Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 27, 2018
Ara H. Merjian Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City: Nietzsche, Modernism, Paris New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. 352 pp.; 83 color ills.; 160 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300176599)
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Ara Merjian’s commanding monograph, Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City: Nietzsche, Modernism, Paris, opens with a reading of Self-Portrait with Double, a picture de Chirico made in 1919, shortly before his epochal retour à l’ordre. In the painting, the artist sits beside a table in a perfunctory room, fixing the viewer with a sober, portentous stare and gesturing toward a marble slab held upright on the tabletop. True to the picture’s title, a ghostly doppelgänger looms in the space just behind his counterpart, its doughy face turned in profile, clasping empty air with an outstretched hand. In this conjuring of opposites, Self-Portrait with Double condenses the themes explored at length in the five chapters of Merjian’s book: presence and absence; materialism and metaphysics; sculptural solidity and modernist flatness; outward appearance and inward destiny; the artifice of the painter’s studio and the imposing forms of urban architecture—antipodes that de Chirico strove to think together, taking his cues from Friedrich Nietzsche, who is arguably the book’s other (“double”) monographic subject.

Originating in a doctoral dissertation chaired by T. J. Clark, Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City offers a book-length meditation on de Chirico’s “Nietzschean method,” focusing on a sequence of major artworks generated over the course of the year 1914—“the fatal year,” per de Chirico’s recollection (11). Art historical and philosophical in equal measure, Merjian proposes Nietzsche as de Chirico’s model in the deepest sense, a thinker whose painstaking eschewal of dialectics suggested a way through the straits of Cubist-era modernism. For Merjian, Nietzsche’s “conceptual aristocracy” (8) was more than merely reactionary: warring against nineteenth-century materialism, he argues, Nietzsche strove to wrestle modernity’s antipodes into equipoise, proffering the genealogist’s “practiced subtraction” (268) from the social order (and from bourgeois norms) over and against the dialectician’s strategy of negation. In de Chirico’s art, the “Nietzschean method” described a mandarin intervention within a cultural field rent by Cubism and collage, marking a position of reserve—a “pathos of distance,” per Merjian’s quotation from Nietzsche—equally remote from the avant-garde and the bourgeois mainstream. Conjoining “specificity and genericism, prehistory and prophecy, public means and recondite meaning” (11) in an open weave of symbols, The Metaphysical City argues, de Chirico drew from Nietzsche an aesthetic of contradiction-in-abeyance—a far cry from the bellicose “will to power” heralded by reactionaries past and present.

In certain ways, Merjian’s account of de Chirico strikes a familiar chord. That the frères de Chirico—Giorgio’s younger brother Alberto, a musician and composer who took the last name Savinio, followed the painter to Paris in 1911 and was equally a stalwart of la scuola metafisica—labored to mold themselves in Nietzsche’s image was no secret: the voluminous corpus of writings left by these two men names Nietzsche as their unambiguous lodestar and mentor in absentia. “I am the only man to have truly understood Nietzsche—all of my work demonstrates this” (16) wrote the young Giorgio, age twenty-three, to a friend in 1911; six decades later, in 1970, he had himself photographed at a commemorative plaque in Turin’s Piazza Carlo Alberto, where the philosopher-become-madman had famously intervened on a whipped horse’s behalf. Needless to say, de Chirico was not alone in believing himself the privileged audience of Nietzsche’s thought. In the wake of the fin-de-siècle, Nietzschean pretensions were common fare to a generation grown bearish on modernity, and that held the blandishments of manhood franchise in high contempt.

Yet the humdrum reactionary is not Merjian’s de Chirico. Largely silent on the matters of politics, Merjian nevertheless articulates a deeply sympathetic, and often refreshingly unfamiliar, account of de Chirico’s modernism, emphasizing both the artistic seriousness (and iconographic richness) of the painter’s enterprise as well as the unusual assiduity of his philosophical apprenticeship. Limiting its focus to the year 1914, a moment of particularly high ambition for the twenty-six-year-old painter, Merjian frames de Chirico’s project as an Alexandrian enterprise, one concerned with art’s fate most of all, and that treated the morass of geopolitics by conspicuous omission. Of the monograph’s five main chapters, four are anchored by single artworks, which The Metaphysical City unfolds with Panofskian scruples, delving through richly layered interpretive materials, from de Chirico’s own writings to contemporary criticism (and also, needless to say, Nietzsche’s corpus), in order to reanimate his focal objects. Fragments of public life occasionally surface in Merjian’s analysis—for example, the history of post-Haussmannian urbanism in the chapter devoted to de Chirico’s Gare Montparnasse; or the traditions of Parisian sign painting vis-à-vis The Enigma of Fatality—but its main business is with the pictorial and iconographic complexity of these artworks, which The Metaphysical City unfolds deftly and at length, circling back repeatedly to the raw pictorial evidence in an approximation of the “Nietzschean method” applied to the history of art.

