Giorgio de Chirico: Surrealism’s Forgotten Genius

Quick, name the greatest surrealist artist of all time. If you’re like most people the first name to pop into your head was Salvador Dali. If you know a little more about art, you may have thought of Rene Magritte. Naming the greatest anything is really only useful for starting arguments so from this point I’ll just be content to hopefully introduce you to probably the most forgotten of the great surrealists.

Giorgio de Chirico was born in Italy in the late 1880’s and partly raised in Greece. To call him a surrealist is probably wrong. He made some of the most incredible surrealist paintings ever put on canvas, but that phase of his career was rather short and controversial. He was actually rejected by many of the surrealists and almost in retribution, it would seem, he turned his back on the movement and turned to classicism. Frankly, the art he created which falls into this category just isn’t very interesting.

But what he created while still under the spell of symbolism is truly visionary and lasting. Unlike much surrealist art, especially Dali, there isn’t a sense of fun or even zaniness in his paintings. On the contrary, what makes de Chirico’s paintings so brilliant is the utter sense of ominous foreboding. Foreboding about some tragedy that will happen quite soon, but isn’t spelled out.

It may be no coincidence that de Chirico’s works express themes of alienation. Alienation was beginning to become the dominant theme of literature around the time he was painting. And yet the alienation is also rather vague and disquieting. Disquieting is the perfect adjective for describing de Chirico’s best work, not only because it’s apt, but because of one his best and most famous paintings is entitled The Disquieting Muses.

The Disquieting Muses: de Chirico

This painting is quite representative of De Chirico as a whole. There are vaguely official or factory-like buildings in the background, faceless classic mannequins in the foreground and long perspectives. It is probably the use of these long perspectives that make his paintings so suggestive. The long shadows work much like the use of shadows in film noir. In fact, one might wonder whether de Chirico’s paintings had any kind of effect on the look of film noir. If you take the color out of his paintings, many of them have the look of a scene from a film filled with femmes fatale and flawed heroes.

In fact, my favorite De Chirico painting very much looks like a scene from a movie. Although it could just as easily be a German expressionist horror film as an American film noir. Melancholy and Mystery of a Street lacks much of the color of his other paintings. In fact, at least half the painting is done in shadow, quite darkly. On the other side is the silhouette of a little girl playing with a hoop. Farther up that long perspective waits another shadow, or rather a half-shadow. What’s he waiting for and why?

Mystery and Melancholy of the Street: de Chirico

Expect no answer. The answer is yours to make, just as in the best of all surrealist painting. There is unquestionably a feeling of dread, an expectation of terror and maybe even death, but then again everything could just as equally turn out all right.

The really odd thing is that even in a painting such as Montparnasse Station, which merely shows long perspective views of a train arriving and a bunch of bananas on the ground in the low right hand corner and doesn’t include the story that Melancholy…Street contains, there is equally a sense of alienation and threat. Two tiny little figures appear but if you didn’t look closely you wouldn’t even see them. They aren’t in any discernible danger, but they are alone. Very much alone, just the two of them. The world is too large and too fearsome a place, De Chirico seems to have been saying.


The common wisdom is that surrealist paintings reflect dream states. Things can happen in surrealist art that can only happen in dreams. Many of Dali’s paintings and some of Magritte’s paintings have the effect of a dream turning into a nightmare, but the nightmare there is more direct, more threatening. Almost all of de Chirico’s paintings suggest a nightmare, yet in almost none is there anything suggest that the painting was itself inspired by a nightmare.