Saturday, 10 April 2010

De Chirico, Max Ernst, Magritte, Balthus - Palazzo Strozzi, Venice - The Independent, London

Giorgio de Chirico is one of those painters we know so well from all the reproductions we used to display on our walls when we were breathless students: those lonely, wind-swept piazzas, headless statues and tiny humanoids with their weirdly over-stretched shadows... In fact, as with so many other painters, his work often looks better in reproduction. The crudity of application is smoothed away. All we are left with is the strangely disturbing idea of the work itself, and – in the very best of his art - the bald, bold use of contrasting primary colours. Look at the poster created for this exhibition for example, or the laminated cover of the press pack. They are more arresting than the painting called ‘The Enigma of the Arrival and the Afternoon’ that they use as their starting point.

This exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence is an attempt to create a lineage of influence, to say that first there was De Chirico, and then along came others in his wake – Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, Balthus, Morandi and others. All these spirits were influenced by De Chirico to a greater or lesser degree, we are told. Is this true?

The answer is: well yes, in part, but… De Chirico’s most memorable works were created during the second decade of the twentieth century, the decade, it could be argued, when the world of the West changed irrevocably. The terrible blight of world war saw to that. Now De Chirico never painted war – but he undoubtedly painted the atmosphere of anxiety and incertitude provoked by war, the pervasive feeling that a mighty gulf had opened up, and that it would be the task of writers and artists to stare into that beckoning gulf, and to report on what they saw down there. They just couldn’t help it. Things were falling apart for everyone – and that included W.B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Georg Trakl, to name not artists at all but three poets, all kindred spirits of artists like De Chirico.

The fact is that everyone was influencing everyone else.

Of course there were De Chirico’s particular props – his mannequins, his towers, etc. Those props undoubtedly had an influence, and in fact the best part of this show is when you stop looking at De Chirico and turn your attention to two artists whose names are barely known at all, but certainly deserve to be. Those names are Pierre Roy (b.1880), who was a nephew of Jules Verne, and a Swiss German called Niklaus Stoecklin (b.1896). Stoecklin and Roy are the stars of this show, and the message they sing out is this: that around this time the way objects were painted seemed to suggest they had taken on a strange life of their own. Although they may have been painted side by side, objects look set apart from each other as if they are intent on dreaming their own dreams. Is this Surrealism? Is this ‘magic realism’ (a term coined by a German critic in 1925), or is this a result of being influenced by the ‘metaphysical’ style of De Chirico? We don’t care what it’s called. All we can see is that it is happening.

So in a wonderful, formally rigorous – almost academically rigorous - painting by Niklaus Stoecklin called ‘Games of Dominoes’ (1928), we see a game in progress. The pieces are set upright, facing each other. The empty wooden box from which the pieces were extracted yawns open like a catafalque. There are no players. Stoecklin was in the habit of making his own frames, and this one is particularly disturbing: the inner frame is gilded, cheerfully glistering; and the outer is black, funereal in mood. There are no players. But the game must go on. De Chirico, Max Ernst, Magritte, Balthus - A Look into the Invisible Palazzo Strozzi, Florence until 18 July

No comments:

Post a Comment