De Chirico also took his inspiration from the spatial distortions of the Cubists in the early years of the twentieth century and emphasized 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 center of the canvas allude to the linear perspective employed by the Renaissance masters, yet De Chirico subverts their scientific approach to create a destabilizing, 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 the modern age.
The present work was executed during De Chirico's stay in Ferrara during the First World War, where he was sent for military duty 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. In April of 1917, De Chirico was sent to the Military Reserve Hospital for Nervous Disorders at the Villa del Seminario. Operated by the Catholic church (the villa belonged to Cardinal Boschi the Ferrarese Archbishop), the Red Cross and the Army, it is not certain how many officers posted at the Villa were there out of medical necessity or simply those with connections that enabled them to spend time away from their military service. De Pisis, who visited Carrà and De Chirico at the Villa described it as “In a quiet eighteenth-century patrician villa in the countryside, once site of the honest summer activities of the Seminary, the painters de Chirico and Carrà, dressed in army fatigues, alternated between military idleness and Metaphysical painting” (reproduced in Paolo Baldacci, 1997, op. cit., p. 359). De Chirico and Carrà would remain at the Villa until August of 1917.
In Il Sogno di Tobia (The Dream of Tobias), De Chirico pushes the iconography of his Metaphysical works past the previous Ferrarese paintings, which incorporated imagery such as maps and biscuits. Here, in an ambiguous interior space we find a picture-within a picture in the Metaphysical landscape at right and the interior room, empty but for a large metal fishing lure, at left. Behind this work a blue box and geometric armatures project into the receding space of the background. The center of the composition is dominated by a large central column, tapering towards the top, a thermometer bracketed to its center and the word Aidel written in descending vertical text. Paolo Baldacci analyzed the iconography and metaphor of the imagery presented here: “The painting’s title, Le rêve de Tobie, suggests that the work is a metaphor of revelation, of a vision of the invisible, and indeed the iconography supports such a reading. In the apocryphal book of the Bible, Tobias is instructed by an angel to catch a fish and, smearing the liver on the blind eyes of his father, restoring his vision. The zinc lure…alludes to the fish caught by Tobias…. The letters on the obelisk are from the Greek work ‘a(v)idelon,’ meaning invisible…. The thermometer alludes in a rather ironic way to the god Mercury, or Hermes… messenger of the gods. Greek mythology and Biblical mythology are thus conflated” (P. Baldacci, ibid., p. 362).
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” (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: De Chirico sent Il Sogno di Tobia (The Dream of Tobias) to his dealer Paul Guillaume shortly after it was completed, along with the other paintings he created at the Villa del Seminario. It was shown in his solo exhibition at Galerie Paul Guillaume in 1922 and was acquired in short order by the legendary Surrealist poet Paul Eluard. Il Sogno di Tobia (The Dream of Tobias) appears in the background of Man Ray’s 1924 First Surrealist Group Photograph, hanging on the wall behind André Breton. Several decades later it would enter the collection of Edward James who assembled one of the most notable collections of Surrealist Art of the twentieth century. James indeed credited De Chirico for his passion as a collector. Dawn Ades wrote that “James had an extraordinary and prescient eye, and passionately loved his paintings, an addiction that apparently stemmed from seeing a de Chirico in a dealer’s window in Paris” (A Surreal Life: Edward James 1907-1984, op.cit. p. 73).
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