How Italian Surrealist Sold Copies of His Own Paintings

by Jorg von Uthmann

Giorgio de Chirico was an eccentric if ever there was one. He faked his own art.

Late in life, the Italian surrealist artist would paint exact copies of much earlier works, backdate them, and put them on the market. More than one collector sued after discovering that their De Chirico was not an original from his pre-World-War- I heyday, but a subsequent copy by the artist himself.

Most exhibitions treat De Chirico -- who died in 1978 at age 90 -- as if his painting career stopped shortly after 1920. They touch only gingerly on the later work, which is generally dismissed as an embarrassing aberration. The retrospective at Paris’s Musee d’Art Moderne is the first show outside Italy to break the taboo, and to give you the full picture, warts and all.

The exhibition starts with De Chirico’s earliest canvases, influenced by the Swiss symbolist Arnold Boecklin. By 1912, after his move to Paris, he finds his own style, a provocative mix of realistically painted urban spaces -- piazzas, arcades, towers -- and false perspectives, with eerie lighting effects.

The squares are empty, and seem to belong to a dream world. Instead of human beings, they are peopled with statues and mannequins.

Drafted into the Italian army in 1914, De Chirico suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent to a military hospital in Ferrara, where he met fellow painter Carlo Carra. Together, they coined a name for their new style: “pittura metafisica,” or metaphysical painting.

Enigmatic Sphinx

What the term meant, exactly, was never explained. De Chirico liked to play the sphinx. Already in 1911, the 23-year- old painter signed a self-portrait with the rhetorical question: “Et quid amabo nisi quod aenigma est?” (“What shall I love if not the enigma?”)

Whatever its meaning, “metaphysical painting” had enormous influence on the Surrealists, above all Max Ernst. Yet by the time the Surrealists were ready to proclaim De Chirico as their patron saint, he had moved on -- or, rather, returned to a more traditional style, prompting the Surrealist Andre Breton to accuse him of “anti-modernist regression.”

Why? After 1920, De Chirico turns trivial, kitsch, and even grotesque. He strives to emulate Renaissance and Baroque masters; his gladiator series would not look out of place in a Cecil B. DeMille epic. His many self-portraits -- some in the nude, others in historical costume -- combine solid academic technique with an appalling lack of originality.

Eat Fake

Then there are the “replays,” copies of early masterpieces, some of which were passed off as originals. Profit considerations aside, it is quite possible that De Chirico wanted to get even with ignorant collectors: If they didn’t appreciate his mature work, the art critic Robert Hughes surmised, “then let them eat fake.”

Ernst deplored his former mentor’s behavior as “artistic suicide.” Andy Warhol, on the other hand, found it delightful. He too mass-produced art and made copies of his own originals.

More than 120 of the 170 works on the walls of the Musee d’Art Moderne were painted after 1920. Many come from private collections, and have seldom, if ever, been seen in public. You can understand why the Surrealists were horrified, and why curators have preferred to overlook them.

Are the organizers to blame for their display of bad taste? By no means. At a time when the Chateau de Versailles opens its doors to Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst’s “The Golden Calf” sells for 10.3 million pounds ($14.22 million), De Chirico tack is no longer an issue.

“Giorgio de Chirico: La Fabrique des Reves” (“Giorgio de Chirico: The Making of Dreams”) runs through May 24.

For details and reservations: http://www.mam.paris.fr or call +33-1-5367-4000.

Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.

To contact the writer on the story: Jorg von Uthmann in Paris at uthmann@wanadoo.fr

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