De Chirico’s “Long American Shadow”

The artist’s influence is detected in a myriad of modern works


An episode of HBO ’s popular period drama, Boardwalk Empire, finds the character Angela Darmody (Aleksa Palladino) having painted a young woman in an empty square. Flanked by a receding arcade, her hands at her sides, the figure stares toward a horizon marked by a few lone trees. The image catches the attention of Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), a disfigured World War I marksman, who recognizes in its melancholy something familiar: “There was an artist I saw in Paris,” he remarks to Angela upon seeing her work. “He does cityscapes. Very stark. No people.” She replies knowingly: “De Chirico.” She gently adds that the artist “also did figures who look like mannequins,” alluding to Richard’s own reconstructed face, half of which he lost in the war, and which he now covers with a tin prosthesis, colored to match his skin.


Painted in Paris and Ferrara in the mid-1910s, several of Giorgio de Chirico’s Metaphysical paintings like The Seer (1914-15) indeed recall the prosthetic bodies that came to populate Europe’s cities in the wake of the Great War. Perched on a stage-like rostrum like a shop window prophet, The Seer epitomizes de Chirico’s Nietzsche-inspired vow “to see everything, even man, in its quality of thing.”

In their paintings and collages from the late 1910s, Dadaists like George Grosz, Rudolf Schlichter, and Raoul Hausmann took up the mannequin motif even more aggressively, finding in de Chirico’s stilted anatomies the models for an uncanny inhumanism – precisely the kind of pathos evoked a century later in Richard Harrow’s affectless visage, with its whiff of wartime horrors. The AMC series Mad Men likewise recently turned to de Chirico’s mannequins as touchstones for philosophical reflection. A promotional poster from last season reveals the unflappable Don Draper plunged in existential reverie before a pair of shop front mannequins, plainly inspired by Metaphysical precedent. With these latest televised citations, the painter’s “Long American Shadow” – to recall Robert Rosenblum’s landmark essay on de Chirico’s stateside influence – has decidedly stretched into the new millennium.

It was at Alfred Stieglitz’s legendary 291 Gallery on Fifth Avenue that his work first encountered an American audience. De Chirico’s Parisian art dealer, Paul Guillaume, sent to a group exhibition the freshly completed canvas, The General’s Illness – a striking urban still life that has remained at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum since the 1930s and influenced generations of painters. Already in 1936, a cover for the journal Art Front invoked a stylized, antiquarian shop window, setting into relief the role of everyday urbanism in even de Chirico’s most archaic imagery. In essays like “La Metafisica dell’America” and “I was in New York,” the painter himself acknowledged the same rapports between pictorial space and architectural intuition. His own visit to Manhattan in the 1930s occasioned comparisons of the city to a kind of shop window at large – reminiscent of an “immense museum of strangeness,” as he put it in some of his earliest writings. De Chirico’s backing by important dealers like Julien Levy and Alfred Barnes meant that, along with the more prominent reception of his work among the Surrealists in France, his painting enjoyed a wide circulation on American shores as well.

Along with solemn allusions – whether to mechanized prosthetics or the frequent affectlessness of modern urbanism – the legacies of Metaphysical painting echo in less serious circles. A Halloween episode of The Simpsons (“Treehouse of Horror”) finds Bart reciting fun-house terrors, as the shadow of Marge’s beehive hairdo creeps – like one of de Chirico’s trademark shadows – up the wall of an abandoned cityscape. The action-adventure game “Ico” for the Sony Playstation takes Metaphysical paintings like Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914) and The Nostalgia of the Infinite (1912-13) as the inspirations for its playful cover of an improbable topography. Ron De Maris’s poem “De Chirico at the Mall” (2000), meanwhile, mischievously imagines de Chirico “fingering the gloves in the lady’s section,” updating Metaphysical imagery to the latter-day dystopia of American consumerism. Featuring popular commodities in incongruous juxtaposition, paintings like The Song of Love (1914) and The Amusements of a Young Girl (1915) already mix a proto-Pop iconography with more esoteric allusions.

