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Monday, December 02, 2002


Retreat from Modernity

Giorgio de Chirico and the Myth of Ariadne, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, November 3, 2002-January 5, 2003; Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London, January 22-April 13, 2003.

The review that follows inaugurates Jonathan Goodman’s new monthly column, greekart. greekworks is delighted to add this new feature, as part of the continuing growth and ongoing enhancement of our Website.

Giorgio de Chirico and the Myth of Ariadne presents the viewer with a broad range of work, including a considerable number of his profound early paintings, done while the artist was a young man in Paris. Along with the Italian painter and writer Carlo Carra, de Chirico was one of the founders of pittura metafisica (metaphysical painting), a style explained too often by nebulous definitions and associations, but which may generally be understood as having an esthetic bathed in mystery and august, if idiosyncratic and deeply personal, associations. De Chirico’s piazzas, with their air of unreality and allegorical purpose, propose a view of the world that begins with a visionary stance, albeit one that does not reveal its goals so much as announce their development, irrespective of the consequences. His reiterated iconographies turn on an introspective language of more or less thwarted desire, whose existence is both the cause and effect of his grand spaces and highly symbolic presences of ancient and modern culture.

  The critical response to the painter’s treatment of the classical Ariadne myth, as represented in the works dating from 1911-13, was highly positive; these paintings are now understood to be true precursors of the surrealist movement. But it is also true that the art of de Chirico’s maturity and late age, which did in fact include a return to the Ariadne myth, has mostly been seen as a falling-off, into a sad combination of narcissism and obsession with art history.

This exhibition does in fact attempt to make the case that de Chirico’s later paintings, despite or even because of their repetitiveness, return to the themes that he so brilliantly developed in his youth. Indeed, the myth of Ariadne, treated in the early work with symbolic but faithful adherence to the events of the story, is interpreted by the show’s curator, Michael R. Taylor, as broadening over time – to the point where de Chirico’s classical, and classic, figure of lost love becomes an emblem for the pursuit of art itself.

  In the ancient story, Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete and his wife, Pasiphae, enables Theseus, crown prince of Athens, to slay the Minotaur and escape the tortured complexities of the labyrinth. The Minotaur, half-brother of Ariadne, is the offspring of Pasiphae’s encounter with a white bull, sent by the sea-god, Poseidon. Possessing the body of a person and the head of a bull, the Minotaur has been imprisoned within the labyrinth, meant to contain the monster and so protect the populace of Knossos from his depredations. Every nine years, 14 young men and women from Athens are sacrificed to the Minotaur; at one point in the cycle, Theseus replaces one of the victims. With the help of a golden thread given to him by Ariadne, who has fallen hopelessly in love with him, Theseus makes his way out of the maze after slaying the Minotaur. He betrays Ariadne, however, by sailing from Naxos without her as she sleeps. Although she is in despair, the Greek god of revels, Dionysus, sees and falls in love with her, marrying her and giving her a golden crown, fashioned by Hephaestus, that is taken up into the sky, becoming the Corona Borealis. Surprisingly, unlike many other Greek myths, the ending is not tragic.

But Ariadne’s eventually happy fate is not taken up in de Chirico’s early works, which emphasize the enigmatic, tragic presence of the betrayed heroine. He represents her not as an active, agonistic lover but as someone overcome by circumstance. Influenced by the Swiss painter, Arnold Bocklin, one of whose works was titled Melancholy (1900) – in which a broad, seated female figure reads a book in a park – de Chirico portrays Ariadne as a melancholic, doomed personage, someone whose grief can never be assuaged. The idea of melancholy as central to artistic temperament is taken up in the exhibition catalogue, which offers examples by artists such as Albrecht Durer, whose Melencolia I (1514) depicts a winged angel brooding with compass in hand, and the British Evelyn De Morgan, whose Victorian oil, Ariadne on Naxos, painted in 1877, offers the portrait of a woman in despair, her heavy draperies contributing to the hopelessness she so obviously feels on the island’s shore. De Chirico’s own Melanconia (1912) is clearly influenced by the latter; the figure of Ariadne reclines in the middle of an empty square, supported by her hand raised to her forehead, in a manner very similar to the pose in De Morgan’s work. Yet de Chirico adds a number of attributes, visual themes that would prove central to his iconography as time passed. The empty piazza, framed by large vaults whose interiors are blacked out, along with an expanded perspective and the presence of two unaccountable figures in the distance, who throw long shadows back toward the statue of Ariadne, claim de Chirico’s attention again and again, as he envelops the great mythic story in modernist, nearly gothic, terms.

