Psychically speaking, the fact of discovering the mysterious aspects of objects could be described as a symptom of cerebral abnormality akin to certain forms of madness. I believe that every person can undergo such abnormal moments, and that this is all the more fruitful when made manifest in an individual gifted with creative talent and clairvoyance. Art is the fatal net that catches these strange moments in flight, like mysterious butterflies, unnoticed by the innocence and distraction of ordinary men.1
In this manner the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico sought to express his personal consciousness of mystery and the sense of his special role as a creator or transcriber of metaphysical scenes. De Chirico believed that he was endowed with an ability to perceive objects and spaces within a new sense of structural order; that “. . .with clairvoyance we construct in painting a new metaphysical psychology of objects.”2
This “metaphysical psychology” was dependent upon a highly conscious manipulation of geometric shapes which were intricately juxtaposed so as to establish one's acute awareness of the potentiality of the space they occupied. In 1919 de Chirico wrote:
The absolute consciousness of the space that an object in a painting must occupy, and the awareness of the space that divides objects, establishes a new astronomy of objects attached to the planet by the fatal law of gravity. The minutely accurate and prudently weighed use of surface and volumes constitutes the canon of the metaphysical aesthetic.3
One of the most intriguing examples of this aesthetic is the panting entitles The Scholar's Playthings,4
now in the collection of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It is among the most unique and beautiful canvases in de Chirico's series of metaphysical interiors, produced while he was serving in the Italian army during the First World War. An examination of the painting's imagery and of the artist's autobiographical and other writings indicates that de Chirico consciously combined specific objects and personal experiences to make this work an important document of his activity during the war years.According to the inscription in the lower right hand corner of the canvas, The Scholar's Playthings
was painted in May of 1917 when de Chirico was a soldier in the 27th Infantry Regiment, the Pavia Brigade, stationed at Ferrara.5
Soon after his arrival in 1915, he had fortunately been appointed to the position of clerk, which allowed him a sufficient degree of freedom to be able to live in a small apartment with his brother Andrea who was stationed with him.6
With the pressures and monotony of military camp life thus relieved, de Chirico began to paint a series of metaphysical interiors which, as he has stated, were greatly influenced by the curious ambiance of the city.The appearance of Ferrara, one of the most beautiful cities in Italy, had impressed me, but what struck me most of all and inspired me on the metaphysical side, the manner in which I was working then, were certain aspects of Ferrara interiors, certain windows, shops, houses, districts, such as the ancient ghetto, where you could find certain sweets and biscuits with remarkable metaphysical and strange shapes.7
Compared to other metaphysical interiors painted in 1917, The Scholar's Playthings
presents a rather simplified and cogent arrangement of objects in a readily definable spatial ambiance.8
Of the six box-like structures which are placed on the tilted floor or table surface of the interior, one is decorated with four triangles of different colors, the shape immediately behind it displays a large building over which are placed two triangles, and the two other decorated shapes bearing drawings of a human arm and a head in profile that seem inspired by anatomical charts. The other object sharing this spatial plane is a long, cylindrical stick whose end is decorated with eight bands of various colors. James Thrall Soby, in his book, Giorgio de Chirico
suggests that it might be a croquet stick, but I prefer to associate it with the pointer used by doctors and teachers when referring to graphic visual aids—an interpretation which would relate it directly to the anatomical charts to which it in fact points.9
The background of the interior is composed of a group of variously colored squares set one over the other. These images are clear and definite, and by referring to the artist's writings one can establish reasonable associations which explain their appearance in the painting.In his admirable study, Soby attributes the anatomical charts to ones which the artist might have seen in apothecaries' displays while walking through the streets of Ferrara.10
I think it much more likely that they are a specific reference to the sever and continuing medical problems which had plagued de Chirico since his childhood and which, during his stay in Ferrara, became serious enough to have him placed in a convalescent hospital.11
Since his father's fatal illness in 1905 de Chirico had lost faith in doctors, and from his youth his own gastro-intestinal maladies had necessitated constant visits to physicians whose advice was of no help. During the first weeks of his stay in Ferrara, de Chirico's intestinal troubles flared up as a result of the heat, the bad food, and the marches.It was true that I could ‘report sick,’ but it was merely a formality because the only illness that the medical lieutenant recognized was a high temperature which I had not got and therefore, in spite of my physical and mental exhaustion, I did not succeed in having a single day of rest.12
