Taking possession of the past: de Chirico and the great masters

Noel-Johnson, Victoria Sarah Louise (2018) Taking possession of the past: de Chirico and the great masters. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

Due to Embargo and/or Third Party Copyright restrictions, this thesis is not available in this service.
Printed Thesis Information: https://eleanor.lib.gla.ac.uk/record=b3325996


In 1949, Giorgio de Chirico held a one-man show at London’s Royal Society of British Artists. It featured 100 paintings including Old Master copies (early 1920s), Renoiresque female nudes (1930s), and Neobaroque work (since the late 1930s). Founded on the artist’s belief that “traditions are our greatest riches, they are the stout pillars of progress”, the exhibition created an “immense museum of strangeness” inhabited by the melancholic ‘shadow’ of 15th-19th century European masters.

The displayed artwork prompted one British critic to ask: “Can art advance by going backwards?” Taking this comment as its starting part, the present thesis explores de Chirico’s complicated relationship with the great masters, seeking answers as to how and why he sought to take possession of the past. Constituting one of the most misunderstood and under-researched areas of his career, it challenges the Surrealist-fuelled opinion that de Chirico’s stylistic 'volte-face' of 1919 repudiated his early Metaphysical art (1910-18) in support of the theory that the great masters inform his entire career (1908-76). Interpreted as an integral part of the dechirican aesthetic, I maintain that his post-1910 work employs the great masters as a vehicle for lending tangible form to his understanding of Nietzschean metaphysics, principally eternal recurrence and 'dépaysement', two themes explored in 1910-18.

Rather than a Return to Craft in a quest to restore the great tradition of painting, I argue that de Chirico uses ancient painting techniques – along with great master compositions, styles, subject matters and application of colour – as secondary, 'dejà-vu'-like filters that provoke sensations of metaphysical revelation, surprise and enigma. The ‘mysterious transformation’ of their work allows de Chirico to sing a “new song” about the past and present that sit “on the great curve of eternity.” Such work does not deal with repudiation, reaction or revolution, but renaissance: the journey of metaphysical discovery. An in-depth examination of de Chirico’s critical and autobiographical texts (1911-62), which explore the notions of journey and discovery, strengthens this theory, as does the study of his recently-inventoried art library and collection of prints and reproductions.

An investigation into de Chirico’s interpretation of originality, 'originarietà', copying, imitation, appropriation, and repetition not only reveals the influence they exerted on his great master choices but, when examined 'vis à vis' definitions favoured by Carrà, the Surrealists (Breton), Return to Order sympathisers and select Postmodernists, his place in art history is adjusted. Given the profundity of this rapport, this thesis contests criticism directed at his late ‘egocentric kitsch’ great master-inspired work (1940s-50s), alternatively categorising it as ‘bad painting but good art’. By acknowledging the pioneering aspect of this corpus (1908-76), this New Old Master demonstrates that art can, indeed, advance by going backwards.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: Fondazione Giorgio e Isa de Chirico is the legal heir to Giorgio de Chirico's estate and is the copyright holder of all of his artwork and literary work (texts, articles, poems and correspondence). Should any part of this thesis be used by scholars for publication, it is their responsibility that they gain advance written authorisation from Fondazione Giorgio e Isa de Chirico, as well as cite this PhD thesis as the original source where appropriate. In addition, all reproduction requests of de Chirico's artwork are managed by the Italian copyright society S.I.A.E. and should be contacted accordingly. Contact details: Fondazione Giorgio e Isa de Chirico Piazza di Spagna 31 00187 Roma Italy info@fondazionedechirico.org
Keywords: Giorgio de Chirico, de Chirico, Metaphysical art, Surrealism, eternal return, Nietzsche.
Subjects: N Fine Arts > N Visual arts (General) For photography, see TR
N Fine Arts > ND Painting
N Fine Arts > NX Arts in general
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Culture and Creative Arts > History of Art
Supervisor's Name: Hopkins, Professor David and Hermens, Dr. Erma
Date of Award: 2018
Depositing User: Ms Victoria S. L. Noel-Johnson
Unique ID: glathesis:2018-30830
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 22 Oct 2018 13:33
Last Modified: 06 Aug 2020 09:14
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.30830
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/30830

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