Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Giorgio Di Chirico Went Bad
I don't want a life like Giorgio Di Chirico's. Look at the first three paintings, and compare it to the fourth. The fourth looks like it was painted by a different artist. But they all are Giorgio Di Chirico. What changes is his age and his ideas about what it took to be a good artist. I wonder, and I worry, that my best work was created ten years ago when I was ignorant and naive. In Di Chirico's life his best work was created when he was young. When he tried to become a great, serious painter, he ruined himself.
What many many critics have noticed is that his early works had poetry and creative vision. Like him or hate him, the first three paintings are unique for their time and were like nothing done by anyone else. But the fourth painting, it looks like it was painted by a professional artist, of this age or of any age. It is bland. It is technical. It is boring. It has nothing new to impress the viewer with, and nothing to impart in terms of feeling; it is mild, run-of-the-mill, ordinary, and totally without any power to shock or bring us to a new state of mind. It is simply, the back of a woman's head with the hair painted very carefully.
Sly shock, and unexplained unease is exactly what a good Di Chirico painting can do. The early works can make you say to yourself "Why, I've never seen a painting like that before!" The fancy brushwork of the later painting is absent. What is present is a feeling, an uncertain worry that we are in the presence of something dark, threatening, lonely, and perhaps, even majestic. A city scape full of shadows, pillared buildings, and very little that is human. Just a hint that humanity is near in the midst of deserted silhouetted buildings in a declining hour of daylight.
A young Di Chirico was part of the Surrealist movement. During 1913 he first exhibited his work at the Salon des Indépendants and Salon d’Automne in France and his work was noticed by Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire. By 1914 he had sold his first painting and through his contact with the Surrealist leader and philosopher Apollinaire he had contracted to sell his work through the art dealer Paul Guillaume. Di Chirico is revered and reserved a place in history for the work he did from 1909 to 1919, called his metaphysical period. As the surrealist movement developed the artists who belonged to the movement were aware, and profoundly affected by Di Chirico.
Yves Tanguy wrote how one day in 1922 he saw one of De Chirico's paintings in an art dealer's window, and was so impressed by it he resolved on the spot to become an artist — although he had never even held a brush. Other artists who acknowledged De Chirico's influence include Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Giorgio Morandi, Carlo Carrà, René Magritte, and Philip Guston.
In the autumn of 1919, De Chirico published an article in Valori Plastici entitled "The Return of Craftsmanship", in which he advocated a return to traditional methods and subject matter. This article heralded an abrupt change in his artistic orientation, as he adopted a classicizing manner inspired by such old masters as Raphael and Rubens, and became an outspoken opponent of modern art.
De Chirico was disappointed that his new style received less critical acclaim than his old style. As a painter he believed that he had reached a new level of growth and maturity. His self view, and the view of the critics who only saw a loss of poetry and power, were askew.
I can understand his puzzlement because he truly believed that with age and study of the masters before him, came improvement. He never seemed to realize that his power lay not in imitation, but in being true to something pure and mysterious inside. Sometimes for financial gain, since his early work was so in demand, he would create a painting in the old style, and retro-date it. And, as a sign of his growing frustration, he liked to disclaim paintings that were his in private and public art collections as being other artist's forgeries.
From what little I know about Di Chirico's life I am taught a lesson of self-delusion. It is very important as an artist that you cultivate vision over technique, and not be in a position to compare yourself too much to other artists. My own fault is looking at what has come before me, and despair because I lack a traditional art school education. I can't make paintings that look like historical art because I am not clued into the techniques that created them. As a self-taught artist it is most important that I experiment and develop my own style. Vision is more important than technique. Inventiveness is more important than looking like other artists. Its easy to say, but it is difficult to live so very apart from mainstream likes and opinions. As a human being I long to be accepted by others. But as an artist I have to be prepared to walk a road where I am somewhat incomprehensible to myself.
Last Summer I went on vacation and happened to buy in an antique store a used book, in pristine shape, on paintings in the Louvre. Recently I started to go through this book and I was aghast. None of the paintings (except the earliest, pre-Renaissance) looked like anything that I do. Here I had in my lap the history of painting through the centuries and there was no place in it for me to fit. The book ended somewhere in the 1800's. Upon reflection, the young visionary Di Chirico would not have fit either, but as he aged, he tried in vain to fit into the style of the artists of history. Alas, I understand his motivation. A move away from what makes you unique to what makes you comprehensible and accepted.
In an early self portrait Di Chirico inscribed in the painting, "Et quid amabo nisi quod aenigma est? - "What shall I love if not the enigma?" and his early paintings embodied this moody mysterious questioning. His paintings don't have answers in them, usually, they provoke more questions.
All my appetite, at this moment, is to recapture the energy and the freedom of my earliest work. I made art when I didn't know what the rules were. I didn't know what art was supposed to look like. I was in love with pattern and the brilliance of color. I didn't use reference books, like I do now-a-days, to draw the human form correctly, or to draw animals so that that they look "real". I imagine that I've grown as an artist but I secretly wonder if I'm deluding myself.
I want, as an artist, to believe that my best work is AHEAD of me, not BEHIND me. AHEAD is jubilation, BEHIND is a grind and a sense of hopelessness.
It is very hard to be sane, on medication, yet to have in you the illness of schizophrenia. The schizophrenia wants, I think, to be heard. It wants to come out and make something that is on the face of it, crazy. But I've gotten so good at being sane. I've had eleven years of being out of a hospital and on a high dose of anti-psychotic medication. I've had eleven years of working toward recovery. Eleven years of relative stability. Days of steely self control - whether by my will or the will of the medication.
Sometimes I think my art can't help itself - it will be crazy on its own. Medication doesn't mask everything, it doesn't leave you creatively dead. My art will deviate from the norm despite my bumbling attempts at being a serious, mature artist. But on a bad day I despair and think that I've outwitted and outmastered myself. I worry that I've rejected the gifts of mental illness. Yes, mental illness brings with it creativity and energy and craziness. In my schizophrenic soul, I delight in expressing craziness.
I want to make art that is dazzling and has an obscene overabundance of movement.
During the cold months of this winter, when the only room that is heated to a comfortable temperature is my bedroom, I want to lie in bed and draw directly from my imagination. Drawing upon drawing of interior mental drama. Drama that mimics reality but is not gleaned from magazine photographs or other artists drawings in books.
Drawing that contains in it something that is schizophrenic.
I say this, as if I were to say, drawing that has in it something of the deadliest poison.
For in our modern, industrial forward looking world power America, craziness is a form of social poison.