It was later, in 1917, that his physical condition was properly diagnosed, and he was transferred from active duty and placed in a situation which allowed him complete rest and, luckily, a very good opportunity to paint.As the two medical charts would seem to refer to the painter's unfortunate encounters with illness and doctors during the time the work was done, so to may the large building pictured in the foreground be related to his experiences during these war years. De Chirico's memoirs from his stay in Ferrara make two specific references to large buildings. The first mentioned is the Piastrini depot where he was originally stationed. He described it as:
. . .a kind of stable with walls covered in graffiti and writing of all kinds; up and down the stairs went recruits wearing filthy uniforms of grey cloth . . . from time to time there came from the courtyard, latrines and infirmaries the classic combined stink of carbolic acid, burnt coffee and creosote.13
The building in this painting is certainly large, with several floors and wings as well as a surrounding courtyard, and might very well be the Piastrini depot. It could also be a visual reference to the convalescent hospital where he later recovered from his illness and which he described in his memoirs as “. . . an old convent full of corridors, enormous rooms and a vast number of little bedrooms.”14
Yet another identification is suggested by the four very tall chimneys which rise from the building, giving it the appearance of a factory. The artist must have seen many of these in or around Ferrara, and that he was acutely aware of them and their owners is clearly indicated in the following passage describing his visit to Rome immediately after the end of the war:
Thus Corporal Giorgio de Chirico had his modest croquettes in the grill-room, while in the adjoining restaurant the rich and powerful, the profiteers of the war that was barely over, ate expensive food washed down with expensive wine. . . Sic est et erit justitia mundi!15
I believe that the large building in this painting must be recognized as a generalized image, carrying with it the combined associations of the large foreboding, “official” structures which represented for the artist a whole chain of vivid and emotional experiences that greatly affected him during this period—the army, his health, and the injustices of war.Having suggested an interpretation of the various recognizable objects in The Scholar's Playthings
from the artist's personal associations, we must turn to his use of repeated geometric forms in conjunction with those objects. The two triangles painted above the large building are both represented with holes cut through their bases and must be identified as drafting templates, tools which would have been used by the artist's father Evariste de Chirico, who was an engineer by profession. As Soby has pointed out:
. . .draftsmen's tools are to be found time and again in his paintings of 1913-1917, while in many cases the geometric disposition of forms seems related, however obliquely, to the sketches and mechanical drawing instruments which must have littered the elder de Chirico's desk.16
There is, however, a broader source from which these two triangles must also have sprung, and it involves the artist's deliberately symbolic use of geometric form. In 1919 he wrote:
Symbols of a superior reality are often to be seen in geometric forms. For example the triangle has served from antiquity, as indeed it still does today in the theosophists' doctrine, as a mystical and magical symbol, and it certainly often awakens a sense of uneasiness and even fear in the onlooker, even if he is ignorant of this tradition.17
The triangular form must them be understood as an archetypal symbol which de Chirico utilized to enhance the unsettling mystery of his scenes and their impact on the viewer's sense of reality and visual complacency. In the same passage he explained his use of the square as a similar symbolic and vital pictorial element: “In like manner the square has always obsessed my mind. I always saw squares rising like mysterious stars behind every one of my pictorial representations.”18
The Ferrara period was obviously an important one for de Chirico, as it was during this time that he painted the majority of his metaphysical interiors. The artist himself commented, as quoted earlier, on the strange and vital effects the atmosphere of the city had on him. In his memoirs he stated that the Ferrarese were marked by a latent madness which was often combined with a significant lecherousness. This strange behavior was explained in the following manner:
Professor Tambroni, the eminent phrenologist, who at that time directed the Ferrara mental hospital, and whom I knew, explained to me that this abnormal state of the Ferrarese is due to the fumes given off by the hemp and to the perpetual humidity. In fact, the entire city is build over ancient macerating vats.19
De Chirico is thus asserting that by virtue of living in Ferrara, where the manufacture of hemp rope was a major industry, the citizens were, without overt actions and merely by breathing, affected by the plant's intoxicating fumes. I do not here posit that de Chirico necessarily used a hemp product and that this use had some effect on his creation of the strangely haunting spaces and mysterious juxtapositions of objects in his metaphysical paintings. I do suggest, however, that he was obviously aware of the potential effects of hemp and was also aware that other artists and poets experimented with it. In the paragraph immediately following the last quote, de Chirico continued on the same subject:
Apparently the smell of hemp has a particular effect on the human organism. Baudelaire also mentions it in his Petits poèmes en prose: “During the hemp harvest strange phenomena sometimes occur among the workers, both male and female. It looks as thought some vertiginous spirit rises from the harvest, circulates round their legs and goes maliciously to their brains. The harvester's head is in a whirl, at other times it is heavy with dreaming. His limbs grow weak and refuse to act.”
