Giorgio de Chirico's "The Philosopher's Conquest" (1914)

Giorgio de Chirico - The Philosopher's Conquest, 1914

Giorgio de Chirico - The Philosopher's Conquest, 1914

I first saw Giorgio de Chirico’s painting The Philosopher’s Conquest (1914) at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2003 while in Chicago to tour the campuses of Northwestern University [1] and the University of Chicago looking at prospective graduate schools. It was just one of many firsts that weekend; my first taste of life in the big city; my first road trip; my first experience being locked in a train station after hours while the ticket board shouted “Track 9, Track 4, Track 13…” (Maybe that’ll be another post.) I ultimately decided to come to Chicago for school, so many of these firsts now have accompanying seconds, thirds and fourths and I’ve been delighted to view The Philosopher’s Conquest in a number of contexts. I have seen the painting move from the AIC’s old modern gallery where I first saw it, to the photography gallery in the basement where it figured as a contemporary piece for the Cartier-Besson exhibition, to the new Modern Wing where it garners a premium position in the first gallery. Nearly everyone I’ve taken through the museum has had to suffer through a de Chirico story or two as we’ve passed it.

Most don’t learn about de Chirico in school, but his role – perhaps more than that of any other figure [2] – was instrumental in the development of Surrealism despite the fact that his influential works – those termed Metaphysical – predate the Surrealist’s first explorations by a decade or more. Many of the greats, in fact, trace their first visions of what Surrealism should be to this very Italian. Rene Magritte was moved to tears when he first viewed de Chirico’s The Song of Love and Yves Tanguy found one of his paintings in a shop window and, although never having so much as picked up a brush, vowed to become an artist because of it. However, de Chirico would later turn from his Metaphysical work and focus instead on emulation of Classicism and the Old Masters. Despite a proliferance of sycophantism on the part of the Surrealists in the form of letters, public praise and invitations for exhibitions, (or perhaps because of said proliference) de Chirico went so far as to deny authorship of some works and even forge and backdate works in an attempt to devalue and distance himself from this period.

I find the painting and the artist fascinating and I think this work is an ideal introduction to the man. The Philosopher’s Conquest marks the point in de Chirico’s evolution where he begins to embrace a new concept though implausible juxtaposition. Fans of Dalí and Magritte may not be surprised to see another artist use the technique, but might gasp when they recall that in 1914 the former was only ten years old and the latter was a teenager trying his hand at Impressionism. One first notices the artichokes in this painting, and then – if that weren’t bad enough – the cannon, the clock, the train, the ship and so on. But beyond the mere assemblage of curious objects, the logic gap continues. Aren’t those shadows are a bit long for 1:30 in the afternoon? If that’s a normal sized train, how big are those columns behind it?

De Chirico is said to have dreamt of artichokes in a piazza before painting this. Like the surrealists who followed him, de Chirico’s works often evoke a very dream-like atmosphere and encourage the viewer to embark on a little willing suspension of disbelief. Some of the pleasure of enjoying art like this is in the mystery. And, to this point, I leave the reader with one of the original titles for this work; this scene truly does appeal to The Joys and Enigmas of a Strange Hour.

[1] My tour guide, who was picked solely on the attribute that he was free and willing to go to lunch with me on the Physics Department’s dime, told me stories of his experience with the Evanston, Illinois populace, which consisted mainly of people who tended to call the police when they heard him and his screamer girlfriend going at it at night. This just would not do. How could I attend a school after such a scathing review.

[2] Well, there is another guy who sometimes gets short shrift. The Comte de Lautréamont and his wicked character Maldoror are probably deserving of their own post some day, too.


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