De Chirico’s scenes of abandoned piazze and wayward objects appear, in fact, shot through with both levity and terror. Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, for example, depicts a young girl blithely rolling a hoop, seemingly oblivious to a looming carriage, reminiscent of a empty hearse. The Evil Genius of a King, from the same year, presents an urban still life of unidentified objects, suggesting at once colored toys and ominous, incantatory instruments. The paintings’ ambivalence – between anxiety and surprise, menace and revelation – has thus lent itself to wide-ranging expropriations, and the American context proves no exception. O. Louis Guglielmi’s brooding cityscapes transpose Metaphysical architecture into a notably – though still elusively – American vernacular, just as Edward Hopper’s empty streets and remote houses draw upon the Italian painter’s evacuated urbanism. The same year as Hopper painted the stripped geometries of Office in a Small City (1953), George Sidney’s cinematic adaptation of Kiss Me Kate used Metaphysical painting, instead, as an archetype of benign, jaunty Italianità.

De Chirico renounced his Metaphysical style after 1919 – except, that is, to pastiche his early work for several decades after. His half-hearted abandonment of modernism in favor of a “return to the craft” left fellow artists and most critics cold, and it is his early work that has most notably influenced twentiethcentury art and urbanism. Still, his efforts from subsequent decades – whether pedantic neoclassicism, an equine neo- Baroque, or a fleshy Renoir-like sensualism – have borne out their share of influence on post-war practices, from the late figuration of Philip Guston to the short-lived “‘Bad’ Painting” movement, launched in the 1970s by curator Marcia Tucker. Even de Chirico’s infamous selfserializations – which he stubbornly plied under the improbable aegis of “craft” – struck Andy Warhol as a worthy foil to the latter’s machinic reproductions. At once at its center and on its margins, de Chirico’s eccentric place in the trajectory of twentieth-century modernism has ensured his relevance for a post-modern era in which cynicism and savvy often prove indistinguishable.

More contemporary American practices reveal some wide-ranging appeals to his legacy – appeals not simply to subject matter, but the larger conceptual stakes and formal strategies of Metaphysical imagery. David Salle, a painter associated with the return to figuration in the 1980s (considered by some critics a reprisal of de Chirico’s reactionary “return to the craft”) excerpts a late Metaphysical painting in his Salami with Landscape (2002).

Next to some flattened, day-glo foliage, the citation of de Chirico’s still life distills Salle’s charateristic, heterogenous imagery to a more discreet juxtaposition – more spare and selective than the chaotic overlays of his previous work. Salle’s (inexplicably titled) Endives (2000) likewise corrals a pair of shadow-casting artichokes next to quadrants of a cartoon-like mountainscape and textured abstraction. A master of the photographically morbid, Joel-Peter Witkin reproduces a crosssection of Metaphysical iconography in his 1994 montage, Waiting for de Chirico in the Artist’s Section of Purgatory, New Mexico. Seamlessly incorporated into alongside these are fragments from Picasso’s Guernica, a mannequin figure by Carlo Carrà, as well as a jumble of unrelated objects – all of which appear to occupy the same fictional space, unified in its accomodation of cast shadows. In a similar vein, the recent Double Bill series by the conceptual artist John Baldessari displaces some of de Chirico’s familiar motifs (wayward artichokes, title-less books) into compositions by other modern masters. Like much of Baldessari’s previous work, Double Bill’s visual hybridity makes use of found imagery – in this instance appropriated from the history of art itself.

The casual crossings of these very different examples thus draw more profoundly upon Metaphysical painting and its insouciant hybridizations: of modern chimneys and ancient galleys, classical statuary and contemporary urbanism. They suggest that the painter’s legacy is not reducible to an iconographic repertoire, but rather comprises a living, pictorial idiom – rather than a series of particular articulations, a means of reconciling them effortlessly. De Chirico’s notion of an “immense museum of strangeness” suggests a dimension in which aesthetic revelation and actual materiality might become interchangeable. Though he considered painting the ultimate arbiter of metaphysical profundity, his work has nevertheless resonated for artists assailing the boundaries between art and objecthood. The conceptual artist Daniel Buren once referred to the installations by the Arte Povera artist Yannis Kounnelis as “de Chirico in three dimensions.”

The New York-based artist Adam Putnam seems to have taken some of his cues from that idea. His recent Untitled (2012) confers upon a painting like The Anxious Journey (1913) whorls of plywood, the cadence of real shadows, an actual space into which we might step – with all the anxiety and exhilaration such an inhabitation might entail.

About the Author


Ara H. Merjian is Assistant Professor of Italian Studies and Art History at NYU. He is the author of Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City (Yale University Press, 2014), and is researching a new book, Heretical Aesthetics: Pier Paolo Pasolini against the Avant-Garde, for which he recently won a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation grant as well as a Barbieri Endowment Grant in Modern Italian History.