Baudelaire then goes on to say that ever since he had been a child similar phenomena had happened to him whenever he played and rolled about on heaps of lucerne.20The Poem of Hashish,
from which de Chirico's quote originally came,21
the great French author so intimately and vividly describes the physical and mental effects of hashish (a hemp-derived substance) that one can scarcely believe that he lacked personal experience with the drug. In the third part of The Poem Hashish,
Baudelaire likens some of the effects of hashish to madness and in the fourth part notes that:
. . .the principal benefit he derives from this daily administration of poison is to take an exaggerated interest in even the most trivial things: “. . . its customary effect (is) that of imbuing all the external world with an intensity of interest. . . there came a whole universe of suggestion—a gay and motley train of rhapsodical and immethodical thought.”22
While de Chirico offers no explicit information as to any personal use of hemp, we have, in the opening quotation of this article, already noted his preoccupation with his discovery of mysterious new aspects of object and his recognition that these perceptions are akin to madness. Perhaps his strange metaphysical views of the common foods and objects in the shops and interiors of Ferrara were in some way stimulated by the heady atmosphere which he claimed pervaded the town. Certainly, The Scholar's Playthings
is a haunting and beautifully crafted painting and is a major addition to the collections of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.Evan Mauer,
Curator of Primitive Art at The Art Institute of Chicago, is currently writing his Ph.D. dissertation on The Relationship Between Surrealism and Primitivism.
He has recently delivered papers on Concepts of Totemism and Shamanism in the work of Max Ernst
and Max Ernst's Oedipus Rex.Endnotes
Referenced Work of Art
- Massimo Carrà et al, Metaphysical Art, trans. Caroline Tisdall (New York, 1971), p. 89.
- Ibid., p. 90.
- Ibid., p. 91.
- 72.75. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel H. Maslon. Oil on canvas, 35 1/4” x 20 1/4”.
- Giorgio de Chirico, The Memoirs of Giorgio de Chirico, trans. Margaret Crosland, London, 1971.
- The apartment was maintained by de Chirico's mother, Gemma, who continued her husband's intense interest in encouraging their sons' careers in art, Giorgio as a painter, Andrea as a writer and musician.
- De Chirico, op. cit., p. 80.
- See James Thrall Soby, Giorgio de Chirico (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1955), pp. 235-237.
- Ibid., p. 132.
- Ibid., p. 130.
- Ibid., p. 115. Soby does not give the exact date when the artist entered the hospital and neither do the de Chirico memoirs.
- De Chirico, op. cit., p. 79.
- Ibid., p. 77.
- Ibid., p. 83.
- Ibid., p. 87.
- Soby, op. cit., p. 13.
- Carrà, op. cit., p. 91.
- Ibid., p. 91
- Soby, op. cit., p. 81.
- Ibid., p. 81.
- Charles Baudelaire, The Poem of Hashish, trans. Sallie Sullivan (New York, 1971), p. 64.
- Ibid., p. 99. While this quote directly refers to the use of an opium derivative, Baudelaire, in the next paragraph, states that these characteristics are “perfectly applicable to hashish.”
- Giorgio de Chirico. Italian, 1888-? The Scholar's Playthings, 1917. Oil on canvas, 35 1/4” x 20 1/4”. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel H. Maslon, 72.75.