The Spirits Released : De Chirico and Mataphysical Perspective

If, as is often the case with Classical art, De Chirico’s paintings are perceived only in terms of their Ionic trappings, their formal mortar, then they too are in danger of becoming a decadent and dead art form. A temple is a temple, irrespective of which of the five orders supports the pediment and its raison d'être should never be eclipsed by its formal elements. The iconography that supports De Chirico’s temple, his metaphysics, revolves around his use of architectonic forms locked into an extraordinary perspectival system. This is also true of Pompeian tragic-style wall-painting. The orthogonal, the foundation of linear perspective, is continually subverted; thus reconfiguring the Renaissance picture window view of the world into an unnerving and spatially dislocated world.  In De Chirico’s paintings this is further emphasised by his use of atmospheric perspective, in which multiple light sources add temporal discontinuity to an already spatially dislocated world.  Time becomes inconsistent with space – it is a world beyond physics.

3-Projections 1973-1980

De Chirco’s fascination with the conceptual potential inherent in perspectival systems is highlighted in a question that he posed in his essay on the French painter Gustave Courbet, “Who can deny the existence of a perplexing connection between perspective and metaphysics?” His provocative question, and my attempts to both understand and resolve it, led to  an in depth study of his painting Il Grande Metafisico (1917), which culminated in a series of three-dimensional constructions produced between the years 1973 to 1980 (fig.1-2). Why this painting was chosen, as opposed to any one of several hundreds of others, is still not completely clear to me. On reflection it was probably motivated by the fact that it depicted the agent provocateur – the Grand Metaphysician. Speculation, therefore, centred on transforming this motif into a quantifiable, examinable object, in order to cast light on the perspective/metaphysical conundrum at the heart of his paintings. Initially it was thought that the figure in the back of the painting might provide a clue to the physical height of the central assemblage, thought to represent the Grand Metaphysician. However, further readings of Soby revealed that the figure was appropriated from Böcklin’s painting Odysseus and Calypso (1883) and represented the heroic figure of Odysseus, who appears to be forlornly staring at the horizon in search of his illusive homeland (fig.3). “Sorrowing solemnity”… was the phrase that De Chirico used to describe this figure in an essay on Böcklin, published in 1920 in Il Convegno. Trying to reconcile the physical dimensions of Il grande metafisico against the illusive dimensions of a mythological hero no longer remained an option.


Il grande metafisico 1 >
3 Projections after Il grande metafisico 2 >
Arnold Bocklin Odysseus and Calypso 3>
1. Giorgio de Chirico Il gande metafisico 1917
2. Maurice Owen 3-projections (1973-1980), after Il grande metafisico, 1917

3. Arnold Böcklin Odysseus and Calypso 1883