Tag Archives: Metaphysical art

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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Paul Delvaux – The Strollers

16 Feb

I believe in the future resolution in these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.’ (Andre Breton)

1947. The Strollers, Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)Paul Delvaux, The Strollers, 1947

Female bodies, classical architecture, night setting – it must be a work of Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), a Belgian Surrealist painter. Despite the realistic character of objects in his paintings, the all together effect is extraordinary. In compositions of Paul Delvaux, this strangeness arises from the mysterious and alluring dimension of a dream. As if the atmosphere in his paintings and the characters in it are referring solely to the space of dreams. Presumable coldness of the marble contrasts the pale, soft-skinned, nude bodies of two women, and, because of this contrast the painting seems both real and excitingly fantastical an the same time.

Scene depicts two strollers, walking around, what seems to be, an abandoned city. Behind them is a Greek or Roman temple, its white marble shining in the light of a full moon. While the blonde woman is taller, more voluptuous, and seems older and experienced, the other one seems younger and more maiden-like. It seems as if the blonde woman is explaining something to the younger one, and introducing her in a certain trade. However, both of them have lowered their tunics, or pieces of fabric, just enough to reveal their pubic hair. They have a matching headdresses, blue capes, and Egyptian-styled collar necklaces with intricate pattern.

NOTE: All text is referring only to the painting The Strollers, however, I’ve put additional paintings just so you can see Delvaux’s work in general.

1948. In Praise of Melancholy, Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)Paul Delvaux, In Praise of Melancholy, 1948

Still, underneath all that beauty, they seem cold, unattainable, distant figures lost in their own thoughts, aloof and mysterious like some of Catherine Deneuve’s roles. They even look identical, physically, just like all of Delvaux’s females in paintings, they have large almond-shaped eyes, long noses and mocking smiles. Their appearance definitely places them in a realm of dreams. The question arises: is it the artist’s dream, or the dream of those women? Those are the two ways you can observe Delvaux’s art.

Stillness of the temples, blueness of the night sky, loneliness of the square, along with these sensual, ideal, but unattainable female figures, all make this painting a bizarre one. Moon has a significant place in Delvaux’s paintings, and here it’s the full moon, which carries connotations by itself. Full moon is ‘symbolic of the height of power, the peak of clarity, fullness and obtainment of desire.* Even without the symbolism, full Moon is a lovely sight, but, as large and white as it is, it cannot shine with such intensity to lighten the whole city. Contrast of lightness and darkness are particularly interesting in Delvaux’s work; women’s bodies are luminous, but the rest of the space is in shadow. There’s a town square behind the women, a desolate place with pieces of stones scattered around. On the left, there’s a reclining woman, half-covered with purple fabric, with a matching headdress. There are two more women gracing the background; two elegant, slender, ghost-like figures in long white dresses with a bluish gleam.

1947. Delvaux The Great Sirens (1947)Paul Delvaux, The Great Sirens, 1947

I feel like there’s a sense of irony in the title of the painting. Title The Strollers evokes a mood of a lazy and carefree spring afternoon, and it’s a perfect title for a work of Impressionism, but Delvaux’s women here appear rather static, and frozen in the moment. It’s important to bring out a few facts in order to fully understand Delvaux’s art. First of all, he didn’t always paint like this. In the 1930s he was influenced by a Belgian Surrealist painter Rene Magritte, and around 1933 he encountered the Metaphysical art of Giorgio de Chirico, which proved to have an even greater influence on him. A hint of anguished and slightly disturbing mood of Chirico’s paintings is evident in Delvaux’s work as well, but their styles are different.

1967. Paul Delvaux (1897-1994). ‘’Le Canape Bleu [The Blue Sofa]Paul Delvaux, ‘Le Canape Bleu’ (The Blue Sofa), 1967

In Chirico’s desolate and ominous cityscapes, Delvaux added an ever-appealing sensual female figures,thereby achieving that hedonistic and dreamy atmosphere. That specific mood, present in all of Delvaux’s paintings, reminds me of Sergei Rachmaninov’s music, in particular his composition ‘Isle of the Dead’. Delvaux’s frequent depiction of classical architecture can be traced back to his childhood days, spent reading Homer’s poetry, along with studying Greek and Latin language. He even travelled to Rome at one point. Also, for a while Delvaux studied architecture, but didn’t enjoy it, and dropped out after failing a maths test, but it was worth it in the end, because his skill in painting architectural scenes in unquestionable.