The Mannequin’s Enigma

Metaphysical painting was born in Italy in the early twentieth century. It expressed the perception of a wider spectrum of significance behind the fixed forms of reality. Art was the painters’ instrument to unlock this secretive dimension and give it a defined though enigmatic form. Generally, the works of art related to this movement do not include any human presence. Open spaces are favoured (De Chirico, for instance, often depicted empty central-Italian townscapes), featuring lonely, mysterious figures such as classical statues, mythological creatures, enigmatic mannequins. Elements from reality are mixed into incoherent images, where nothing seems to make sense at all. What is real is re-assembled to convey new meanings, but the result is far from clear.

The Prodigal Son – Giorgio de Chirico – 1922 – oil on canvas

De Chirico’s The Prodigal Son highlights the peculiar relation between Metaphysical painters and contemporary Avantgardist artists. The scene is set in what seems the hilly Tuscan countryside. Cypresses and little villages are scattered across the discontinuous horizon line, under a clear blue sky. The building on the right features a portico supported by rounded arches, which would easily fit in any city of central Italy. This is a clear reference to the pictorial tradition of Italy, which flourished in Tuscany around creative poles such as Siena, Arezzo, and obviously Florence. The painting’s landscape inspires harmony, a placid sense of beauty that can be ascribed to some of the most-typical Italian scenarios.

The Two Masks – Giorgio de Chirico – 1926 – oil on canvas

The first level shows a peculiar story of reconciliation. The theme of the prodigal son is a traditional artistic subject, but de Chirico re-interprets it in a Metaphysical perspective. In the first place, there is no human figure. The two main characters are dummies, their faces blank. The one on the right looks like a marble statue and represents the father. The left one, the son, is a complex assemblage of metallic multicoloured parts. The two characters are close and engaged in an embrace. However, the viewer can clearly perceive the tension in their poses, the son standing in front of the prostrated parent. Unlike the other Avantgardes, Metaphysical painting attempted to find a common ground with tradition, instead of fighting it directly. De Chirico’s piece shows the difficulty of this task, given by the mutual differences between the two parts.

Metaphysical Muse – Carlo Carrà – 1917 – oil on canvas

The Metaphysical mannequins are monumental figures, whose features mimic the human ones but stripped of their recognisability. This makes them unsettling counterparts in the relation between the viewer and the painting. They speak, trying to communicate something through their appearances and poses but, at the same time, they can offer no answer when directly questioned. They are, indeed, marvels of the painter’s mind, who has set them in a carefully constructed space in order to provoke a reaction. They are inhabitants of a mental world, whose forms and laws obey the artist’s perception only.

The Seer

The Prodigal Son

The Two Masks

Metaphysical Muse

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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