De Chirico was a true innovator — a ‘one off’ — he invented a new artistic vocabulary which he used for a decade or so to create dream-like images full of foreboding and anxiety. They are characterised by a vision of a world where everyday objects take on a new and often malign significance merely by their unexpected juxtaposition with articles which, in another context, would remain unremarkable. De Chirico called this state ‘the solitude of signs’ and in an article published in 1919 he wrote that his art ‘is essentially serene; yet it gives the impression that something new is about to happen within that serenity, and that other signs, apart from the obvious ones, will enter and operate within the bounds of the canvas.’
De Chirico’s favourite motif in his ‘metaphysical’ period is the deserted piazza, full of menace, filled with unmoving, soundless air, bordered by equally deserted, dark loggia casting deep, enigmatic shadows cutting across the open square. In this painting we have just such a piazza. No sentient being inhabits this place — instead it is populated by a large bunch of bananas and a headless sculpted torso. They are ‘exhibited’ on some sort of plinth which has an unresolved relationship with the wider space of the square. In the distance de Chirico has used another favourite device: a steam train, half hidden behind a wall, hurtles across the horizon beneath the ominous sky (for him, the train is a symbol of nostalgia redolent of emotional partings at railway stations, but at the same time perhaps an icon of modernity). The deep shadow cast by the loggia contrasts with the unremitting glare beyond in the open piazza, represented with a startling yellow. And yet the lowering indigo sky is surely incapable of emitting such strong light, seeming more likely to be the harbinger of a violent and ugly storm. If an unfortunate individual were to find themselves in such a place it would be difficult to decide which part of the square would be least inhospitable — the unforgiving heat out in the open or the nightmare darkness within the blind arcade.
In the same year that this picture was created, de Chirico met the poet, writer and critic Guillaume Apollinaire who became an inspirational friend. It was Apollinaire who first used the term ‘metaphysical’ to describe de Chirico’s work (and who also coined the expression ‘surrealist’). And indeed it was via their admiration of Apollinaire that the Surrealist group came to discover de Chirico’s painting. It is now difficult not to think of de Chirico’s work as quintessentially Surrealist but his metaphysical paintings were executed a decade before the publication of the Manifesto of Surrealism. He was in fact a precursor of that movement whose profound influence on Surrealist painting is obvious. This even extends to his enigmatic titles which were adopted some years later by Max Ernst, René Magritte and other Surrealist artists.
1913 Pierre Bonnard: Dining Room in the Country, Minneapolis Institute of Arts
1913 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Five Women in the Street, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum
1913 Marc Chagall: Self Portrait with Seven Fingers, Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum