwise. (Fortunately, not being an art historian, I’m not required to prove this.)
So, there is a precedent in Symbolism for de Chirico’s kind of buffoonery. You have Böcklin’s bathos, which de Chirico translates into a completely different key and Ensor’s slapstick, which de Chirico elaborates. The quotations from Island of the Dead in de Chirico’s early work are polite enough, but then in the later work of de Chirico, you have absolute comic outrages. Can anyone, looking at these later portraits, possibly imagine that something like this was meant to be taken in earnest? Yet this idea of comedy vibrates strangely against de Chirico’s earnest politics and the seriousness of his return to craft. The contradiction emphasizes the abysses that may open between what an artist says or thinks they are doing, what they actually do, and what the work itself may be doing. These are other kinds of enigmas.
The large “Gladiator” painting here at CIMA presents the viewer with another real interpretive problem. It’s one of the strangest paintings in the 20th century, I think. Is it intended as fascist propaganda? Possibly. But if it is, it has to be one of the worst pieces of propaganda ever; I don’t see it as a successful recruitment poster for Aryan youth! I think the particular kind of irony de Chirico uses in these later pictures is unique enough it deserves to be called by his name—de Chiricesque. You only get a sense of it by exposure to the paintings over a period of time.
Finally, there is Philip Guston’s reinterpretation of de Chirico. That Guston often borrows imagery from de Chirico—gladiator shields, piles of stretcher bars—is obvious. Less obvious, but more telling, is what the younger artist does with the ironic grotesquerie of the older. De Chirico’s strain of irony absolutely refuses to break deadpan. It’s cold, Olympian, disengaged; Guston’s reinterpretation of that ironic grotesque, however, is an expression of rage, closer to Samuel Beckett’s in its emotional intensity and its explicit engagement with the existential and the social.
Lisa Yuskavage: I fell in love with de Chirico after I had two long stretches of living in Rome (Tyler School of Art in Rome in 1982, and the second time at the American Academy in Rome in 2003). I became aware of these small late paintings in private collections—and I found them very interesting. De Chirico’s “Gladiator” paintings are super strange and great inventions as pictures. It’s not easy to see these works in person or in reproduction. I had to have a book, I Gladiatori, shipped from Italy in order to get acquainted with them.
It began to really irritate me that American museums have so decided that these works do not exist. It’s like cutting your gay cousin out of the family photo album because he doesn’t fit your ideal family story. We know that’s not right. So, are we, the viewers, that stupid that we can’t make our own decisions about an entire body of work? The same thing happened to Picabia. Obviously now MoMA [with the recent exhibition, Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction] has included the Picabias that were cut out of the family album by the Guggenheim retrospective at one time.
As an artist, I just find it depressing to have what we get to see decided for us, the audience. What’s so nice here, at places like this, is that you’re letting us see things we are “not supposed to see.” And these works are pretty riveting. It would be nice to see the whole body of work. Before I came to CIMA, two years ago, out of desperation to see these things, I bought the entire catalogue raisonné of de Chirico—an old fashioned one, with black-and-white images. I often sit with this book; it is really interesting to see everything he did, how many weird, potentially god-awful things he did. I want to see them.
Rome has loomed large as a place of pilgrimage for so many artists. In de Chirico’s time, people went and met him, such as Warhol and Guston. I love the idea of him having audiences. That was unfortunately not possible for me, but I did have the chance to go to his apartment. Which is an amazing thing to do if you are in Rome. It’s very complicated to get into. It’s very Roman; there are all these rules. It’s open like every other Wednesday of the third month of the year, and you can’t bring anybody who has their period, or something. When you do go, there is something so amazingly ordinary about the place. It’s a fabulous apartment, on the Spanish Steps. One of my favorite things is to be an art tourist, and go to a place where an artist that I admire lived and worked. It’s very helpful—one thing I’ve come to understand is that all art, even abstract art, is realism, if you can just get to the exact spot where it originated—all of a sudden you see it; everything falls away; he or she simply painted what they saw. But you have to get to that weird crossing point—which has to do with the psyche, and many, many different elements. With de Chirico, in his living room there is this lounge chair that is abnormally close to the front door, with an ashtray stand for cigarettes, and a big TV and VCR. The studio itself is upstairs and is very small, very modest, with a skylight. I was fascinated to look at all his stuff, his brushes. It’s an important journey to make, even if you are not a big fan.
