Giorgio de CHIRICO, La Mort d'un esprit [Death of a spirit] Enlarge 1 /1

On display on Level 2

Giorgio de CHIRICO

Greece 1888 – Italy 1979

  • Vólos and Athens 1888-1905
  • Munich and Florence 1906-11
  • Paris 1911-15
  • Ferrara 1915-18
  • Rome 1918-24
  • Paris 1924-32

La Mort d'un esprit [Death of a spirit] 1916 Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas canvas

Dimensions: 36.0 h x 33.0 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased with the assistance of Harold and Bevelly Mitchell, Rupert and Annabel Myer, and the NGA Foundation
Accession No: NGA 2006.1059
Subject: Art style: Surrealism
Image rights: © Giorgio de Chirico. Licensed by Viscopy
Provenance:
  • Paul Guillaume, Paris;
  • René Gaffé (died 1968), Brussels;
  • Roland Penrose, London;
  • Gordon Onslow-Ford, San Francisco;
  • E.L.T. Mesens, London;
  • private collection, Brussels, since 1970s;
  • from whom purchased by the National Gallery of Australia, 13 December 2006

Giorgio de Chirico is an important figure in twentieth-century art, renowned for his invention of Metaphysical painting (pittura metafisica), which preceded Dada and Surrealism from about 1911 into the 1930s. The artist’s imaginative symbolic language – especially human figures meshed with machines, often placed in incongruous settings such as classical or mechanical landscapes – is seminal to modern art.

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality. For de Chirico, true reality was hidden behind appearances. He invented a language of images which represented human presence by placing everyday objects such as statues, mannequins, set-squares and biscuits within a compressed and fictional space. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire named the style ‘metaphysical’ in 1913. According to the art historian Matthew Gale, de Chirico thought that reality was ‘visible only to the “clearsighted” at enigmatic moments’.

De Chirico studied art in Munich from 1905, moving to Paris in 1911. There he met such Cubist and Fauvist artists as Picasso, Derain, Braque and Brancusi, and avant-garde writers such as Apollinaire. His first solo exhibition, largely unsuccessful, was held in Rome in 1919. Viewers found his paintings disturbing, especially the unusual treatment of space: claustrophobic interiors, unusual angles and cut-off planes, with deadpan representations of classical statues or tailor’s dummies lending an eerie quasi-human presence.
In 1914 de Chirico enlisted in the Italian army and was sent to Ferrara. There he met Carrà and Papini, soon to be his colleagues in Metaphysical painting, and mixed with Futurist and Dada artists. By 1916 de Chirico concentrated on small, stifling still-life compositions, often featuring biscuits, set-squares, planks, maps, military insignia and flags.
Death of a spirit features two French biscuits frontally placed onto orange geometric receding planes, flanked by a black disc and surrounded by yellow, red and green forms. The elements crowd uneasily into an ambiguous space, which reads as an interior, opening onto an unsettling urban landscape. The tense composition and bright, constrained palette animate this small and vigorous painting. Its content and style embody an extraordinary moment in modern painting when Cubism, Dada and Abstraction collided in de Chirico’s new Metaphysics.

The style of Metaphysical painting strongly influenced Surrealist artists such as Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst, as Gale notes in the Grove Dictionary of art:

On his arrival in Paris in 1922, Ernst’s painting reflected the admiration of his poet friends for de Chirico … the painters who became Surrealists after Ernst almost all passed through a period of stylistic debt to de Chirico, notably Salvador Dalí and Alberto Giacometti (the leading creators of the Surrealist Object), René Magritte [and others].

De Chirico was also important to the Australian painters James Cant and James Gleeson. Indeed, Cant almost certainly saw Death of a spirit in London. It was shown there twice while he lived there, first in 1937 at the Zwemmer Gallery in the exhibition Chirico–Picasso, and again at the London Gallery in Giorgio de Chirico 1911–1917, in October–November 1938. Some of the costumes de Chirico designed for Diaghilev’s production of Le Bal in 1929 are held in the Gallery’s collection.

Christine Dixon
Senior Curator, International Painting and Sculpture


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Giorgio de Chirico was the originator and greatest exponent of Metaphysical Painting, a style that prefigured Dada and Surrealism in the second and third decades of the twentieth century. De Chirico moved to Paris in 1911, where he met Cubist and Fauvist artists including Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Georges Braque and Constantin Brancusi. His first solo exhibition was held in Rome in 1919. Viewers found his paintings disturbing, especially his unusual treatment of space. His works featured claustrophobic interiors, unusual angles and cut-off planes, with classical statues and tailors’ dummies lending an eerie human presence.

In 1914 de Chirico enlisted in the Italian army and was sent to Ferrara, where he mixed with Futurist and Dada artists. By 1916 he concentrated on small, still-life compositions, often featuring biscuits, set squares, planks, maps, military insignia and flags. Death of a spirit features two French biscuits on receding geometric planes of orange, flanked by a black disc and surrounded by yellow, red and green forms. A bright, restricted palette and constricted space animate this painting. Its content and style embody an extraordinary moment in modern painting when Cubism, Dada and Abstraction collided in de Chirico’s new metaphysics.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008

Giorgio de Chirico was the originator and greatest exponent of Metaphysical Painting, a style that prefigured Dada and Surrealism in the second and third decades of the twentieth century. De Chirico moved to Paris in 1911, where he met Cubist and Fauvist artists including Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Georges Braque and Constantin Brancusi. His first solo exhibition was held in Rome in 1919. Viewers found his paintings disturbing, especially his unusual treatment of space. His works featured claustrophobic interiors, unusual angles and cut-off planes, with classical statues and tailors’ dummies lending an eerie human presence.

In 1914 de Chirico enlisted in the Italian army and was sent to Ferrara, where he mixed with Futurist and Dada artists. By 1916 he concentrated on small, still-life compositions, often featuring biscuits, set squares, planks, maps, military insignia and flags. Death of a spirit features two French biscuits on receding geometric planes of orange, flanked by a black disc and surrounded by yellow, red and green forms. A bright, restricted palette and constricted space animate this painting. Its content and style embody an extraordinary moment in modern painting when Cubism, Dada and Abstraction collided in de Chirico’s new metaphysics.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014