by Ara H. Merjian
Giorgio de Chirico’s Metaphysical Interior (with Small Factory)
In the proverbial shadow of Giorgio de Chirico’s prominent painting, Metaphysical Interior (with Large Building) (1916) lurks a counterpart of smaller dimensions and more humble repute: the Metaphysical Interior (with Small Factory). Painted over the spring and summer of 1917, the canvas reprises the iconography of the factory (“officina,” in Italian)—a decidedly contemporary allusion, and hence largely incongruous to the “untimely” atmosphere of de Chirico’s Metaphysical imagery. Of course, factory chimneys had marked the horizons of numerous paintings by de Chirico since 1913. Yet these (inert) smokestacks appear as isolated elements in cityscapes shot through with various architectural, historical, and pre-historical dimensions. By contrast, Metaphysical Interior (with Small Factory) reveals an entire factory complex, its otherwise stark courtyard bearing eight or so individuals who cast the long shadows characteristic of de Chirico’s imagery. This factory casts a further shadow: that of a further canvas which bears its image. For, the representation of the “Small Factory” appears within the Metaphysical interior—propped up by a deep frame, set upon the floor of a room, and casting a shadow onto another painting behind it.
Small rooms had become the province of de Chirico’s painting over the last year. By 1916, he had settled into life in wartime Ferrara: a far cry from the bustle of the French capital from which he had arrived, but also leagues from the deadly front that stretched near Italy’s northern border. Along with his younger brother and collaborator, Alberto, Corporal de Chirico had landed a relatively comfortable clerkship, and both were spared the travails of barracks life by their mother, Gemma, who rented them furnished rooms in the via Montebello. Limited resources, combined with the prospect of having to ship paintings to his dealer Paul Guillaume in Paris, meant that de Chirico’s canvases had by now contracted significantly. The ample sweep of his pre-war cityscapes narrowed in both size and scale. In place of evacuated piazzas, we find rooms crowded with all manner of wooden fragments and colored slats, maps and military insignia, sweets and biscuits glimpsed in the bakeries of Ferrara’s former Jewish ghetto. Aside from these particular iconographies, the paintings revel in the proliferation of wooden geometries—a kind of diminutive architecture—occasioned by their cramped quarters. Anything but claustrophobic, the paintings evince a decided claustrophilia.
De Chirico’s time in Ferrara found him still steeped in the philosophy that had guided his efforts in Paris: a kind of secular prophecy, by which the most banal dimensions of modernity become ordained by the self-appointed Nietzschean seer. Shop windows double as altars, which shrug off the vulgar proximity of the present in favor of more remote temporalities. Heaps of disassembled canvases stretchers, set squares, and other wooden fragments—often punctuated by sets of biscuits—present a miniature labyrinth of geometries, almost sculptural or architectonic in their configurations. In their mix of everyday materials and strange arrangements, the still lifes incite the viewer to explore their concentrated spaces as he would a landscape marked by various natural phenomena.
The Ferrara still lifes are staked upon the notion of interiority and confinement as points of departure, both mental and visual. “My room,” de Chirico writes from Ferrara, “is a magnificent ship in which I can set off on adventures worthy of a stubborn explorer.”
The maps and nautical flags that populate several images evoke this notion of travel in an aggressively metaphorical sense, staking out each room as the cabin of some proverbial vessel, its floors as a storm-tossed deck (yet drained of any Wagnerian Sturm und Drang). A sense of roiling movement even within a restricted space: this is the effect at which the painter aims in these so-called Metaphysical interiors.
To be sure, Metaphysical Interior (with Small Factory) presents a less vertiginous space than other paintings from the period. The room’s space—including its floor and ceiling—appears relatively legible, and the sundry wooden fragments assembled at its center (whether set squares or canvas stretchers) suggest space between their elements, even as they are interlocked. The substitution of military maps and nautical paraphernalia by an industrial building would seem to suggest the sacrifice of adventure for mundanity. Yet it is precisely in the currency of the banal that Metaphysical imagery trades. However unlikely its kinship with notions of travel, de Chirico included the factory among consolatory “spectacles” that opened on to more far-flung worlds:
From our windows thrown open upon Homeric dawns, upon dusks pregnant with the future, we take pleasure in the consoling spectacle of ports, factories, and all of those geometricized zones on the outskirts of certain cities which suggest the proximity of the sea. The howl of the calling sirens remind us at fixed hours of our splendid destiny as voyagers.
The conflation of the factory siren with the mythological Siren is purposeful. The trope of industrial and urban modernity echoing and revivifying classical and pre-classical myth—in the form of a modern “drama” or “fatality” —appears in several texts by de Chirico from the 1910s. (That de Chirico claimed to find a sense of adventure in the alienating call to factory work goes some way in illustrating his obliviousness to questions of class and labor). The sliver of “Veronese green” (as de Chirico called it, in allusion to the painter Paolo Veronese) appearing through the window at right in Metaphysical Interior (with Small Factory), further exemplifies de Chirico’s theory of Metaphysical revelation. It is only through the delimitations of frame and casing—the physical “prison-house” which limits spatial infinity—that the most exquisite aesthetic and philosophical truths may be distilled, just as abstract marvels find themselves already framed within figuration.
Ironically enough, the distinguished art historian Roberto Longhi would title one of his books on 15th- and 16th-century painting from Ferrara, Officina ferrarese (1934)—a title that might seem to nod to de Chirico’s precedent. Yet any such connection is rendered moot by the hostility that the critic harbored for de Chirico’s painting. Under the jeering title, “To the Orthopedic God,” Longhi had savaged the Italian debut of de Chirico’s painting in Rome in 1919, at which the artist exhibited several canvases that he had completed in Ferrara. For Longhi, de Chirico had flouted the very traditions of which his painting made a dizzying pastiche, writing:
Under the dark emerald green of a sky that strains to look Mediterranean, decapitated Hellenic myths genuflect to statues of Cavour; civilizations echo each other; factory smokestacks ally themselves with medieval fortresses, while Pirelli and Borso d’Este understand each other from the first mutual wink of their lone artificial eyes.
The conflation of industrial giant Giovanni Pirelli with the Duke of Ferrara, Borso d’Este (1413 – 71) stands here in mocking rhetorical effigy to what Longhi perceived as a larger travesty of art historical influence and chronological propriety.
ContributorAra H. Merjian
ARA H. MERJIAN, author of Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City: Nietzsche, Paris, Modernism (2014), is Associate Professor of Italian Studies at New York University.