Should we misinterpret de Chirico’s intentions, the artist has inscribed the word, “Melanconia,” in block capitals on the base of the plinth supporting Ariadne. The atmosphere is entirely mysterious, with light coming from a great distance in the upper left of the composition, while the arcades of the classically inspired vaults are bathed in shadow. Adding to the general aura of transcendence verging on unaccountability is a shadow on the lower left, the figure originating it hidden by the painting’s architecture. Who is this veiled person? Is the image intended to personify the artist, who must remain aloof, even estranged, from his own shadow and from his audience? The notion that there is a central intelligence, a deliberate purpose in this great painting of sadness and alienation does not go away; de Chirico proposes in Melanconia and other paintings of the period a sense of defeated grandeur, a largesse that is fueled by hopelessness, that seems to me a perfect kind of representational modernism, in which the nostalgia for the past – in particular for its great artists – threatens to overwhelm the moment of equilibrium, so hard to maintain, in which a visionary stance enables the artist to knock back the force of history and attain something new.

Surely the balance between archaic and modern is what speaks to us so eloquently in de Chirico’s treatment of the Ariadne myth. But such an arrangement is easily overturned – something that did in fact happen to de Chirico, whose middle and late works formally repeat the visionary moment without imbuing it with the mystery of his earlier paintings. De Chirico’s retreat from modernity, accompanied by an obsession with the techniques and effects of the earlier masters, is described in the exhibition and catalogue as a principled, even presciently avant-garde, interest in serial repetition: the last image in the show is a silkscreen by Andy Warhol, entitled Italian Square with Ariadne (After de Chirico) (1982), which contemporizes the Greek-born artist’s allegorical square and vista.

  Yet, given the consciously archaizing bent of de Chirico, who, like Warhol, was as good at presenting himself to an adoring public as he was painting his mysterious versions of the past, it is hard to see Warhol’s colorful quotation of de Chirico as much more than a moment of opportunism, designed to seduce the viewer with the amorphous pleasures of a romanticized sense of history. Even with the excellent scholarly apparatus in the catalogue, even with our sympathetic viewing, it remains difficult to categorize de Chirico’s mature paintings as possessing anything more than a truncated relation to the great works of his youth, in which the viewer can see the grandeur of a moment hemmed in on all sides by forces that threaten to devalue, even delete, the indefinable sense of being that so precariously develops in his art.

It might be said that de Chirico is not only a forebear of surrealism but also of the postmodernist shrug – his indifference to the present and his gratuitous search for a Golden Age in painting turn his art into something that is close to farcical, despite the high-mindedness of his pronouncements. If it is true that we have been weighed down by the heft of the past, it is also true that our research toward values that are both within time (in the sense that they are preceded by earlier efforts) and outside of time (in the sense that art works its effects in a primarily transcendent, rather than historical, milieu) becomes a matter of self-awareness defined, more or less equivocally, by self-interest. I mean by that that de Chirico’s antiquarianism, even in the Ariadne series, was guided by his own unconscious needs as an artist, so that his esthetic became a practicum of nostalgia, undone in the face of what had taken place before him. Nostalgia allowed him to be aware of fate without being overwhelmed by it. In fact, de Chirico’s metaphysics of anticipatory arrival, evident in the signature motifs of a chugging train putting out puffs of smoke and the billowing sales of a ship, are the disconsolate remains of arrival and departure, put to rest not only by the Ariadne myth but also by the very notion of travel; the stillness of the piazza contrasts, not always happily, with the motion of these modern means of transportation. As a result, we are enjoined to see de Chirico’s symbolic forms not only as memories of greatness but also as assaults on the closed boundaries of the image as emblem.

