Artworks and Artists of Metaphysical Painting

Progression of Art

The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon

Artist: Giorgio de Chirico

This painting depicts Florence's Piazza Santa Croce, nearly empty except for a single statue and a couple, depicted to the right of the pedestal, as the afternoon's golden light lengthens into shadow. A sailboat floats in the distant background.

While realistically depicted, the scene is a radical transformation of the actual plaza. The 19th century statue of the poet Dante with a heroic eagle at his feet is replaced with what art historian James Thall Soby described as "a mutilated classical figure whose Victorian origin is the naturalistic tree trunk that supports it." Soby also noted how the church's elaborate façade "has been reduced to bare, arbitrary, structural essentials, as if the painter had stripped the church of its...ornament and envisioned it as a classical stage set." As a result, de Chirico convincingly creates a place that has never existed, imagined to create a sense of haunted isolation, the sense of a mystery. As art historian Adriano Altamira noted in "the so-called Italian Piazza de Chirico plays with the ambiguous presence of the statues that inhabit the monumental spaces of his cities, built like the wings of an entirely mental theatre: a theatre or architecture of the mind."

This work launched de Chirico's series of Italian piazzas, scenes that he called "memories of Italy," and his first Metaphysical works. He was later to credit Nietzsche by saying "I attempted to express the intense, mysterious feeling I had discovered in Nietzsche: the melancholy of lovely autumn afternoons in Italian cities," though the images also convey the philosopher's view of reality as an "eternal return." It was in this square where de Chirico experienced the revelation that kicked off his Metaphysical Painting of the enigmatic and in later years, he said of this painting, "every time I look at it I relive the moment once again."

When he moved to Paris, de Chirico brought this painting, along with The Enigma of the Oracle (1910), and both were exhibited in the 1912 Salon d'Automne. Celebrated by the art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, the works made de Chirico well known among the French avant-garde. His reputation was also established in Italy, when, subsequently, Ardengo Soffici, an Italian writer and critic, described his work as the "writing down of dreams," full of "infinite rows of arches and facades, of extended straight lines, of gigantic masses of simple colors," to create, "a sensation of vastness, of solitude, of immobility."

Oil on canvas - Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Giorgio de Chirico: The Song of Love (1914)

The Song of Love

Artist: Giorgio de Chirico

This painting brings together startling juxtapositions of a red rubber surgical glove, a green ball, and the sculpted head of Apollo, the Greek god of art, within an almost schematic architectural scene. The contrast of the elements, as if trophies or artworks mounted to a wall, conveys not only a sense of surprise but also a sense of another reality looming beneath the surface. The painter used his traditional architectural motifs such as the dark arches opening in a classical façade, while the train depicted along the low horizon at left was a modern motif he returned to frequently.

Here de Chirico copied an academic plaster mold of Apollo from Salomon Reinach's archaeological book on ancient Greek sculpture, while the glove is thought to echo a work by Titian. However, the work notably draws upon one of the artist's earliest inspirations, Max Klinger's Paraphrase on the Finding of a Glove (1877-78), a series of ten etchings where as art critic James Thrall Soby wrote, "a glove plays an active symbolic part; its appearances and disappearances provide the tempestuous scenario of a love story," though as Soby further noted, "De Chirico's still-life drama has no traceable plot...its impacts derives from the mystery...of the various elements."

This was the work that Rene Magritte saw in 1919 and described as, "one of the most moving moments of my life: my eyes saw thought for the first time." It became the impetus for Magritte's subsequent artistic research and Surrealist development. De Chirico said his intent was to "express sensations hitherto unknown; strip art of routine, rule, and tendency towards aesthetic subjects or synthesis; expunge man as a point of reference, as a means of expressing a symbol, a sensation or a thought...This is the Nietzschean method," as he saw his art as the art of the future.

Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Carlo Carrà: L'Ovale delle Apparizioni (The Oval of Apparition) (1918)

L'Ovale delle Apparizioni (The Oval of Apparition)

Artist: Carlo Carrà

This oval painting depicts two mannequins and a fish standing motionless on a wooden floor, its diagonals drawing attention to the tall tower and apartment-like building dominating the skyline. The central figure's body, wearing a harlequin's costume, is made out of conical and geometric shapes, giving it a rounded robust appearance. The feminine figure to its right, her chest bare in a classical guise, its fabric fluted as if carved in marble, waits heavily, as she holds a small ball in her left hand. Perhaps most compelling are the featureless oval faces and heads framed with a shade of white that convey a sense of anonymity.

