Giorgio de Chirico and Surrealist Mythology

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Topics: Surrealism
© Roger Cardinal, 2004

Giorgio de Chirico and surrealist mythology
Roger Cardinal
What is most modern in our time frequently turns out to be the most archaic.
Guy Davenport

It has long been a sore point in the history of surrealism that the poets of the early Paris group should have heaped praise on Giorgio de Chirico as the inventor of a revolutionary approach to painting, only to revile him as a traitor to their cause just a few years later. The deep disappointment caused by the artist’s supposed lapse from grace in around 1924–25, which André Breton voices in his pioneering essay on visual surrealism, Le Surréalisme et la peinture, is an index of the high stakes underlying the aesthetic debates of the time. Yet it is possible that the surrealists had misunderstood De Chirico from the very start, and that those elements of his art which he began to discard in the mid-1920s were in fact marginal to what could be seen as his uninterrupted original project, that of re-activating archaic myth in the modern period.
De Chirico’s election to the surrealist pantheon was certainly facilitated by the foremost critic of the early avant-garde, Guillaume Apollinaire, who befriended the Italian artist (and his musician brother Savinio) during his first Paris stay, provided him with ideas for titles for his pictures, and lent him support in exhibition reviews in 1913 and 1914. It was a year or two later, at one of those legendary Saturday soirées which Apollinaire held in his attic apartment on the
Boulevard Saint-Germain, that André Breton, at the time a young medical student, first came across canvases by De Chirico, crammed amid the many accumulated novelties that had caught Apollinaire’s multi-faceted fancy. Breton at once succumbed to their hypnotic spell, ‘so much did they project of breadth and of depth onto the mental horizon.’1 Breton’s devotion to De
Chirico’s mysterious art was to be profound, and the superlative value he placed upon such

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