Interno metafisico is a stunning, enigmatic composition painted at the height of De Chirico's Metaphysical period, only a year before he formally founded the Scuola Metafisica together with Carlo Carrà. The term 'metaphysical' had first been given to De Chirico's paintings in 1914 by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and referred to the enigmatic quality of his urban landscapes. De Chirico's best metaphysical compositions, like this one, are oddly devoid of any life, exposing the evocative and melancholic power of inanimate objects. The philosophical objectives of these paintings drew upon an amalgam of the teachings of the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer and Otto Weininger.
De Chirico also took his inspiration from the spatial distortions of the Cubists in the early years of the twentieth century and emphasised the deep recesses and angularity of Renaissance and Neo-Classical buildings. These influences are visible in the present work in the overlapping geometric forms and intersecting lines of perspective. The sharp diagonals spreading outwards from the lower centre of the canvas allude to the linear perspective employed by the Renaissance masters, yet De Chirico subverts their scientific approach to create a destabilising, unsettling sense of space. While the fifteenth-century Florentine masters deployed linear perspective to create an illusion of a deep, rationally ordered space, De Chirico's art is a subversive interpretation of this painterly technique, and by overturning its logic and order it attempts to communicate the bewildering dislocation of space and time that was a result of the technological, cultural and scientific advances of modern age.
The present work was executed during De Chirico's stay in Ferrara during the First World War, where he settled after his return from Paris. His paintings from the Ferrara period display a specific iconography including imaginary maps, biscuits and semi-abstract, quasi-architectural elements, such as those visible in the present composition. The partly visible armour recalls the mannequin figures, the most iconic imagery of his metaphysical painting. The ever-present classical and neo-classical architecture of the Italian cities is visible in the background, evocative of the artist's haunting, melancholy depictions of town squares. As De Chirico himself commented: '[My art is a] frightening astuteness, it returns from beyond unexplored horizons to fix itself in metaphysical eternity, in the terrible solitude of an inexplicable lyricism: a biscuit, the corner formed by two walls, a drawing that evokes the nature of the idiotic and insensate world which accompanies us through this tenebrous life' (quoted in P. Baldacci, op. cit., p. 326).
Most of the important elements of De Chirico's iconography from the Ferrara period are present in this work. The recognisable red-coloured Castello Estense is partly visible in the background, while the celebrated Ferrara biscuits and bread rolls dominate the central part of the composition. The mysterious geometric shapes in the lower right, some of which appear to be fragments of tools, evoke the memory of the artist's father, who was en engineer. The large hollow object that can be interpreted as both a mannequin and an armour is a device typical of De Chirico's imagery, strongly evocative of human form, in an environment conspicuously devoid of human presence. Furthermore, the composition consists of both an interior and an exterior setting, separated by a window – a lyrical and symbolic divide between the known and the unknown.
Writing about objects that populate De Chirico's interiors and still-lifes painted in Ferrara, James Thrall Soby commented: 'Many of these objects were probably inspired, though imaginatively transformed, by things the artist had actually seen on walks through the city of Ferrara with his new friend, de Pisis. De Chirico himself is explicit on this point. In his autobiography he writes: 'The appearance of Ferrara, one of the loveliest cities in Italy, had made a deep impression on me, but what struck me above all and inspired me from the metaphysical point of view in which I was then working, was the appearance of certain interiors in Ferrara, certain window displays, certain shops, certain houses, certain quarters, as for instance the old ghetto where one could find candy and cookies in exceedingly strange and metaphysical shapes.' In Ferrara's shops De Chirico perhaps saw the drawing instruments and armatures which became a principal iconographical motif in his 1916 still lifes' (J. Thrall Soby, op. cit., p. 110).
Although the hyper-realism of the pictorial elements recalls the trompe-l'œil technique of the 17th and 18th century Dutch painters, their presentation in this composition is radically modern. De Chirico combines genres of city-scape, interior and still-life within a single composition, juxtaposing disparate objects within a non-specific architectural enclosure and illuminates them with a theatrical spotlight. The staged, otherworldly appearance of his metaphysical paintings had a profound influence on the avant-garde, and established de Chirico as one of the most inventive painters in the years immediately following the First World War.
De Chirico's Metaphysical paintings laid the foundation for Surrealist iconography, which was to flourish in the following decade. Creating a world of enigma and uncertainty, verging between dream and reality, and depicting a condition which André Breton described as the 'irremediable human anxiety', De Chirico's Metaphysical works had a tremendous influence on the development of Surrealist theories and aesthetic. It was these 'powerful conceptions, so dramatically expressed in his paintings, [that] served as a spiritual point of departure for the Surrealists and provided a direct, significant, and substantial contribution to Surrealist art' (Laura Rosenstock, 'De Chirico's Influence on the Surrealists', in De Chirico, New York, 1980, p. 113). The importance of De Chirico's mysterious and melancholic compositions is reflected in the provenance of the present work: Interno metafisico was acquired by the Surrealist poet Paul Eluard by 1937, and later passed into the hands of his wife Gala, who later married Salvador Dalí.
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