Art Thoughts, Week 44 -- De Chirico and Collecting

Charles Willson Peale, The Artist in his Museum, 1822.

Giorgio de Chirico, Sophocles and Euripides, 1925 (BF575).

NB: Since the class is winding down, my thoughts have returned to my unfinished project, 52 weeks of Art Thoughts; begun (believe it or not) January of 2008. SO, I wrote number 44/52 this week, not realizing until I'd written most of it, that I'd already done a piece on De Chirico. Ah well, "no hahm, no fow-el." Enjoy, and look for more of these throughout the rest of December and January.

Sophocles and Euripides, Giorgio de Chirico (Italian, 1888—1978), 1925, oil on canvas, BF575.

Collecting things – almost anything – seems to be an impulse common to the majority of humans. Amassing like things, according to particular definitions, criteria or guidelines, somehow finds constant purchase in the ridges of our brains, and tickles our fingertips. Charles Willson Peale, being a late-18th century artist of the highest order, as well as a thoroughly late 18th century man, had a bit of the nascent Wunderkammer bug about him. It wasn’t merely exoticism which drew him, though – a wealth of skeletons, artifacts and natural specimens was simultaneously a trove of painting and study props. Therefore not only was it zeitgeist, it was utilitarian – and undoubtedly a function of his delight. Consider The Artist in his Museum, a self-portrait of 1822 – with obvious pride and flourishing of demure delight, he offers us entrance. It is that held curtain, the pulling back of an obstacle to entrance (a symbol of imparted revelation), which connected me to Peale from de Chirico’s Sophocles and Euripides

Here too, there is an implied slip of dark curtain on the right-hand side – though hardly enough to impede. Yet, there it is. De Chirico is thus inviting us into a strange and confused space – but unlike Peale’s space, this one by its nature is un-categorical. The figures, named after two ancient Greek thinkers, dominate centrally. And like many philosopher’s arguments, as well as many de Chirico figures, one is not sure whether the figure and concept is meant to seem solidified, or still animated – or somewhere in between? At the figures’ hearts, there is a sudden colorful blossoming of thought-form: inspiration that is fleeting; bright; and slippery. Tools are here to grapple with it – yet we wonder whether the hemlock has yet reached their hearts. De Chirico’s brush strokes seem to accentuate this psychological tentativeness: each stroke is a word in this narrative; compiled, they construct an illustrative picture. The assembled formal aspects create a narrative; though, like the brightly-colored shapes in the chests and backs of the figures, we are far more unsure of their purpose than we are of their form. What we might notice, though, is that the area of “thought-forms” is the most vibrant, free-form thing about this space. The buildings and space around them, even the figures, are as bright and vacuous as the common person’s stereotype of heaven. Additionally, the part of the body most often associated with this vivid flowering of thought, the head, is a dressmaker’s dummy head: a form only, stuffed with dumb filler, used only to imply a basic sense of humanness. The Greeks believed the bowels to be the seat of human emotion; perhaps the center of human thought for them was the heart?

Collecting thoughts rather than artifacts, these philosophers calmly gesture on in their evanescent and rarified scene – the most tentative and sketchy area of the already-tentatively painted surface. But how colorful and eye-catching their mental constructions are – there is obviously more thought spent on the interior collecting of thoughts, than on the world around them. Perhaps this really is their true purpose – but how much truth there is in this: the more appealing and grandiose our interiors become, the more hardened our external efforts may grow. Dostoevsky gave form to this idea when his Underground Man excoriated the current philosophers by “quoting” them as saying, “Everything is beautiful and lofty,” at the same moment their feet tread squalor.

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