“One must picture everything in the world as an enigma, not only the great questions one has always asked oneself […]. But rather to understand the enigma of things generally considered insignificant. To perceive the mystery of certain phenomena of feeling.” Georgio de Chirico, Eluard Manuscript.
Giorgio De Chirico was born in Volos, Greece, to a Genovese mother and a Sicilian father. His father Evaristo, was an engineer working for the railways. Among other things, he designed the railway station of Volos.
De Chirico is best known for the paintings he produced between 1909 and 1919, his metaphysical period, which are memorable for the haunted, brooding moods evoked by their images.
“[T]he first artist to dwell on […] seemingly arbitrary confrontations of inanimate objects, and if the symbolic meaning of recurring images like the bananas, clocks, gloves and artichokes remain unknown, they are obviously repositories of deeply personal and experiences. It is a world that is sui generis, unrelated to any ‘isms,’ and here one can sympathise with de Chirico’s defiant rejection of the rest of modern art.” John Ashbery, “A de Chirico Retrospective”
When I visited Chicago in 203, one of the paintings that struck me at the At Institute of Chicago was the “Philosopher’s Conquest”. The gigantic clock gives the viewer an urgent message about the passage of time. As we are about ready to say goodbye to 2014 and welcome 2015, I want to present this painting and provide some relevant interpretations.
Before I proceed, it is important to emphasize that my interpretations are the ones of an enthusiast. In this sense they may also be totally arbitrary.
It is known that by the time he was well in his “metaphysical” period, de Chirico had read philosophy and that Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Heraclitus had a profound influence on him.
In this section I will try to identify the components that make up the painting.
In the next section I will try to make sense of the way de Chirico has put them all together.
The clock is positioned in the midpoint of the picture’s depth. De Chirico uses a clock quite often in his “metaphysical” paintings. The time shown does not seem to be significant. It is the time in abstract that is portrayed here.
The train is in the background, quite visible and full of speed. As is the case with the clock, de Chirico often places a train in his “metaphysical” pictures.It is an object that brings the painter back to his childhood, when from his garden in Volos, he could see the trains passing by. Indirectly it is also a reference to his father, who was a railway engineer.
The ship on the other hand has sails, it appears not to be going anywhere. The painter may be building a contrast here between the slow, imperceptible movement of the ship and the fast and furious pace of the train. This is also the contrast between the remnants of the pre-industrial period and the industrial period.
The two shadows are merged. Some suggest they belong to the painter’s mother and brother.
It is important to note that there are only shadows of people in the painting, and no people at all.
The huge space of the piazza is empty.
It is as if the people have been there, but they have now gone somewhere else.
The brick chimney
A phallic symbol, may be the absent father. May also be a symbol of rapid industrialization that exacerbates the alienation of people.
Another phallic symbol par excellence, the huge tower is half hidden by the clock. De Chirico placed huge towers in many of his metaphysical paintings.
De Chirico has used artichokes also in another of his paintings, “Melancholy of an afternoon”.
It is not clear at all what the artichokes symbolize. Huge erect female breasts?
But why not something simpler?
It is possible that the painter liked artichokes and he wanted to juxtrapose them, as a source of earthy pleasure, to the horrible presence of the cannon and the balls.
What makes me think that this “straight” reading is false is the size of the artichokes.
They are huge, they almost protrude in front of the cannon. With the multitude of shadows and the spiky leaves they are almost menacing. Definitely not a source of pleasure.
As a matter of fact, now that I think of it, there is no source of pleasure whatsoever in this painting.
The cannon and balls
The symbol of the phallus is rather too obvious here. The year is 1914 and World War I is imminent, it may have laready started. I will risk it and suggest that the cannon and the two oddly placed balls are an allusion to war.
We should not forget that according to Heraclitus “War is the father of all”.
Last but not least, the empty space of the piazza.
The painting is silent.
There are no noises whatsoever. Even the train prodices no noise, as it is too far away to be heard.
Silence is partnered by emptiness. The vast spaces of the painting are empty.
There are people, only shadows.
It is as if something is going to happen, we do not know exactly what, but the cannon gives us a pretty good idea of what it is going to be. A was is coming.
It is melancholy that I feel, or is it anguish?
At moments like these, and this painting is about a moment, anguish allows us to access the truth of being.
Time is linked to death, and both are linked to melancholy, with a profound boredom (predating the matserpiece of Alberto Moravia) and with loneliness.
This is a painting of mood.
I am sad because time is passing by.
I am broody because I have an empty space in front of me, because I am alone, because I will die alone.
I am melancholic because the good moments have gone and I am facing the inevitability of death. The clock is not a clock, it is the opening of the gates to Hades.
The existential anguish of the individual is magnified by the dark presence of the cannon and the war that is coming. No way out. If you do not die of boredom, you will die in the military front.
So, what is the conquest the painter is talking about?
I claim it is the conquest of the fear of death.
Postscript: When all goes out of the window
As a postscript, I would like to refer to the “transformation” of de Chirico’s style and paintings.
The painting we see above is not a Renoir, it is a de Chirico! Unbelievable? Yes, but true!
How could the painter of “The Philosopher’s Conquest” paint this rather ordinary picture?
I can venture one hypothesis and hope to re-address the question in another post.
De Chirico must have suffered a traumatic experience that made him turn away from the “metaphysical” style he invented and regress to late impressionism, passing through an intermediate “fusion” state which is emplified by the “Warriors and Philosophers” painting.