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Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City: Nietzsche, Modernism, Paris. Ara H. Merjian. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. Pp. xviii + 351. $75.00 (cloth).

If there is an image that prefigures the haunted landscape of European modernity—an image of all that would vanish in the century to come—it might be said to be Giorgio de Chirico’s Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, painted on the eve of the First World War. As if already a spectral trace of her own disappearance, a little girl pushes a wheel across a shaft of sunlight at the border of an arcade-lined piazza. Near the center of the painting, the shadow of an unseen figure (a statue? a soldier?) intrudes on the scene, looming ominously over the girl’s lonely pastime. A horse trailer in the foreground lies vacant. With its elongated shadows and oblique planes of regress, de Chirico’s invocation of “mystery” and “melancholy” offers an allegory of twentieth-century metaphysics, if not necessarily its geopolitical history: a familiar European landscape rendered alien through emptiness and loss.

Much has been written over the past century about such haunted architectural forms and spaces, yet the reception of de Chirico’s work has often amounted to a sort of evacuation in its own right. Whereas their moody atmospherics have been celebrated (and absorbed) by countless other artists, the intellectual project of de Chirico’s “metaphysical” painting has often remained obscure. As a result, the paintings’ iconography now seems all too familiar, while de Chirico himself, especially in light of what many considered his subsequent lapse into self-plagiarism and reactionary classicism, has faded to little more than a footnote to his empty pictures. Even in the paintings themselves, we tend to favor the figural lexicon of perspectives and shadows over any discrete intellectual project.

Ara Merjian’s rich, scrupulously researched, and beautifully written study of de Chirico’s “metaphysical” paintings (as the artist called them) offers a bold reappraisal of this project. Approaching de Chirico’s body of work from 1911–15 as philosophical in more than name alone, Merjian reassesses the early career of a figure whose adulation by the Parisian [End Page 249] avant-garde during and after the First World War was matched in intensity only by his summary rejection a few years later. Born the same year as Friedrich Nietzsche’s lapse into mental illness, de Chirico looked to the German philosopher as the methodological spur for his own artistic project; his sustained reading of Nietzschean philosophy in the months before moving to Paris in 1911 cemented this intense engagement. “It is only with Nietzsche,” de Chirico wrote, “that I can say I have begun a real life” (15).

Whereas Nietzsche’s influence on de Chirico has been documented, Merjian’s study is notable for its sustained meditation on the effects of this relationship throughout the paintings’ figural system. In particular, de Chirico took heed of Nietzsche’s aphoristic appeal to the “pathos of distance,” a resistance to the proliferation of “foreground meanings” in modernity that privileged instead the epistemological challenge of untimeliness, uncertainty, and “hieratic isolation” (37). The paintings’ stark, depopulated urban settings are central to this project, insofar as they open up to a “deferral of immediacy, a distancing even of the nearest things” (7). De Chirico’s images are “haunted by negation and abstraction” (274), their philosophical project “hing[ing] on the play between materiality and metaphysics” (219). The result is both revelatory and curiously elusive: the paintings disrupt the correlation between realism and the real, defamiliarizing the everyday without departing from its semantic familiarity.

Above all, Merjian’s book makes the case for viewing modern painting within its philosophical context—that is, as continuous with philosophy rather than merely “influenced” by it. This approach stands in opposition to the formalist genealogies of midcentury art history that tended to categorize painting according to “schools” of abstraction or figuration, “as if visual phenomena should—or could—be cleaved from ‘literary’ ones unequivocally” (9). Nietzschean concepts such as the “eternal return” (a spiraling, unresolved dialectic of revelation and familiarity) thus play out not only in the recursive shape of de Chirico’s career (the artist notoriously repainted his earlier works later in life) but also in their figural and ideological development. For de Chirico, this meant endowing common vernacular spaces and objects with the capacity for revelation—though not, Merjian notes, for revolution or even populist gain.

With this antipopulism in mind, the book’s first chapter examines the “ideological equivocation” (269) of the painter’s work in the context of its avant-garde reception. The voided spaces of metaphysical painting are often invoked as the apolitical foil to Italian Futurism, in spite of their popularity among the doggedly left-wing Dada and surrealist movements. The images seem to withdraw from the realm of ideology; herein lies their philosophical and ideological insistence, Merjian argues. The paintings shun the politics of the left and right alike, eschewing “collectivity, liquidity, [and] promiscuous ‘generosity’” (65). Though viewed by some as proto-fascist in their nostalgia for classical order, fascism—as much as communism—was anathema to de Chirico precisely for its “petit-bourgeois pageantry” and recourse to the “triviality of crowds” (70). De Chirico’s remove seeks instead “a displacement beyond good and evil, Dada or the Duce” (71).

