Giorgio de Chirico
The Uncertainty of the Poet
Giorgio de Chirico, The Uncertainty of the Poet 1913 © DACS, 2002
At first glance, this strange and mysterious scene seems naturalistic. However, almost immediately the curious collection of elements within it and the exaggerated viewpoints generate a feeling of unease. The painting shows a city square entirely empty of people. In the foreground on the left is a marble statue of a female torso and lying next to it on the right are several bunches of bananas attached to a large branch. The torso is seen side on. It twists towards us at the waist, suggesting that the original pose might have been one of action. It has no arms below the upper bicep, no legs below the top of the thigh and no head. The statue and the bananas sit on a gigantic plinth that fills the bottom half the painting and most of the square. On the right of the painting, cast in shadow, is a colonnade running at a sharp angle away from the viewer towards the centre of the picture. It has three arches, and the recesses beyond them darken dramatically to pitch black.
A quarter of the way down from the top of the painting is a brick wall, running across the canvas to form a rigid horizon line. Visible just behind the wall, a steam train travels from right to left. Seen in silhouette against what appears to be an evening sky, the train ends just short of the left hand edge of the painting. Emerging from its chimney is a long plume of white smoke drifting above the roofs of its carriages.
De Chirico was only twenty-five when he painted The Uncertainty of the Poet a year after coming to Paris. He was born in Athens but at seventeen he left Greece with his mother and brother after his father died. De Chirico travelled to Venice, Florence, Turin and Milan and studied art for three years in Munich. During this time he developed a style that came to be known as Metaphysical painting. Metaphysics in Christian theology means the world after death, but for De Chirico it meant the otherworldly, the imagined and the enigmatic.
Unlike the Italian Futurists who despised the art of the past and strove to create works of art that celebrated modernity and speed, De Chirico’s Metaphysical paintings feel eerily still and are filled with references to Europe’s classical past such as ancient Greek statuary and Renaissance architecture. His style was the product of the unique combination of influences he had acquired during his travels as a young man. In Munich, he studied Symbolist artists whose works featured strange narratives and mythical creatures. He also read the philosopher Nietzsche, who inspired his belief in the possibility of a reality parallel to one’s own everyday experience. Finally, the piazzas, colonnades and statues of Turin became central motifs in his Metaphysical paintings. So when De Chirico arrived in Paris in 1912, his style was already fully formed. He subsequently rejected his Metaphysical style. However, these works were hugely influential on the Surrealists, particularly Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and René Magritte who were interested in the unconscious mind and Freud’s analysis of dreams.