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100 Best Paintings in New York

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Giorgio de Chirico: The Song of Love - 1914

New York, Museum of Modern Art

M. de Chirico has recently purchased a glove of pink rubber, one of the most extraordinary objects that one can find. It is destined, once copied by the artist, to render his future works even more striking and disconcerting than his past ones. If one asks him as to the terror that this glove is capable of inciting, he will speak to you immediately of the still more terrifying toothbrushes just invented by the dental art, the most recent and perhaps the most useful of all arts. Guillaume Apollinaire (from a short article in the Paris Journal for July 4 1914)

Leaving aside the matter of toothbrushes, the rubber glove turned up a few weeks later, as predicted by Apollinaire (an inspirational friend to de Chirico), having been given a starring role in this picture. It is pinned to a centrally positioned construction of uncertain utility or provenance – a board or a piece of theatrical scenery perhaps? Next to the glove hangs a plaster head of Apollo Belvedere. The central structure to which glove and head are attached appears to abut a building to the right which imparts to it and its attachments a gigantic scale. A green ball in the foreground is of unresolved size and uncertain stability – looking like it might roll away towards the left at any moment. Strong shadows are cast by an unseen sun.

The schematic building sports the trademark de Chirico loggia or colonnade – the openings reveal only the density of nightmare darkness within, harbouring the possibility of an unknown menace. To the left another favourite motif is utilised – the steam locomotive behind a brick wall emanating a single puff from its chimney. Steam trains held an exalted place in de Chirico’s personal pantheon of objects to which he attached special meaning. Like the futurists, he held them to be emblematic of modernity, power and speed; they were also the instruments of melancholy partings at railway stations. But, more personally, they triggered memories of childhood – his father was a railway engineer and trains did indeed pass behind just such a brick wall at the end of his childhood garden in northern Greece.

Apollo is the sun god, the god of beauty, music and poetry, but in the writings of Nietzsche (a powerful influence on de Chirico) he presides over the world of dreams. De Chirico also considered Apollo to be symbolic of the plastic arts – his art, what he called metaphysics, a term coined by Apollinaire (who later also came up with the term ‘Surrealist’).

Through his metaphysical paintings de Chirico sought to unmask the mysterious truth behind apparent reality. In this he was influenced by the enigmatic work of the Symbolists and especially Arnold Böcklin. But de Chirico went much further. In his paintings he constructed a world where everyday objects take on a new significance merely by their unexpected juxtaposition with articles which, in another context would remain unremarkable. These objects are placed in a superficially illusionistic space which he then subtly undermines – floors are tilted, lines of perspective pitch away from the viewer creating an unsettling instability. All this combines to give de Chirico’s paintings a disturbing air of anxiety and foreboding – providing the surrealist painters with a rich source of inspiration when they later discovered his work, a debt which even extended to the adoption by Dalí and Ernst of similarly inscrutable titles.

Contemporary Works

1914 Francis Picabia: I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie, New York, MOMA

1914 Walter Richard Sickert: Ennui, London, Tate

1914 Oskar Kokoschka: Bride of the Wind, Basel, Kunstmuseum

Further Paintings of Interest

Twittering Machine

Paul Klee


Max Ernst

The Menaced Assassin

René Magritte