Swinging With Surrealism in Chirico’s Works

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Enigma of the Hour (1911) by Giorgio de Chirico

So I chanced upon this masterpiece (on where else but my Tumblr dashboard), and was quite intrigued by its visual layout, especially with regard to the interplay of perspective and shadow. The painting appears symmetrically balanced with the clock as a kind of anchoring centre; the clock is certainly much more than just a visual keystone, and the title reminds us that it is not the time-keeping device itself but what it embodies — Time — that is the centrepiece of this painting’s semantics. Anyway, it is precisely because the background architecture is so intentionally symmetrical and ordered, that seemingly inconspicuous elements which detract ever so slightly from the template find themselves thrust to the fore and made forcefully apparent to the reader’s perception. For example, the non-symmetricality of the hands of the clock evidently stands out as a visual anomaly, thereby compelling the reader to ponder on the significance of the time shown on its face — 2:55(pm), or five minutes to three o’clock. Other deviant features include the nondescript triangular speck to the left of the clock peeping from the second-storey parapet, as well as two humanoid figures in ostensibly contrastive colours — the white-cladded one standing in the sun, while the black-cladded one being almost dissembled in the shadow of the structure.

Therefore, it is not so much the harmony of the painting that constitutes the subject matter as it is the dissonance of anomalous elements. These little aberrant details operate to direct and cue the reader’s critical gaze into establishing intuitive relations between them and what the painting professes to convey through its title. Could this simply be a snapshot of the status quo at a train-station or town-square five minutes before the turn of the hour? If that is the case, then our sense of the painting’s enigmatic mood is simply engendered by the fact that the moment depicted therein is a completely fortuitous one; there  may be different reasons for the two figures to be in that position at that hour, but these reasons are inaccessible to us. Therefore, to the reader they seem almost random, and in the face of this irrationality we search feverishly for some semblance of reason or motivation; this is exactly what reading and interpretation consists in — allowing order to emerge from chance.

Chirico’s paintings are usually proto-surrealist in the sense that he (dis)joins eccentric elements with a technical method; this he achieves by creating a disconcerting/dissonant juxtaposition between seeming visual non sequiturs and the geometrical orderliness of the landscape. The end result is the uncanny atmosphere we feel permeating the placid surface of the canvas; we get the feeling that the painting is hiding something, or that we are being watched. It’s like how we are bludgeoned with a upsurge of cognitive nausea when we discover that someone close to us is stowing a rotting corpse in his/her basement.

I remember attempting to read/interpret one of Chiroco’s works (pictured below) during my Modern Critical Theory module a semester ago. His art is always enigmatic in the sense that he plays with lines and shadow in an acute and eerie sort of way. His shadows obscure more than just space.

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Sun Rising Over the Square (1971) by Giorgio de Chirico

This semantic ‘polarizing’ of shadow is very apparent in Sun Rising Over the Square, in which Chirico seems to be forcing us into a symbolic reading. Having been quite ‘disturbed’ by the ‘shadow of the rising sun’ (how do suns have shadows eh?), I brought this up for discussion during my last consultation with the professor; he had a pretty different take on it though. He read the winding trail from the actual sun leading to its ‘shadow’ as a fuse that was in the process of being ignited; this means that when the fire finally arrives at the ‘shadow’ of the sun, it would be set alight — I took this to mean that the sun would rise, only that it is here depicted in a very, very surrealist manner.

He also directed me to the couple at the open window of the building on the right. It was a visual detail that cued him in on the whole fuse business. In Renaissance literature, the rising sun is a motif characteristic of the alba, a sub-genre of love poetry that depicts sunrise as the end of a lovers’ romantic nighttime rendezvous, since one of them always has to depart. (It features prominently in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). As a visual rendition of the Renaissance alba therefore, Chirico’s Sun Rising seems to be an abstract representation of the obstruction to romantic love, which in this case takes spatial centre-stage in its immensity. Even the lines of perspective seem to converge on the monolithic rising sun itself, ultimately further accentuating the tragic, macrocosmic determinism that besets the atomic human existence.

Seasonal Typology in Valetine C. Prinsep’s ‘At The First Touch of Winter, Summer Fades Away’ (1897)

‘At the First Touch of Winter, Summer Fades Away’ (1897), Valentine Cameron Prinsep

I’m not exactly schooled in the history of art, but I’ve gathered (after some cursory research) that Valentine Cameron Prinsep was a Victorian artist of the pre-Raphaelite school. This painting is typologically charged with the symbolism of the seasons—Summer and Winter—melded together in an almost seamless and uncanny transition of colour and mood. As a work of art that exploits typology while gently playing with boundary and space, it’s definitely going into my list of favourite classical artworks.

I find the personified Winter—cloaked in her pitch-black mourning gown—strangely alluring. She wears on her icy countenance the thousand yard stare and veils her mouth with her robe-clad hands. Well, it’s surely not Summer she’s gazing at, but something beyond the frame of the picture. Her outstretched arm is certainly not one of welcome; she looks petrified and angular in stature—a very Apollonian posture that stands in contradistinction to her Dionysian sister, whose body (and dress) is fluid and unbound. Winter is reminiscent of the austere nun figure, while the unbridled Summer reminds one of a young maiden in revelry—a personification of the carpe diem sentiment in Renaissance Cavalier poetry.

Their physical representation speaks volumes. Summer is garbed in gold and red, and her slender womanly figure a la Venus is heavily emphasized. (It deserves mention that her breasts are almost visible behind the diaphanous linen). She appears steeped in the carefree moment, and her dramatic gesture suggests an invigorating freedom. In totality, as an archetype she embodies the celebration of harvest-time and an uninhibited indulgence in impulses—perhaps emotional and sexual. Meanwhile, Winter is wrapped in a jet-black drape from head to toe that dissembles her body structure, rendering her an amorphous phantom, almost asexual. There is certainly an implication of abstinence and barrenness (complemented by setting). She reminds me of Isabella in Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure, a nun-to-be who is propositioned by Angelo, the deputy stand-in for the Duke; she holds fast and almost cruelly onto her chastity, and condemns her brother for wishing to trade his life for her virtue. As mentioned, Winter’s gaze is blank—dispassionate—as she appears to usher or guide her sister Summer (into her arms?). I’ll venture to say that her act of covering her mouth is symbolic of a vow of silence; this coheres with the general atmosphere of restraint and austerity in her half of the painting. As such, she is perhaps the archetype that typifies censorship (self-denial) and the internalized establishment, as well as a lawful, fatalistic mourning (as opposed to one of genuine pathos) for an end that must inevitably arrive.

Lastly the mood alters with the colours and setting, from left to right: warm celebratory pastels, lush flora, and pleasant skies give way to the frigid themes of black and grey, senescence, and dusk. The liminal space between the season is littered with flowers in mid descent—suggesting a dynamic transition from Summer to Winter (through autumn, Fall, withering).  Moreover, what would have otherwise been a clearly delineated margin between the thematic spaces of Summer and Winter is dissolved by the ostensible intrusion of each other’s arm into their antonymic boundaries; this suggests an inextricable continuity and interrelationship between the two seasons. Therefore while the distinction between the two is stark and immediate, closer inspection reveals a perceptible melding of one trope into the other.