de Chirico, alienation and my square mile- some thoughts

In the feedback from my first assignment my tutor encouraged me to look at the work of the Italian artist Gorgio de Chirico. Although familiar with some surrealist painters I was unfamiliar with this artist and his work. As I investigated the artists, it became clear that although he influenced the surrealist movement, that title was perhaps not appropriate for him.

In my square mile assignment a recurrent theme for me as the photographer was my self-ascribed status as an ‘outsider’ in my own immediate square mile. Although I felt my self to be an ‘outsider’ status I failed to convey this in the images I produced. Perhaps the only one that comes close is the final shadow image in the set.

My tutor made the following suggestion:

Have a look at de Chirico’s paintings of the urban environment and see how that relates to the way Antonioni visualised “the city” in his films, like The Passenger or Blow-Up. There are large, concrete urban spaces, which are almost empty of people but for a few distant figures often set apart by distances. This reflects the alienated space experimented with in de Chirico’s paintings that depict pieces of places and flat planes.

I also considered the work of Antonioni and have watched his film ‘Blow Up’ as part of my research and study for this course. I will write a separate blog entry about that though when time permits. I have however spent quite some time looking at the work of de Chirico. I have really enjoyed this area of research and I think I have begun to visualise how I might create a sense of alienation in my images.

Let me explain why!

Whether or not some one likes de Chirico’s work, I personally do, it is clear that he uses a number of recurring themes to say something about the world and humans place within it.

In his paintings he presents a stark picture of a human landscape in which large flat surfaces of colour depict simple, yet classical buildings. Columns, arches and towers, drawn in very rudimentary and angular style create a view of the world as being empty accept for the occasional figure or pair of figures. The artist also employs an unusual and exaggerated sense of perspective that to me creates and uneasy, not quite balanced feel to the work. This deliberate and I assume meant to add the the sense of things not being quite right with the world.

In some paintings, human presence is merely implied by shadows. A particular recurring theme is pairs of figures, generally dwarfed by the surroundings, not seen in any particular detail and more emblematic of human presence than studies of people in them selves. It is in these paintings, I have included some examples below, that I can see sense of alienation and sense of ‘edifice’ overpowering human existence. de Cirico seems to create a view of a very lonely space in which the constructed world dominates those who constructed it perhaps. Single or pairs of figures overshadowed by their surroundings.

Two further motif’s in some of his paintings are distant steam trains silhouetted on the horizon and elaborate public sculptures set in the streets and piazza’s of the scenes he has created. Both, perhaps emblems of art and science, although this is a personal interpretation rather than a scholarly informed one!

In the Antonioni film ‘Blow Up’ a central theme is the photographer unwittingly witnessing a murder. The scene is set in an open space between woodland in an urban park. The photographer secretly (initially) photographs two figures from some distance as they play out an unknown conversation, engagement, argument or some other communication. To me this scene, central to the film, is very much influenced by de Chirico’s work, although the buildings are replaced by woodland, there is a sense of emptiness and distance, an atmosphere of the human presence being fleeting and even perhaps temporary?


Italian plaza with equestrian statue


Mystery and Melancholy of a Street 1914


Piazza d’Italia 1913

What does all of this mean for me as a photographer?

Well, I want to be able to create a sense of the ‘outsider’ in my work. I am going to look for distant figures in the landscape I photographed for the square mile assignment. Distant figures in the landscape certainly attest to mans presence and I like the idea of trying to replicate how de Chiricos figures are dwarfed by their surroundings and in some sense seem out of place. It is a challenging task but this short bit of research has given me some food for thought about what I frame in my camera’s viewfinder and why. In my self-evaluation of the first assignment, considering what I framed was a key area of learning. Through a consideration of de Chirico’s work I now have some additional ideas! Let’s see where that might take me?
A few biographical words about Gorgio de Chirico (10 July 1888 – 20 November 1978) based upon Internet searches

He was an Italian artist, although born and initially educated in Greece. He did also study in Munich and this would appear to have been a very influential time for him. In the years before World War I, he founded the ‘scuola metafisica’ art movement, which appears to have been influential to surrealist artists. After 1919, he became interested in traditional painting techniques, and worked in a neo-classical or neo-Baroque style, while frequently revisiting the metaphysical themes of his earlier work.

An interesting collection of de Chirico work, a source I found very useful


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