Illustrated companion

More than ten years before the publication of the Manifesto of Surrealism the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico found a way to use the traditional language of painting to describe, not the external world, but a world infused by dream and feelings of melancholy or foreboding. He achieved this, he said, 'by combining in a single composition scenes of contemporary life and visions of antiquity, producing a highly troubling dream reality'. He called this new art 'Metaphysical' and from about 1912 to 1915, while living in Paris, he produced a sequence of stunning pictures which a few years later provided a crucial example to the Surrealists in their more deliberate quest to create art from the unconscious. In 'The Uncertainty of the Poet' the elements of 'antiquity' are provided by the classical bust and the arcade, and the 'contemporary' by the bunch of bananas and the railway train running behind the wall in the background. The dreamlike effect is heightened by De Chirico's deliberate use of incorrect perspective.

De Chirico, like his contemporaries the Futurists, was fascinated by trains, seeing them as an almost magical means of being removed rapidly from everyday reality to strange and exotic places. Trains can often evoke strong feelings of sadness or nostalgia and De Chirico has described how they play a part in the mechanism of his paintings of this type; 'Sometimes the horizon is defined by a wall behind which rises the noise of a disappearing train. The whole nostalgia of the infinite is revealed to us behind the geometrical precision of the square ...' The bananas, bursting with life and vividly coloured, contrast strongly with the marble bust and the hard geometry of the rest of the picture. In one of his writings of this time De Chirico refers to the 'happiness of the banana tree, luxury of ripe fruit, golden and sweet'. Fruit and flowers in art are generally a symbol of the briefness and insignificance of human life and pleasures, and here De Chirico may be making a contrast between this and the permanence of art represented by the bust. However, the combination of the bust and the bananas has an unmistakeable sexual significance and they also seem to be a symbol of the forces of life and the sensual delights of this world.

De Chirico's practice of creating irrational relationships of objects in equally irrational settings, to achieve a dreamlike visual poetry had a profound influence on the development of Surrealist art.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.160