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Piazzas on the eve of destruction

Review by Corinna Lotz

On the run from the Italian military authorities a 23-year-old Greek-Italian-Dalmatian artist made some of the most haunting images of the 20th century.

The young Giorgio de Chirico projected his personal anxiety into paintings which he called "a museum of strangeness". Their enigmatic titles are memorable: Melanconia, Ariadne, The Soothsayer’s Recompense, The Silent Statue.

de Chirico
Melanconia, 1912

He did his visual meditations in his Paris studio just as war broke out in the Balkans, having been twice charged with desertion by military tribunals in Florence and Turin. In October 1913 he showed the results of his work in his studio to acclaim by the French poet, Guillaume Apollinaire.

A modest but perfect exhibition at London’s Estorick Collection gathers together half a dozen pictures from the artist’s fertile Paris period plus another dozen taking in six decades of work including drawings and sculptures.

Curator Michael Taylor has wisely focused on a central theme in de Chirico’s art – the myth of Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete. She helped Athenian prince Theseus escape from the Minotaur’s labyrinth, only to be left abandoned on the island of Naxos.

de Chirico
The Soothsayer's Recompense, 1913

Images of her as a reclining, mourning woman have appeared in European art ever since. As this exhibition reveals, she had an abiding fascination for de Chirico. For him she symbolised not simply an abandoned female, but a monument to yearning, sadness, sleep, antiquity, and finally art itself.

Ariadne is a key element in the artist’s personal language of forms. She lies on a pedestal in the slanting sun, casting long shadows across an empty square, framed by arched arcades. Usually there is a tiny steam train and a sailboat on the horizon behind a wall. Sometimes a tower or a huge chimney stack looms over the scene.

All these elements combine and recombine, as the painting is remade over time. It is as if a story teller is asked to relate a favourite tale and tells it differently each time. The artist creates an ideal space – the classical Italian piazza – and shows a new industrial world kept at bay, but encroaching on it. The steam train can be interpreted as the march of history which threatens the serenity of an ideal psychological space.

It is not a rational space, but a dream-like image. We see shadows but we don’t know what has cast them. Ariadne is viewed from different sides, now near, now further away, as though the observer is walking around the square or as if she is moving restlessly on her plinth.

de Chirico
The Silent Statue, 1913

De Chirico could not evade military service indefinitely. He enrolled in 1915, but managed to avoid active duty, living at his mother’s apartment and continuing to paint and write poetry. He was sent to a military hospital in 1917.

De Chirico’s post World War I career was full of controversial twists and turns. His champion, Apollinaire was dead. Picasso had seemingly abandoned Cubism and turned to a classical style.

This lovingly-curated show allows us to see the artist’s early and late works as a whole and form a judgement about how he kept his early vision alive and developing.

First shown at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the exhibition reunites the Estorick’s own Melanconia of 1912 with three amazing works from 1913, lent by the Metropolitain Museum of Art and the Kunstammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Dusseldorf. They are shown together with the Piazza d’Italia (Italian Square) series from the 1960s and 1970s from Rome, London and private collections.

An excellent catalogue (£16.95) explores the Ariadne theme in depth and breadth. Tate curator Matthew Gale studies the influence of Nietsche’s The Birth of Tragedy on de Chirico. He looks at the de Chirico family’s support for the struggle for Greek self-determination and the unification of Crete with Greece in 1913. An essay on Andy Warhol’s enthusiasm for de Chirico's "serial" art-making puts the artist’s late period in a new light.

Andy Warhol
Italian Square with Ariadne (after de Chirico), 1982

Giorgio de Chirico and the Myth of Ariadne is at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London N1 until April 13. Open Weds to Sat, 11-18; Sundays 12-17.00. Tel: 020 7704 9522. Admission £3.50/£2.50. Saturday talks at 15.00 8th and 12th February and 15th March are free with admission ticket. Shop and café.

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