Art Thoughts, Week 26 -- De Chirico & Tragedy

The Arrival, Giorgio De Chirico (Italian, 1888—1978), 1912—1913, oil on canvas, BF 377.

As is common in Surrealist paintings, the scenery in The Arrival feels like a theatrical set. And here, the mood suggests a tragedy. There is a central, open area flanked by buildings, and behind, a flat curtain-like sky. The scenery is Mediterranean Edward Gorey; one could imagine a Verdi opera being staged here. Indeed, the painting has at its center a morose, truncated triangle – art’s power composition emasculated – of caramel-colored vacuity. That’s another aspect of theatrical sets: they are a sort of vacuum, in which activity will spark and flow; a backdrop for activity, rather than active itself. But the significant aberration in the center of this triangular, perspectival vacuum is the sculptured figure of a man with his back to us; the sole actor on this stage.

Two common components of a tragedy are melancholy and ennui. And melancholy, among other things, is an indistinct sense of being stuck in the center of something over which one is powerless; in the middle of two seeming absolutes: the past and future. The past: it cannot be changed, and for all intents and purposes, we are not part of it. The future, to the melancholic or nihilistic mind, cannot be overly influenced, and it might even unduly influence us. Therefore our role there is just as – if not more so – dubious than in the past. Thus, a melancholic person is a foundering person; unsure (or violently over-confident) of place or action, much like a tragic character. In both its oddly illustrative style and dreamy content, this painting also brings to mind the hapless Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, as drawn by graphic novelist Chris Ware. Jimmy plays out his tragic life scene after scene in a gorgeous and dystopian middle-America; never fully understanding his lot.

If indecision is part of ennui, then a further point of meaningful conflict in a tragedy is wistfulness. In fact, wistfulness is often a regret of that indecisiveness; a sense of what could have been, but never was. These two elements are joined in the idea of movement (or the lack thereof). And in The Arrival, movement plays a significant role. A dominant direction to the right is established by the diminishing archways in the left-hand building; by the dynamo of moving brick-red, pushed from left to right by the gesturing, finger-like shadow of the monument – even the wind is going in that direction, as evidenced by the flags stiffened by it. The ship, however, is the one thing that seems to be moving in the opposite direction of the majority of the painting – evidenced by the smoke coming from the laboring ship engines – and contextually, this might make all the difference. This is movement against movement; a cold gust of change on this somnambulistic morning.

Again, we might ask, if the ship is what’s arriving, for whom and for what is it doing so? The scene is abandoned, save for this carved man, with his fatigued and stooped pose. Could it possibly be then seeing the mood evident in this sculpture’s posture, and its self-absorbed focus on the sea, that this monument might be an accurate psychological study of the man whom it’s portraying? Was he a melancholic watcher of the sea; a sufferer of ennui; stuck in time; indecisive and stooped? Perhaps…but this much we do know: he was memorialized, therefore was an influential, heroic, beloved…or tragic figure. Great people are often plagued by doubt and ennui. Could it be, perhaps, that just now, too late, this man’s ship has finally come in?

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