Analysis of Giorgio De Chirico’s Paintings

For as long as ancient mythology has existed it has had a major influence over the arts. Throughout history there have been plays, books, operas, poems, and many different forms of paintings, pottery, and drawings that have all been influenced in one way or the other by mythology. The famous painter Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) utilizes mythological tales such as the abandonment of Ariadne on the island of Naxos to influence his works of art. According to the Philadelphia museum of Art catalogue the reason that the statue of Ariadne appealed to Chirico was because it was, “A symbol of exile and loss, the anguished figure of the sleeping Ariadne haunted de Chirico’s imagination during his early years in Paris, a time of intense loneliness for the artist.” The myth of Ariadne is evident in Chirico’s tone, setting, and it also reveals a glimpse of his own heritage and past.

A typical viewer of Chirico’s "Ariadne" series, which is a series of seven paintings completed from 1912-1913, may find them to be dark, bland, lonely, and depressing. When reviewing his artwork the audience may first notice the use of colors, such as the utilization of the shadows and the sun light in his paintings. As a result of Chirico’s use of colors the viewer gets a sense of solitude. In the “Ariadne” series Chirico uses dark and earthy colors, for example, he uses dark blues for the sky, and dark browns and black for the buildings. In the areas of his paintings that are exposed to the sunlight Chirico uses an earthy tan color for the ground. The statue of Ariadne that is featured in his paintings is white which not only brings out the statue itself but also draws attention to the importance of the statue. The statue of Ariadne is also in the sunlit areas of the paintings and the statue is surrounded by the dark and earthy tones that make up the shadows and buildings in the paintings. Chirico uses shadows in his artwork to strengthen the sense of loneliness, anger and pain in the paintings. In relation to the paintings the myth of Ariadne also has a tone of depression and loneliness, for example, when Ariadne is abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos she is said to have fallen into shock and lays in the bed that they once shared where she longs for death. (The Epistles of Ovid, by P. Ovidius Naso, Poem 10). Also in the myth of Ariadne it is obvious that she is angry with Thesues for leaving her, “Ariadne’s anger grows as she thinks about all that he promised her.” (Catullus, Poem 64, The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis). This is depicted in the paintings by the use of shadows and dark colors that Chirico uses to strengthen the sense of depression and anger.

The settings in Chirico’s paintings all involve deserted city squares, the statue of Ariadne, who is often depicted as reclining, trains, ships, and towers. According to the Philadelphia Museum of Art Chirico’s paintings are described as a “dreamlike realm by exaggerating perspective and creating illogical cityscapes charged with cosmic unease.” These illogical cityscapes include monolithic arches that cast somber shadows across the city squares and the brick walls that “seal” the background, and in the background there is usually a tower, distant train approaching, a sailing ship, or a smoke stack/tower to depict a classical figure brought into the industrialized age of the modern world (Philadelphia Museum of Art). The trains and ships can also be related to the myth of Ariadne, for example, in the myth Ariadne is waiting for a ship to come and save her, Dionysus, her rescuer, comes by ship and rescues her and then they go on to be married, perhaps the locomotive in the paintings is the modern version of the ship coming to save Ariadne. The train may also represent the loneliness that Ariadne feels on the island and the fact that civilization or another form of life is so far away. According to Robert Hughes author of “ Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists,” many of the figures in Chirico’s paintings are drawn from real places that Chirico either lived in or had visited at one time in his life. Hughes continues to state that the trains in Chirico’s paintings represent the Greek town of Volos, where Chirico grew up in. The city of Volos was bisected by a railway and in the paintings there is always a brief glimpse of a train in the background. Hugh also states that another influential factor in Chirico’s paintings would be Turin and Ferrara, two places that Chirico had visited and lived in. The towers in Chirico’s paintings look much like those that are in the city of Turin. Another influential place according to Chirico himself would be the garden of Versailles , according to The Philadelphia Museum Chirico described the gardens as,“a place where he experienced all the mysteries that drive men to create certain things.”

In each of Chirico’s paintings the statue of Ariadne is placed in the center of the town squares and it is also placed away from everything else in the paintings leaving it to be the center of attention. At the same time by placing the statue in the center and away from everything else it represents once again the loneliness that Chirico and Ariadne both feel. For example in the myth Ariadne is abandoned and set aside by Thesues and she is overcome by the loneliness that she feels, in Chirico’s life he is having feelings of loneliness when he is in Paris. By placing the statues in the middle of the town squares it not only draws attention to them but it is easy to see that they are the only detailed figures of the paintings, the lack of detail in the foreground and background emphasize the statues and also the uses of dull colors bring out the importance of the statues in the paintings. The lighter area around the statue draws attention to its details as well.

Chirico used the settings of his paintings to show the importance of the statue of Ariadne not only in mythology but also to his own beliefs and culture. To Chirico, Ariadne represented the pain and loneliness that he felt in his first year that he lived in Paris. Ariadne also represented the sadness that Chirico felt as he stayed in Paris as a self-imposed exile, while his homeland was destroyed by the Balkan Wars. Not only did Ariadne have a political meaning to Chirico she also had a more important meaning to Chirico. To him Ariadne represented his classical heritage, having been born in Greece he grew up on the stories and myths of his homeland. The paintings also served as an outlet for Chirico’s own personal feelings about the death of his father. According Robert Hughes, Chirico’s paintings all had the common theme of the loss of his father. Chirico’s father was a railroad engineer; perhaps the trains and the railroads in his paintings represent the death of Chirico’s father.

Chirico’s paintings of Ariadne allow us to see inside of his mind and to feel his emotions. The emptiness and loneliness that he was feeling during his stay in Paris is represented by the emptiness of the city squares and the seemingly unreachable statue of Ariadne. In some of Chirico’s paintings there are the figures of tourists, perhaps, even though there are others’ in the paintings it still seems as though the statue is alone. All of the figures in the paintings are dark and they are seen in the background far away from the statue. This could be Chirico’s way of showing how he felt he was still alone even though he had many other artists and people around him.

Throughout Chirico’s life he continued to include Ariadne in his paintings, whether it was a pencil sketch drawing or a revised painting of one of his older pieces of work. During the rest of Chirico’s career before his death he tried many other forms of art work but in the end he always resorted back to the use of Ariadne and the empty city squares in his paintings. Chirico’s work was very influential in the development of the art style known as surrealism, which is an artistic and literary attempt to express the subconscious.

In looking at how mythology affected Chirico’s artwork it is easy to see how they were influenced by the classical history of their lands and also how they were influenced by other artists and writers of their own time that used mythology as a subject of their artwork. Today mythology is still used for inspiration in the arts and it is still a main influence on how people view the world around them.

To view the "Ariadne" series and other paintings by Giorio de Chirico click here.

by: Allie Coutts


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