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Giorgio de Chirico – Melancholy and Mystery of a Street

14 May

In this post we’ll take a look at Italian Metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico’s perhaps most well-known painting called “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street” and the way its portrayal of space and mood connect to some scenes from Vítězslav Nezval’s Surrealist novel “Valerie and her Week of Wonders”.

Giorgio de Chirico, Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, 1914

When we think of melancholy, mysterious and lonely streets and squares in art, Chirico must be the first painter to come to mind. He painted many such scenes with cold sharply precise architecture and a strange almost sinister mood, and a well known example is the painting above called “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street”. I hesitate to call it an urban scene, even though it is a city and not countryside, because it belongs completely into a world of its own, with unique logic and moods which have nothing in common with our world. At first sight, his paintings look similar to the world we live in, but then the strangeness start lurking from the shadows and we cannot help but notice the isolated and creepy mood of the street. A white building with a repetitive row of arches, disproportions, shadows… One can almost feel a deep layer of silence and then a strange giggle coming from afar, as the shadow starts growing bigger until it covers the whole square. And yet, Chirico’s paintings manage to stay lyrical despite their coldness. Another work of art which has a world of its own is Vitezslav Nezval’s novel “Valerie and her Week of Wonders” written in 1934, at the height of Surrealist movement in Czechia, and published a decade later. Partly inspired by Surrealism and the dream theory, and partly by the tradition of the Gothic novel, Nezval’s novel is a beautiful contradiction in mood and themes. While some motifs are ever so romantic and gloomy such as the vault, long corridors, crypts, burial sights, others brings an anxious mood of dreams that is more reminiscent of Chirico’s paintings, especially the beginning of the Chapter V called “Losing the Way”:

Valerie had lost her way. For the third time, without knowing how, she had entered a deserted square that seemed to be enchanted. When she glanced at one of the locked gates, a missionary appeared to her standing in front of it. She left the square and entered the square. Her legs were tired and were leading her on her own, while her spirit wandered like that of someone sleeping. Over one doorway she noticed a cluster of grapes held in the beak of a dove. Then she was alarmed by four windows that seemed to have been forged from a storm. She thought she heard a groan. Her eyes settled on a tall gas lamp with moths fluttering around it. But the groan came again. Having circled the square, she suddenly found herself just a few steps from the lamp and saw to her amazement a terrifying image: tied to the lam’s base was a girl, emitting plaints from deep in her throat. As Valerie stepped up closer, she recognised her clothes, which were torn in several places.

Scene from Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970)

Naturally, the small square of a picturesque Czech village that Valerie has found herself on has nothing to do architecturally with Chirico’s classical and monumental Italian squares. It’s Valerie’s inner state, her emotions, fear and curiosity which give the square a slightly nightmarish mood. It’s not what she sees in front of her, it’s how she feels within that is projected on on the outside. Space in Chirico’s paintings is illogical to the eyes of grown ups, but to Valerie it isn’t unusual because she still sees things from children’s point of view, or rather, she is in the middle; just like the girl in the painting, childhood is behind her and she is walking slowly towards the shadowy figure; the adulthood. This connects to something that Chirico himself said: “To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the realms of childhood visions and dreams.

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