What did this method amount to in the moment of 1914? By de Chirico’s own reckoning—and belying his reputation as the painter of shadowy porticoes and oneiric towers—there was “nothing tenebrous” about la pintura metafisica: “It is [rather] the tranquil and senseless beauty of matter that appears to me ‘metaphysical,’” he wrote in an essay of 1919, “and even more metaphysical to me are all those objects which, in the precision of their color and the exactness of their dimensions, represent the antipodes of all confusion and nebulousness” (1). The keywords fairly leap from this passage, conjuring an art of sun-etched outlines and architectural clarity—of depopulated piazzas remote from metropolitan bustle. In practice, however, the Ancient in de Chirico’s art was inextricable from the Modern: “Confusion and nebulousness” were central to his method, which prescribed the unworking of sense in and through the “prison-house of painting”; likewise, Merjian insists, the much-vaunted clarity of de Chirico’s Metaphysical cityscape “frequently congeals into self-conscious [i.e., self-reflexive, self-referencing] form; literary dimensions prove intermittently literal” (35), while linear perspective—think of the vertiginous pitch of The Enigma of a Day, one of the earliest paintings canvased in The Metaphysical City—shades into matte flatness.

The framework of Merjian’s book is episodic, and indeed, elliptical; yet there is a subtle shape to the trajectory its chapters describe, arcing from serene self-confidence toward incipient crisis. During the year’s first months, the place of “tranquil and senseless beauty” for de Chirico was still recognizably urban, and indeed proximate, to the painter’s own life-world and -time: Paris and Turin anchor the first half of The Metaphysical City, their public spaces harnessing a stock of metaphors—for authorial silence and elitist closure, but also, and equally, for metropolitan contingency and anonymity. The Enigma of a Day, Gare Montparnasse, and The Enigma of Fatality (subjects of chapters 1, 2, and 3, respectively) all trade in visions of urban monumentality; they are also, by Merjian’s lights, powerful responses to the scene of capitalist modernity in which modernism remained enmeshed. However, by the late spring and early summer of 1914, de Chirico’s efforts had narrowed and diminished in size, assuming dimensions and subject matter more appropriate to still-life painting. In The Evil Genius of a King, a canvas that serves as the fulcrum of Merjian’s argument, the trains, clocks, and scattered passersby of the Metaphysical City are replaced with mysterious tabletop objects—bits of matter patterned with lines and dots, laid across a sloping foreground. Locating a convincing source for this jetsam in the paraphernalia of Roman augury, and especially haruspexy (a practice of divination based on the interpretation of entrails), Merjian reads The Evil Genius as a bid to confound the ultra-mundane and the otherworldly, “evok[ing] ‘deep time’ in the shallow space of a shop window” (202; in addition to the haruspex, Merjian identifies the form of a Roman gnomon, a primitive sundial, as part of The Evil Genius’s expansive iconography).

Time deepens further in the book’s fifth and final chapter, devoted to The Seer, a painting in which de Chirico’s metaphysics bend back upon the metaphysician, opening a vein of figuration that would carry him through the rest of his career. Painted in the winter of 1914–15, The Seer reprises the themes of spring and summer, but with a marked difference. The architecture of the Metaphysical City now arranges itself in an imitation of the painter’s studio, and in its enclosure, the Metaphysical Painter (or is it the Metaphysical Model?) appears in the flesh, figured as a faceless mannequin seated marionette-like on a wooden plinth. To the mannequin’s right, an architectural drawing has been set on an unwieldy easel, suggesting the preparatory schemas underlying de Chirico’s artistic “enigmas”; and just behind, placed out of view, the statue of Count Cavour (quoted from The Enigma of a Day) casts a foreshortened shadow over the plank-like agora—a cipher of bygone Risorgimento auctoritas. Here, too, Merjian’s intervention is genealogical, identifying The Seer’s mannequin with the earliest pre-Archaic Greek sculpture, called xoana, while also linking it with the sort of abstracting disfiguration risked by Cézanne and Matisse—a “willfully degenerate” icon, he argues, at equal odds with wartime neoclassicism and the avant-garde’s “utopia of dehumanization” (264). Yet there is a note of bathos to this final performance that Merjian’s chapter names but stops short of articulating: for all its fidelity to the Nietzschean method, The Seer cements a transition in de Chirico’s art from painting as enigma to the painting of enigma, and, more specifically, the painting of enigma’s privileged subject—the artist as metaphysical seer. In this sense, Giorgio Chirico and the Metaphysical City arrives full circle from Self-Portrait with Double, terminating with the painter’s retreat from the space of urban life, and ending with a more conventional idea of Nietzsche’s import, as the philosopher of lordly solitude. That de Chirico briefly tarried with a more capacious silence, less secure in its aristocratic haughtiness, testifies to the relevance of Merjian’s book in our own reactionary present. The gates of the Metaphysical City have been closed for nearly a century; it is therefore a different—an untimely—de Chirico that confronts us beyond Reaction’s wall, and that Merjian has helped us finally to see.

Daniel Marcus
Visiting Lecturer, Department of History of Art, Ohio State University

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