“And so we come to the metaphysical aspect of things. Our deductions lead us to conclude that everything has two aspects: a current one, which we almost always see and which people see in general, and the spectral or metaphysical one that only rare individuals can see in moments of clairvoyance and metaphysical abstraction, just as certain bodies concealed by matter that cannot be penetrated by the sun’s rays can only appear through the power of artificial lights such as X-rays, for example.”
(Giorgio de Chirico, 1919)
Giorgio de Chirico painted more than 100 self-portraits that, together with his writings, reveal the essence of his highly programmatic and auto-mythographic work. Eight years before the creation of the work in question, the artist made his first self-portrait, entitled Et quid amabo nisi quod ænigma est? as a declaration of intent from a young painter influenced by Nietzsche, who had already developed his own original style based on the evisceration of appearances through a personal, non-linear reinterpretation of history. Exhibited at the Salon d’automne in Paris in 1912, shortly after the artist had moved to the city, that first selfportrait proved to be a noteworthy visiting card on the avant-garde scene. On the margins of a Modernism that was celebrating the specific nature of various means of expression at the time, de Chirico presented himself as an artist, philosopher and scholar, in keeping with his classical and Symbolist roots.
Ten years later, Autoritratto con ombra (Self-Portrait with Shadow) marks the reincarnation of his style in the light of the metaphysical experience and his relocation to Italy. Painted after de Chirico moved from Ferrara to Rome in November 1918, the work was produced in the wake of two important yet disappointing exhibitions in the Italian capital: his first group show at the Galleria dell’Epoca in 1918 (which saw him feature alongside Carlo Carrà and Ardengo Soffici, among others),1 and his more recent first ever solo exhibition at the Casa d’Arte Bragaglia.2 The lack of success of these two exhibitions led de Chirico to defend his painting not only from the critics, but also against appropriations by his colleagues, first and foremost Carrà. It is to this moment of deep introspection that we can attribute his return to selfportraiture and to theoretical writing, which he had undertaken upon arriving in Paris in 1911 and which is clearly tied to his need to be understood.
De Chirico and his brother Savinio wrote articles that featured in various Italian periodicals, explaining metaphysics as a new art, which was closely tied to Giorgio’s paintings but also able to provide a generation and a people with a voice.3 In January 1919, de Chirico published his essay “Arte metafisica e scienze occulte” in the magazine Ars Nova. In that text, he talked about “our double, our Khâ, to use the Indian word, formed by fluids and incorporeal substances”.4 In another essay, “Sull’arte metafisica”, which was published in April 1919 in the Rome-based avant garde magazine Valori plastici, de Chirico described an extremely banal scene in which the “logical” link between the elements that comprise it (due to the “chain of memories that are each linked to one another”) is suddenly broken, thereby surprising the viewer. He wrote:
“However, the scene would not change; it was simply that I saw it from another angle. And so we come to the metaphysical aspect of things. Our deductions lead us to conclude that everything has two aspects: a current one, which we almost always see and which people see in general, and the spectral or metaphysical one that only rare individuals can see in moments of clairvoyance and metaphysical abstraction, just as certain bodies concealed by matter that cannot be penetrated by the sun’s rays can only appear through the power of artificial lights such as X-rays, for example.”5
In all likelihood, the Cerruti selfportrait was painted at the same time as these essays were written, seemingly illustrating them and associating them with the figure of the artist himself. The painting forms part of a series of “double” self-portraits from the late 1910s and early 1920s, in which de Chirico portrayed himself together with busts of statues, and with his mother or brother as his “metaphysical” alter egos. As Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco has noted, the Cerruti work also evokes the famous self-portraits by Nicolas Poussin and by Arnold Böcklin. The former was painted in Rome, while the latter had already provided great inspiration for de Chirico’s first self-portrait.6 In the Cerruti picture, a fleshand-blood de Chirico, whose book (symbol of his knowledge) refers to the painting by Poussin, is echoed by the “spectre” drawn by the artist, which is a translation of Böcklin’s skeleton. As de Chirico himself writes in his essay, the two faces of the painter are two aspects of the same reality, which on the one hand appears real despite literally resting upon literature, while on the other is “concealed” but able to look at the world with “clairvoyance”. It seems likely that this important painting, which seems to have been exhibited for the first time in 1995, remained in de Chirico’s personal collection until his death in 1978.
1 Rome 1918.
2 Rome 1919.
3 G. de Chirico, “Noi metafisici” (15 February 1919), in De Chirico 1985, pp. 66-71. See cat. p. 738.
4 G. de Chirico, “Arte Metafisica e scienze occulte, seguito da un epòdo” (Ars Nova, January 1919), in De Chirico 1985, p. 63.
5 De Chirico 1919, p. 17.
6 N. Poussin, Self-Portrait, Rome, 1650, oil on canvas, 248.9 x 188 cm, Paris, Musée du Louvre; A. Böcklin, Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle, 1872, oil on canvas, 75 x 61 cm, Berlin, Alte Nationalgalerie.