It is hard to say whether de Chirico saw the Ariadne myth as primarily narrative or symbolic; it would appear that he felt closest to the enigma of arrival, which might mean either the presence of Dionysus and his heroic treatment of Ariadne or the advent of Theseus’ ship, which would eventually remove the Athenian prince from the Cretan princess. It doesn’t matter whether the mood is melancholic or mutedly optimistic, however, as much as whether the myth becomes a vehicle for de Chirico’s desire, which, as time went on, he began to see as the universal desire of the artist to lock into a perception that would eloquently and elegantly cry out a vision, and version, of loss. Of course, the idea of loss is a great theme, a wistful comment on mortality, in many artists, but I can think of no one in the history of modernism who addressed the issue more beautifully than de Chirico.

In The Melancholy of a Beautiful Day (1913), a single figure in the foreground looks out and also beyond the sculpture of Ariadne and the two banks of vaulted corridors, on the right and left, which point toward the small, classical-looking town settled into the hills at a far distance. The plaster sculpture Ariadne (c. 1913), the figure nearly a part of the slab beneath it, reclines into a pose of lassitude and erotic desire, whose unattainability doesn’t thwart artist and viewer as much as redefine them in light of what quite literally cannot be grasped: the body is beautiful because it is beyond our reach; the moment is sacred because it is a distillation of opposing thoughts and emotions; and the imagery is inspired because it reveals nothing even as it owes its beckoning call to de Chirico’s memories of architecture and space in the urban piazzas of Italy.

  The Lassitude of the Infinite (c. 1913) consists of the same elements – the arcades on either side of the Ariadne statue in the foreground, the pair of figures in the distance, the train spouting smoke and the tower beyond them, the gloomy shadows extended by these objects – common to most of the Ariadne pictures. The dichotomy of light and shadow is particularly strong in the pictures of this time; the sharp contrast between the two functions almost like a moral warning: you must take note of the struggle between them. Again and again, de Chirico returns to his theme, in which the atmosphere is permeated with a kind of motionless exhaustion, the result of the effort of seeing the past and future clearly and at once. In The Silent Statue (1913), we are given a close-up of Ariadne, her unhappy mien framed by her left hand curling around the side and back of her head. Behind her are the familiar arches, as well as a red tower emblazoned with flags in the wind. One has the sense that the scene is heavy with oracular truth, which militates against the delights of art (truth has a way of behaving so). Because of its portentousness, The Silent Statue gathers slowly within our consciousness, for we, too, are oppressed by events we have yet to see. The quality of recognizing the sadness of things without knowing their exact form suffuses the symbolic structure of de Chirico’s art.

De Chirico’s late work proves disappointing for many reasons, primarily the reuse, indeed nearly the copy, of earlier elements in a way that cannibalizes the achievement of his art. There are strong paintings among the later work, including The Thread of Ariadne (c. 1939-40), a brightly colored, flowing painting in the manner of Rubens, but, for the most part, a sense of mystery has been replaced with a series of diminished effects – the atmosphere has dried up, overtaken by a sterile reworking of its components. The light and shadows and symbols remain the same, but now de Chirico’s architecture of loss has become empty, doomed to a facile approximation of his great theme. Despite the show’s enjoinder that serial repetition is the primary focus of the work after the 1930s, the notion that de Chirico saw the future ahead of him, as a seer might, is undercut by the sterility of the paintings themselves.

A brilliant view of the human condition is now lost to a flawed sense of history, in which de Chirico sees his obsession with painting’s past as part of his indomitable sense of self. But he cannot salvage the past as he would seem to wish, just as he cannot control the future. It is only within the infinite reach of a moment suspended between the two kinds of time that melancholy truly exists, for it is dependent on the powerful, if tragically aware, recognition that we are forever in the moment as it happens to us. Our knowledge of that instant is not the same as our embodying of it, something de Chirico originally knew but calamitously lost while growing older. Even so, we have the great mythical paintings, the vision of a fulfilled life, which steel us against the march of time, the unhappy ending that marks our stay on earth. Myth can aggrandize such awareness, but, in de Chirico’s case, it offered him a chance to address desire and love and even violence in a way that is shaped by form, the only way that we can remember an image given over to the aura of yearning. Ariadne’s desire was abandoned, yet she ended happily, a mirror reversal of our time, in which desire is fulfilled but turns out to be empty. De Chirico, and by extension his audience, is lucky to have seen things the way he did, and does, in the art of his young manhood.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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