- Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City: Nietzsche, Modernism, Paris by Ara H. Merjian
In a letter to Fritz Gartz written in 1910, Giorgio de Chirico declared: ‘I am the only man to have truly understood Nietzsche — all of my work demonstrates this’ (p. 16). It is this profound affinity that Ara H. Merjian examines in his handsomely produced study of de Chirico’s metaphysical painting, a term that encompasses the artist’s enigmatic cityscapes produced primarily in Paris between 1911 and 1915. Merjian undertakes the ambitious task of showing how de Chirico’s painting not merely illustrates philosophical ideas, but, rather, enacts them through a series of innovative compositional experiments. Architecture is identified as both the means and the metaphor through which the artist gave visual form to certain ideas in Nietzsche’s late writings. The central argument is structured around four paintings produced in 1914: Gare Montparnasse (Museum of Modern Art, New York), The Enigma of Fatality (Kunstmuseum, Basel), The Evil Genius of [End Page 411] a King (Museum of Modern Art, New York), and The Seer (Museum of Modern Art, New York). Through detailed readings of these works and their placement within de Chirico’s broader œuvre and the cultural milieu of pre-war Paris, Merjian examines facets of a Nietzschean ‘performance’ that is propelled as much by silence, omission, and displacement, as by the representation of objects and persons. He argues that the architectural impulse of the works consists less in picturing the built environment than in drawing attention to gaps and spaces that are left behind. While de Chirico’s cityscapes could sometimes find physical counterparts in Paris, so too they resisted analogy, projecting a ‘desiccated alchemy of overdetermination and underrepresentation’ (p. 118) in their sources and references. Merjian acknowledges that ‘there have been as many different “Nietzsches” as readers of his work’ (p. 3) and that, in consequence, de Chirico’s interpretation of the philosopher’s writings is necessarily idiosyncratic. However, this poses certain problems for an elucidation of the philosophical ideas found within de Chirico’s paintings. The ‘Nietzschean method’ that Merjian identifies in the artist’s works is described as ‘a mode of vision rather than an inventory of objects’ (p. 6), a style of art production in which ‘the painter’s point of view merges […] with that of the philosopher’ (p. 24). The difficulty of identifying and examining the pictorial expression of this imaginative bond means that the discussion remains, at times, allusive. This is, perhaps, an attendant difficulty of showing how painting can perform ‘philosophically’; it also derives from the fact that de Chirico’s response to Nietzsche’s work was not a systematic one. Yet there are points in the argument where a more detailed exegesis and contextualization of specific ideas within Nietzsche’s works would have been helpful, particularly in light of the substantial secondary literature on the philosopher’s late writings. Despite these reservations, the book is a valuable contribution to studies of de Chirico’s works and offers many avenues for further exploration in the field of modernist studies.