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...