And What Shall I Love? Looking at Giorgio de Chirico
In 1969 a young artist in Turin named Giulio Paolini took as his personal motto the Latin inscription—itself a quotation from Nietzsche—at the foot of an early Giorgio de Chirico self-portrait: Et quid amabo nisi quod ænigma est [And What Shall I Love If Not the Enigma]. He made the phrase into his own business card and transformed it into a public manifesto by placing it on an enormous banner hung across the main piazza in Como. This was his contribution to Campo Urbano, the public art intervention staged that year by Luciano Caramel in collaboration with Ugo Mulas and Bruno Munari, which invited artists out of their studios and galleries to engage directly with the urban environment, the spaces of daily life. For Paolini, it was the beginning of a decades-long fascination with de Chirico’s oeuvre, which Paolini has referenced, cited, and interrogated in his conceptual practice—artwork that is now the subject of the fourth season at the Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA), which places paintings spanning much of de Chirico’s career together with works by Paolini from the 1960s to today.
This phrase “And What Shall I Love If Not the Enigma” was a touchstone as well for Philip Guston—Dore Ashton said he quoted it all his life; and it was a prompt for Sylvia Plath, too, who wrote several poems inspired by de Chirico paintings, as did Mark Strand, John Ashbery, and others (Ashbery also translated parts of de Chirico’s surrealist novel Hebdomeros). I love that Louise Bourgeois and her husband, the art historian Robert Goldwater, together dedicated themselves to translating some of de Chirico’s writings. De Chirico’s work has beguiled and bedeviled a surprising number of artists and writers.
Many—most famously the Surrealists—focused only on the output of that brief decade of the 1910s, de Chirico’s Metaphysical period—the fertile musings of an artist profoundly connected to dreams and existential questions of being. It is, in fact, hard to think of another artist so heralded as a genius whose subsequent half-century-plus output has been so creatively and derisively condemned. André Breton wrote in 1928 that he and other the Surrealists “[having had] spent five years now despairing of Chirico, forced to admit that he no longer [had] the slightest idea of what he is doing.” William Rubin, in his 1982 MoMA catalogue, called the later work “a tragedy that turned into a farce.” And in the Brooklyn Rail in 2004, Robert C. Morgan speculated about a “weird, uncanny disorder” that the artist must be suffering from:
“With the unbelievably stupid characterizations of Titian, Rubens, Watteau, Corot, and Hals, one can only ask: where is this artist going? What is the work really about? Had the biochemical industry been more advanced at mid-century, perhaps the master might have benefited—Prozac by day, Viagra by night, or vice versa.”
And yet for many artists, such as Guston or Warhol or Paolini, de Chirico’s later work has been a vital source. His practice of self-citation, copying, and appropriation or pastiche, his flamboyant self-portraits in Baroque costume, appeal to our postmodern sensibilities, our fascination with camp and the “bad painting” that emerged in the 1980s—observations first brilliantly articulated by Emily Braun in her essay “Kitsch and the Avant-Garde: The Case of de Chirico.”
There are still few opportunities in the United States to see any of de Chirico’s post-Metaphysical paintings, however—a legacy of the canonical narrative first shaped by the Surrealists and reinforced in the U.S. by exhibitions such as Alfred Barr’s Dada, Surrealism, and Fantastic Art at MoMA in 1936 and William Rubin’s Giorgio de Chirico at MoMA in 1982. Likewise James Thrall Soby’s 1941 book on de Chirico treated only the early works, disregarding his subsequent career—“left it out of the family album,” as artist Lisa Yuskavage succinctly put it.
CIMA was created to engage fresh narratives, to draw attention to 20th-century Italian artists who have generally remained outside the canonical accounts of modern art, accounts that, in the U.S., have historically tended to the Franco-centric. Exhibitions at CIMA are laboratories for an art history fellowship program and platforms for programming that offers other points of access to the works—through artists, writers, scholars, and the like. Most of all, the hope is to offer a different experience of great art, one based on the idea of close looking and engaging with the works in an intimate, contemplative space, over a period of time. Looking opens us to transformation, roots us to the present, while opening windows to other moments in history, to a thread of common humanity and creation. The act of close looking makes us better critics, better historians, and maybe better humans. In these pages are contributions from some of our fellows, and from the poets, painters, and scholars who have looked to de Chirico and who have participated in this season, wrestling with “the enigma” and helping us to see in new ways.
HEATHER EWING is an architectural historian and the Executive Director of the Center for Italian Modern Art.