The book’s second chapter attends to the depopulated urban spaces that figure such displacements; it centers on the “unresolved urbanism” (85) of Gare Montparnasse, a painting that depicts the terrains vagues of the incompletely urbanized Parisian quartier. As Merjian writes, the zone around the Montparnasse train station offered an urban complement to the painter’s Nietzschean methodology of “elliptical and interstitial figuration.” “The area’s fitful development,” he writes, “offered a built-in absence, an abstraction and abstractedness, within the city’s limits” (85). Through such spaces, de Chirico abandoned the standard Gothic tropes of ruin and twilight, instead evincing mystery and disquiet “through utter clarity.” Here, too, the painter discloses his fealty with Nietzsche’s “obscurity of light” (104), whereby mystery derives from an “aesthetics of forgetting” based on clarity and desertion (108), rather than memory or nostalgia. “It is only by means of forgetfulness,” Nietzsche writes, “that man can ever reach the point of fancying himself to possess a ‘truth’” (111).

Turning from urban spaces to still lives, subsequent chapters discuss the gloves, artichokes, bananas, and other objects figured in de Chirico’s paintings. Drawn from the common cultural [End Page 250] artifacts of wartime Paris, such objects likewise become obscure on account of their inexplicable ordinariness. Much of this owes to their framing: Merjian notes the likeness of de Chirico’s compositions to collage, a method he privileged for its unoriginality; collage, that is, offered a means “to neutralize time, to spatialize revelatory consciousness, and to set objects into a dialectical tension chronically tamed into place,” as Merjian puts it (129). This dialectical tension animated what de Chirico referred to as the “metaphysical psychology” of everyday objects (174), a notion developed through the artist’s readings in classical philosophy and myth and “curiosity [toward] mythical archetypes.” As Merjian documents, however, the objects figured in de Chirico’s paintings are less archetypal than autobiographical, often alluding to instruments drawn from the artist’s painterly genealogy as well as from his father’s engineering table. Rather than anthropomorphizing his still lives, such allusions suggest the extent to which de Chirico’s work recasts “life” as a series of objects.

Indeed, this premise is developed fully in the book’s final chapter, which centers on the mannequins that began to appear in de Chirico’s paintings on the eve of the First World War. It studies how such images coopt the “thinking” objects of the still lives toward the architecture of the human form, yielding the faceless, anthropomorphic tailor’s dummies featured in paintings such as The Seer. Such figures, Merjian argues, articulate a key proviso in the artist’s “Nietzschean method”: “to see everything, even man, in its quality of thing” (226). At once humanized and dehumanized, de Chirico’s anthropomorphic “things” stage the drama of epistemological uncertainty and distance to which the artist’s metaphysical works consistently testify.

On account of its meticulous exploration of de Chirico’s philosophical investments, Merjian’s book offers an invaluable contribution to the study of European modernism. Dwelling by turns on the intellectual and cultural histories within which de Chirico’s work developed methodologically, Merjian’s study ranges across the broad landscape of the artist’s early works—which, like the piazzas, mannequins, and artichokes they figure, had become at once all-too-familiar and oddly resistant to analysis even by the 1920s. De Chirico’s paintings, Merjian reminds us, “presume no liberation from the prison-house of painted figuration” (275), nor do they offer solid ideological footing. This is precisely the point: in their very evacuation of epistemological certainty, the metaphysical paintings revel “in the space … opened up by their loss.” Notably, Merjian’s writing is likewise attentive to the value of such uncertainty; engaging neither in polemics nor in axiomatic pronouncements, the book revels in nuance. “I realize that my own language throughout this book has proven relentlessly (even exasperatingly) dialectical,” Merjian acknowledges (268). Far from an admission of guilt, this statement points to one of the book’s overarching strengths: in its very insistence on such dialectics, Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City reminds us that the profundity of modernist scholarship hinges on its very attention to enigma, silence, and untimeliness, far more than on easy assurances about the glibness of our common myths.

Jonathan P. Eburne
Penn State University