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  • Stratigraphy of Andromeda: Giorgio de Chirico, Alberto Savinio, Origins, and Originality
  • Alessandro Giammei (bio)

vivam, parsque mei multa superstes erit

—Ovid, Amores1

A large, cropped wheel with six bolstered spokes is bolted, firmly, to nothing (fig. 1). It looks ready to transfer the energy produced by a grounded pneumatic apparatus (an engine? a plinth?) to some other invisible mechanism, out of view to the right. It is impossible to understand how the slender system of pistons and levers is meant to work. While an aesthetic fascination for the absolute plastic quality of machinery is undeniable, this image does not represent actual technology. It seems that to produce it Francis Picabia used an engineering illustration as an objet trouvé and painted over it, highlighting some details while obliterating most of the functional context with his brush.2 As a result, the machine has no evident function. The two dominant hues underline the artist’s estranging gesture. The metallic body of the mechanical object is green, like the patina that surrounds antique bronze statues, while the background evokes the same ineffable golden flatness that abolishes space and time in Byzantine mosaics, Gothic altarpieces, and icons. Its two-dimensional, yet infinitely profound splendor isolates and absolutizes the enigmatic subject, eradicating it from history. Such a visual oxymoron is encapsulated by the title: Fille née sans mère (“girl born without a mother”).3

Critics agree on the material source of this title, which appears among the locutions latines et étrangères of the early twentieth-century encyclopedic dictionary Petit Larousse Illustrée: another [End Page 21] objet trouvé, a readymade-locution that echoes the modern dream of non-biological birth expressed in Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s early science fiction or in F. T. Marinetti’s Mafarka le futuriste (1909). However, I believe that its literary origin—Prolem sine matre creatam, a line from book II of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—should be considered more carefully. The same Ovidian line is also the epigraph of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, and therefore opens the foundation of modern political theory with the same bold implications (this work is unprecedented, there are no comparable models or sources) that informed Picabia’s title. Exactly in the same year in which Picabia painted his Fille, 1917, Guillaume Apollinaire coined the very term “surrealist” for the rewriting of an episode of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Les mamelles de Tirésias. Another episode of the Metamorphoses gave the title, a year later, to Alberto Savinio’s multilingual and vanguardist literary debut, Hermaphrodito, while Giorgio de Chirico had been obsessed with the sleep of Ariadne (book VII of Ovid’s poem) since at least 1912.4 Even Marinetti, right before the publication of the Futurist Manifesto, blended his modernist imagery with the mythical one of the Metamorphoses by naming his own car after the winged horse born from Medusa’s blood: mon Pegas, “my Pegasus.” In the prime of Europe’s avant-garde, decades before Picasso’s famous illustrated edition, Ovid’s myths were a privileged interlocutor for modernity: a paradoxical influence that is perfectly visualized in the green bronze patina of Picabia’s machine, eternalized on its gilded untimeliness.

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Fig. 1.

Francis Picabia, Fille née sans mère (Girl Born without a Mother), 1917, gouache and metallic paint on printed paper, 50 × 65 cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

© Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris, and DACS, London 2016. Photo © Antonia Reeve, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, UK.

[End Page 22]

Within the wide field of studies related to modernist reception of the classics, this article intends to interrogate the paradox embodied by the motherless mechanomorphic girl envisioned by Picabia: a fetishized emblem of modernity rendered as an ancient statue in an iconizing background, a work that claims to escape genealogies through a quotation from ancient poetry. The aim is to overcome the temptation of historicizing late modernity as the theater of a binary opposition between classicism and vanguardism, tradition and newness. Through Ovid, I will explore the problem of origins and originality in the multimedia work of Giorgio de Chirico...


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