The mystery of Giorgio de Chirico mannequins and Metaphysical art

After nine years of exploring museums, I continue to discover new residences for art in London. The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art is one of those new finds for me, although it has been here since 1998. I learnt of its existence at the London Art Fair and was attracted by the temporary exhibition: Giorgio de Chirico: Myth and Mystery. The Futurism-dominated permanent collection didn’t appeal to me after seeing Futurism in Paris at Centre Pompidou in 2008-09.

How would I describe a Giorgio de Chirico painting? A desert space, the atmosphere of a hot, dry day created by the sun and sharp shadows and, of course, the expressionless and featureless mannequins. I regard Giorgio de Chirico as a surrealist painter and his own words confirm this: “To be really immortal a work of art must go beyond the limits of the human: good sense and logic will be missing from it. In this way it will come close to the dream state, and also to the mentality of children.”

His creation of “irrational relationships” of objects in irrational settings to achieve a “dreamlike visual poetry” had a profound influence on the development of Surrealism, according to Tate. In fact, Metaphysical art is the term applied to the work of Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà before and during WWI. Pittura Metafisica was characterized by a recognizable iconography: “a fictive space was created in the painting, modelled on illusionistic one-point perspective but deliberately subverted”, as said by MOMA.

I initially struggled to understand the definition of Metaphysical art in the exhibition. The Estorick Collection explained the ethos as making us consider the world around us anew, often using incongruous juxtapositions (like surrealism). I started to “get it” when reading that repeating a word many times over can make it sound nonsensical, similarly to removing objects from their usual contexts. Others Metaphysical artists included the Futurist Carrà and surprisingly Morandi.

The Estorick Collection exhibition displays Giorgio de Chirico signature motifs, which surrealist Magritte also used. Geometric instruments featured extensively in Giorgio de Chirico’s oeuvre as well as Greek architectural motifs – he was born in Greece. The exhibition showed his less known sculpture work; it was like seeing his paintings of mannequins in 3D. Observing them in a sculpture form, some small, some human-size and some larger (‘The Great Metaphysician’), Giorgio de Chirico’s mannequins are not human: they have short legs, some are without arms, expressionless and featureless, although a couple carried a child figure.

Most if not all the works are loaned from Galleria d’Arte Maggiore in Bologna and are shown at the Estorick Collection until April 19. I also visited the less impressive permanent collection, which gathers minor or cubist works of leading Italian Futurist artists Carra, Severini and Boccioni and comprises a Modigliani and a Morandi.

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