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Title: Taking possession of the past : de Chirico and the great masters
Author: Noel-Johnson, Victoria Sarah Louise
ISNI:       0000 0004 7653 8624
Awarding Body: University of Glasgow
Current Institution: University of Glasgow
Date of Award: 2018
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In 1949, Giorgio de Chirico held a one-man show at London’s Royal Society of British Artists. It featured 100 paintings including Old Master copies (early 1920s), Renoiresque female nudes (1930s), and Neobaroque work (since the late 1930s). Founded on the artist’s belief that “traditions are our greatest riches, they are the stout pillars of progress”, the exhibition created an “immense museum of strangeness” inhabited by the melancholic ‘shadow’ of 15th-19th century European masters. The displayed artwork prompted one British critic to ask: “Can art advance by going backwards?” Taking this comment as its starting part, the present thesis explores de Chirico’s complicated relationship with the great masters, seeking answers as to how and why he sought to take possession of the past. Constituting one of the most misunderstood and under-researched areas of his career, it challenges the Surrealist-fuelled opinion that de Chirico’s stylistic 'volte-face' of 1919 repudiated his early Metaphysical art (1910-18) in support of the theory that the great masters inform his entire career (1908-76). Interpreted as an integral part of the dechirican aesthetic, I maintain that his post-1910 work employs the great masters as a vehicle for lending tangible form to his understanding of Nietzschean metaphysics, principally eternal recurrence and 'dépaysement', two themes explored in 1910-18. Rather than a Return to Craft in a quest to restore the great tradition of painting, I argue that de Chirico uses ancient painting techniques – along with great master compositions, styles, subject matters and application of colour – as secondary, 'dejà-vu'-like filters that provoke sensations of metaphysical revelation, surprise and enigma. The ‘mysterious transformation’ of their work allows de Chirico to sing a “new song” about the past and present that sit “on the great curve of eternity.” Such work does not deal with repudiation, reaction or revolution, but renaissance: the journey of metaphysical discovery. An in-depth examination of de Chirico’s critical and autobiographical texts (1911-62), which explore the notions of journey and discovery, strengthens this theory, as does the study of his recently-inventoried art library and collection of prints and reproductions. An investigation into de Chirico’s interpretation of originality, 'originarietà', copying, imitation, appropriation, and repetition not only reveals the influence they exerted on his great master choices but, when examined 'vis à vis' definitions favoured by Carrà, the Surrealists (Breton), Return to Order sympathisers and select Postmodernists, his place in art history is adjusted. Given the profundity of this rapport, this thesis contests criticism directed at his late ‘egocentric kitsch’ great master-inspired work (1940s-50s), alternatively categorising it as ‘bad painting but good art’. By acknowledging the pioneering aspect of this corpus (1908-76), this New Old Master demonstrates that art can, indeed, advance by going backwards.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: N Visual arts (General) ; ND Painting ; NX Arts in general