Carrà achieved early fame as a founding member of Italian Futurism, but in 1915 turned to studying the old masters, particularly Giotto and Uccello, in his search for a new artistic style. When he met de Chirico in 1917 in Ferrara, he was influenced by what Thrall Soby called his "enigmatic dislocations of surface reality," and also adopted de Chirico's iconography, as the fish here echoes de Chirico's Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire (1914). By 1914 de Chirico had also begun painting mannequins, using them instead of statues or isolated figures, often set in claustrophobic settings. Carrà added his own elements to the mix, as he preferred using classical perspective, and also painted in a thick impasto that lent a sense of materiality and weight to his robust figures and setting. As art critic Paolo Baldacci wrote, "In the context of Metaphysical Painting, the work of Carlo Carrà and Giorgio Morandi gives a much greater sense of rigidity: a sense of stability, solidity, and faith in the reality of the world that their painting transmits to 20th-century Italian art."

Oil on canvas - Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome


Metaphysical Still Life with Triangle

Artist: Giorgio Morandi

This still life depicts a ball and rod atop a wooden box, against which a curved triangle leans, while the rectangular plane in the background emphasizes a cut out curvilinear form on a pedestal. The interplay of shadow and tonal variation in near monochrome create a sense of mysterious dimensionality, as the curvilinear form appears both to be standing on its pedestal and cut out from the background. A formal elegance results.

By 1918 Morandi had seen reproductions of Carrà's metaphysical works, though it's thought that this painting was influenced by his meeting de Chirico in Rome in 1919.

Though Thrall Soby wrote that Morandi's work, in contrast to that of de Chirico and Carrà, was "deeply modeled...[and] concerned with formal as opposed to psychological or philosophical values," as "his aim was not to create a psychologically disturbing imagery, but to arrive at a pristine compositional order."

As art critic Hearne Pardee wrote, Morandi "responded to de Chirico's [work] by abandoning the tentative, shallow relief of his first willowy figures and still-life objects in favor of a more severe, sculptural style. Intensely focused, he uses strong linear outlines and earth colors with clearly defined darks and lights in complicated, enigmatic arrangements of frames, empty boxes and cut-out shapes."

A kind of inadvertent surrealism marked both Morandi's life and idiosyncratic approach. Art critic Richard Boston described the artist's room in his Bologna flat as "an austere place of solitary contemplation," and noted, his technique was "strange, and so complicated that it is hardly surprising he only produced half a dozen or so paintings a year. First he assembles his cast of unusual objects, paints them and adjusts their appearance to his requirements...He then disposes his objects as though on a stage and with the precision of the most meticulous director."

Morandi's preoccupation with still life and formal elements expanded the range of the Metaphysical movement into the early 1920s. Subsequently, he turned toward a strict formalism and became associated with Novecento Italiano, a Italian movement that supported Fascism and which was part of Interwar Classicism, a "call to order" that returned to classical realism. His work has continued to receive contemporary acclaim, as he is considered to be one of the 20th century's premier Italian artists.

Oil on canvas - Brera Pinacoteca, Milan


I pesci sacri (The Sacred Fish)

Artist: Giorgio de Chirico

This painting depicts two smoked herrings, laying on a pedestal, while to the left a single candle with a starfish shape at its top rests in a candleholder. In the left foreground, two brightly colored geometric forms are placed. The painting is composed like a stage, as a blue diagonal cuts across the right as if a thick curtain were being drawn back to reveal the scene, while in the background two poles and a column cast shadows that point toward the distant horizon. A sense of mystery pervades.

The painting draws upon de Chirico's knowledge of ancient Greece where, according to the Greek writer Pausanias, sacred fish were kept in the pools of various temples. Though, here, the artist presents the fish as dying or dead, offerings to some indefinite object of devotion, while the horizon suggests both a dark end in its black sky and, perhaps, a new beginning as it is streaked with blue light.