The main point I’d like to make: if I like an artist once, I am always rooting for them, and I want to see everything. If they really impressed me once, I’m there. And I want to change with the art; I want to bow down to some degree and open myself up. I’m reminded of the David Salle excerpt that Matvey read—about what it feels like to make something, about being engaged enough to ask why would you want to make this? And then to say, Let’s go there. Rather than being controlling and asking the artist to “go back.”
I was fascinated by how de Chirico was considered the godfather of Surrealism. In the early 1920s when Magritte saw de Chirico’s Song of Love, apparently he actually wept. (Magritte is another artist I bought the catalogue raisonné of and had to look at every single picture.) Like everyone else, he was so incredibly devastated when de Chirico moved on with his work. So we can blame American curators [for circumscribing de Chirico’s oeuvre], but here were artists doing this to him. So de Chirico made such a strong impact, accidentally founding Surrealism, and yet did not feel repressed by it. There is this lineage, I think, that Surrealism becomes Automatism, and then ultimately becomes Abstract Expressionism. De Chirico I think is coming from a different place. Having absorbed what it would be like to be an artist in Italy, from living for some time as a painter in Italy, I see de Chirico’s Metaphysical painting in the lineage of Giorgione’s Tempest, and the idea of poesis.
In 1982, I went around Venice with about a hundred other art students. I was the only kid who was neither an atheist, nor Jewish. I’d never thought much about my Catholic upbringing, but all of sudden I knew all the stories of all the paintings. And everyone was like, “Hey, Lisa, who’s being crucified there?” Suddenly it was hip to be Catholic. We got in front of La Tempesta by Giorgione, or the Sacra Conversazione of Bellini, and my ability to explain the story stopped. There is no story there. And this is unlike anything that had ever happened in the history of painting. These are very incredible paintings, and they changed my life. It’s wonderful that there is no actual conclusion that you can come to as to the meaning. It is called poesis [the doctrine of “ut pictura poesis”]. Poesis is about association—having an associative response, like in a Rorschach test.
I find it really interesting to imagine de Chirico potentially as someone coming out of that. That rubber glove, and the ball, and the head of Apollo in Song of Love, they blew all these other artists away, but the Surrealists were not Italian and they were coming from someplace other than de Chirico, so they continued in their own direction. They didn’t understand where he was coming from, nor care to understand, and therefore they couldn’t imagine his trajectory. His trajectory takes him to this idea of “bad painting,” and I think it led to a lot of great painters, like late Guston. Also, his use of repetition of images very much influenced Warhol.
Young painters should be looking at these really nutty late de Chiricos and figuring out how to rip this off. I’ll end with this thought that there is a strong homoerotic thing in his work, in the “Gladiator” paintings and the bath houses. A lot of them have these rooms with people peeping in, men watching men, etc. When I saw that chair by the door in his apartment, and I saw where the wife was, I thought, “hmm…” Well at any rate it is fascinating to imagine him having a VCR—seeing old movies, like Ben Hur, and getting cheesy ideas. I do think artists are being starved by not being able to see the totality of de Chirico’s work.
STEPHEN ELLIS is an artist in New York who writes about visual art and music.Lisa Yuskavage
LISA YUSKAVAGE is a painter living and working in New York. She is represented by David Zwirner Gallery.Matvey Levenstein
MATVEY LEVENSTEIN is a painter living and working in New York. He is represented by Galleria Lorcan O'Neill in Rome.Giovanni Casini
GIOVANNI CASINI is completing his Ph.D. at the Courtauld Institute of Art.