Chirico’s Shadows

Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico’s works from his highly influential metaphysical period lasted for a few brief years before World War I.

The Enigma of a Day

The works show empty, yet architecturally rich, city landscapes with mesmerizing late afternoon wintertime shadows. That hour of the day when the last remnants of the wintertime sun elongates shadows seems to invite contemplation about the passage of time. It happens during the last few minutes of daylight during the last few months of the year – perhaps it is that proximity to the end of a recrring cycle which invites contemplation – in this we see the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy in Chirico’s works.

His works are what paintings of dreams would look like- there are symmetrical arches and architectural details with a cubist bent, bright surfaces and dark spaces, empty landscapes with shadows of solitary people or statues of dead people, there is no sense of perspective, wind seems to appear only in certain sections of the painting – smoke from a steam engine billows upwards, but flags fly sideways – looking at his paintings seems to slow down time while one contemplates its passage. They are an enigma – perhaps why he himself named so many of them that way.

The Enigma of a Day

The metaphysical period of Chirico’s artistic career was brief – from 1911 to 1915 – after the war he drifted towards classical work. Yet, this brief period was highly influential in paving the way for surrealism and the works of Magritte and Dali – and Hopper’s empty landscapes – among others.

11:00am on 11/11 of 1918

John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925) completed his monumental war painting Gassed which shows the devastation of war in March 1919. Lt. Wilfred Owen, MC worte the first draft of Dulce et Decorum Est at the Craiglockhart War Hosital in 1917. He succumbed to his war injuries and died one week before Armistice Day.

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.