Sunday, 16 August 2009

Giorgio de Chirico

Melanconia 1912
Oil on Canvas, 79 x 63 cm
Estorick Collection, London
March 2003

The show focused on De Chirico’s obsession with the Ariadne myth and contained both early and late examples of paintings based on the troubled Cretan princess.

The myth begins with Minos, the king of Crete, being shamed by his wife’s infidelity with a bull. He has Daedalus construct a labyrinth to keep the progeny of this relationship, the half man, half beast Minotaur imprisoned.

Minos had Athenians fed to the Minotaur by forcing them to enter the Labyrinth. However, his daughter Ariadne falls deeply in love with Theseus, one of the doomed Athenians. She gives Theseus a ball of thread so that he can find his way out of the Labyrinth should he manage to kill the Minotaur. Theseus agrees to marry Ariadne for her help. He succeeds and they escape to the island of Naxos only for Theseus to abandon Ariadne while she slept on the beach. She awakens and laments the loss of Theseus and his treachery.

The painting I have chosen was the earliest on show but like the others depicts Ariadne lying on a pedestal. The title of the painting, "melanconia" is included as an inscription on the base of Ariadne’s plinth, thereby making explicit the intended sentiment of loss and lamentation. There are two figures in the distance but the statue seems to be in an empty square lined with arched arcades. The late afternoon sun is casting long shadows and we realise that there is an onlooker stood behind the pillar of the nearest arch, his/her shadow projecting into the space.

The statue is a Roman copy of a lost Hellenistic sculpture of Ariadne that I think is in the Vatican, and may be a symbol of his childhood in Greece (he was on the run in Paris at the time, charged with desertion from the army). It also has a link with the nostalgia for the irrecoverable past that he saw in the work of Arnold Böcklin. In fact the shape of the mysterious shadow matches the form of the grieving Odysseus longing to return to Ithaca and his wife from an earlier De Chirico painting “The Enigma of the Oracle”. This work is clearly adapted from a 1882 Böcklin painting of the same theme, “Odysseus and Calypso” that shows a portrait of a shrouded grief stricken Odysseus staring out to sea. In a later painting in the exhibition “The Melancholy of a Beautiful Day” the standing shrouded Odysseus is in the same square as Ariadne reinforcing the alienation and loss she will experience on waking.

The crucial point being De Chirico’s development of the same symbolist-derived aesthetic of loss using an avant-garde cubist approach. The simple forms of the painting, like the others from this period, are executed in a dry, thin manner with sombre colours; only in the later works did his palette become more acidic.

©blackdog 2009


  1. Chirico's enigmatic- surrealistic paintings are always fascinating, like the reviewed one: They need an active viewer being ready to follow the different details, view points, and directions to nowhere, seduced to peep into the shadowed arcades and windows, round the corner, a little confused, a little frightened, and at the same time a little curious if he/she could find out where the long- mysterious man-shadow on the left side might come from- the contrast of bright light (yes, "late afternoon sun") and darknness/shadow, as the opposition of public place/openness and hidden places is strange and may lead us into a strange world where we may feel lonely and homeless, but on the other side we are attracted by this strange world! Your analysis informs us very knowingly about the different possible references, and I find it interesting to hear of a connection of Ariadne-myth (I thought -till now- only of a moving sad-sweet love story a la opera Richard Strauss) and the Melancholy-theme: Ariadne as figure symbolizing loss, loneliness, and exile, a situation known to the painter too. I remember an Ariadne statue in Stourhead you once took! Whereas the male figures show while sitting a penseur- posing as gesture of melancholy, the female figure is sleeping while lying voluptiously and seductively- also posing melancholy? I never thought of the meaning of that gesture.
    In an archaeological book I read that the Roman copy in the Vatican follows an original from Pergamonat about 150 BC- a high-artificial/refined statue, indeed (but my photo taken from another angle shows another, nicer face!). I would like to know more about this painting and the reception of the Ariadne- myth (for example what found Nietzsche out about that myth?)- shortly, a very interesting subject and an inspiring inter-arts-interpretation!

  2. I too am quite intrigued with the myth and have done a little painting of the Minotaur looking out to sea.

    De Chirico seems almost forgotten these days with his dry clunky painting style - but his ideas are strong and is an immense influence on contemporary art.