The work was painted, following the end of World War I, as the artist was recovering both from the war and a bout with the Spanish flu. He was also grieving the death of his friend Apollinaire who was killed in battle. His paintings during this time, including his Malinconia ermetica (Hermetic Melancholy) (1918-19), took on a darker note, as if marking the end of the era. De Chirico wrote in 1918, "The world is full of demons - Heraclitus the Ephesisan used to say as he strolled in the shadows of the porticoes at high noon ... One must discover the demon in every thing."

This work was first purchased by Mario Broglio, founding editor of Valori Plastici, who felt the painting's classical and metaphysical qualities exemplified the magazine's aesthetic vision. Called by Thrall Soby, "one of the principal works of de Chirico's career," the painting also had a profound impact on the Surrealists, as Max Ernst was to credit it with inspiring his and other German Dadaists' turn toward Surrealism. Perhaps, not coincidentally, the image of the fish was also widely adopted by the new movement, as a symbol of fascination, inhabiting the depths of the subconscious.

Oil on canvas - Fondazione Giorgio e Isa de Chirico, Rome


Venere dei porti (Venus of the Ports)

Artist: Mario Sironi

This painting depicts legendary Venus as a dressmaker's mannequin standing on a grimy dock at night in front of an industrial port. The sculptural treatment gives the figure an assertive presence, as she turns with a proud profile toward the viewer, though a sense of mystery is conveyed as her facial features are only suggested by heavy shadow, and only one partial arm is visible. The painting marked the transition from Sironi's late Futurist work to Metaphysical Painting, shown primarily by the use of a mannequin, portrayed as a single figure in a simplified but ominous realistic urban setting.

Reconfiguring the classical symbol of Venus, the goddess of love, as a modern woman, the figure has been variously interpreted as the girlfriend of a sailor or fisherman, awaiting his return, while art critic Thomas Micchelli found it, "a darkly pessimistic apparition of prostitution along the docks." He further noted, that Sironi's "brooding works...are the most emblematic of the dark undercurrents unraveling the social fabric."

Indeed, Sironi brought to the Metaphysical movement a gritty dark view of modern reality and the use of avant-garde techniques, as shown here in the figure's clothing, a collage of pages from wallpaper, dust paper, and La Tribuna, a contemporary newspaper. Micchelli wrote, "The collaged passages, in their changed pictorial context, turn the stark illusionism of Sironi's harshly lit volumetric forms on its head, exciting a disruptive modernity that evokes the anti-art impulse found a half-century later in the Neo-Dadaist Pop of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns."

The year following this work, Sironi signed "Against all Revivals in Painting", a manifesto that became central to the Novecento movement, which he co-founded and led in 1922. His work fell into obscurity in the post-World War II era, due to his having been an ardent supporter of Mussolini's government. More recently, his work has seen a revival of interest, as shown by a major retrospective in Rome in 2014.

Tempera and collage on paper on canvas - Casa Museo Boschi Di Stefano, Milan


L'amante dell'ingegnere (The Engineer's Mistress)

Artist: Carlo Carrà

This small painting depicts the white plaster bust of a woman with an unrealistically long neck as she faces a blue rectangular plane displaying a yellow triangle and white compass. Her neck rests on a brown plane, empty except for a white rod that lies at a diagonal, while behind her a cloudy blue horizon rises to a dark empty space. The figure's mouth is open as if she were about to speak, while her closed eyes suggest someone who is in a somnambulant state. The title creates a context that revolves around the missing engineer as the female figure represents the object of his desire and the scientific tools represent his profession.

As critic Hearne Pardee wrote, Carrà's work had much "in common with the naïve otherworldliness of Sienese painting...a fusion of neoclassicism and the surreal," as his figures "assume symbolic personas - the female head in The Engineer's Lover (1921), as if animated by the viewer's desire, proposes a union of science and sensuality in a lunar landscape."

This work is considered to be the last of the artist's Metaphysical Paintings, as he turned a more realistic style, influenced by both Morandi and the Renaissance master Masaccio. He also became associated with the Fascist Novecento Italiano movement.

Oil on canvas - Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Metaphysical Painting Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 02 Sep 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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