Giorgio de Chirico

The Uncertainty of the Poet


Not on display

Giorgio de Chirico 1888–1978
Original title
L'Incertitude du poète
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1060 × 940 mm
frame: 1232 × 1125 × 73 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund (Eugene Cremetti Fund), the Carroll Donner Bequest, the Friends of the Tate Gallery and members of the public 1985

Display caption

The Uncertainty of the Poet

De Chirico’s quiet square evokes the classical arcades and statuary of antiquity (the sculpture is a torso of Aphrodite). In contrast, the passing train and perishable bananas suggest a sense of the contemporary and immediate. The distorted perspective and shadows undermine the conventions of pictorial space and time. De Chirico’s early works were enthusiastically embraced by the Surrealists, who saw in them a dream-like parallel existence. The poet Paul Eluard wrote: ‘these squares are outwardly similar to existing squares and yet we have never seen them ... We are in an immense, previously inconceivable, world.’

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Giorgio de Chirico 1888-1978

T04109 The Uncertainty of the Poet 1913

Oil on canvas 1060 x 940 (41 3/4 x 34)
Inscribed 'Georgio de Chirico | M.CM.XIII' b.l.
Purchased from the executors of Sir Roland Penrose (Grant-in-Aid) with assistance from the National Art-Collections Fund (Eugene Cremetti Fund), the Carroll Donner Bequest, the Friends of the Tate Gallery and members of the public 1985
Prov: Sold by the artist to Paul Guillaume, Paris from whom bt by Paul Eluard, Paris 1922 by whom sold to Roland Penrose, London 1938
Exh: Exposition G. de Chirico, Galerie Paul Guillaume, Paris, March-April 1922, (4 as 'L'incertitude du poète'); Giorgio de Chirico, London Gallery, Oct. 1938 (3); The Early Chirico, London Gallery, April-June 1949, (2); Dada and Surrealism Reviewed, Hayward Gallery, Jan.-March 1978 (1.6, repr. p.22); De Chirico, Tate Gallery, Aug.-Oct. 1982, (no number, repr. p.148 in col.); Giorgio de Chirico, Haus der Kunst, Munich, Nov.1982- Jan.1983, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Feb.- April 1983 (11, repr. p.147 in col., as 'L'incertitude du poète'); Surrealism in the Tate Gallery Collection, Tate Gallery Liverpool, May 1988-March 1989, (no number, repr. p.37 in col.)
Lit: James Thrall Soby, The Early Chirico, New York 1941, reprinted 1969, p.32, pl.12; Italo Faldi, Il Primo de Chirico, Venice 1949, p.17, pl.IX, as 'L'incertezza del poeta'; James Thrall Soby, Giorgio de Chirico, New York 1956, pp.66 and 67-8, repr. p.184; René Passeron, Phaidon Encyclopedia of Surrealism, Oxford 1978, pp.136-7 repr., as 'The Poet's Disquiet'; Alain Jouffroy, 'La Metafisica di Giorgio de Chirico' in [Isabella Far de Chirico and Domenico Porzio (eds.)], Conoscere De Chirico: La vita e l'opera dell'inventore della pittura metafisica, Milan 1979, p.91, repr. p.144 (col.) and p.286 no.22, as 'L'incertezza del poeta'; Alain Jouffroy, 'L'Origine et la fin de la peinture métaphysique' in [Maurizio Fagiolo dell'Arco, Alain Jouffroy, Wieland Schmied et al. (eds.)], De Chirico, Paris 1979, p.92, repr. p.144 (col.) and p.286 no.22, as 'L'Incertitude du poète'; Roland Penrose, Scrap Book 1900-1981, 1981, pp.169-70, fig. 423 (col.), as 'Torment of the Poet'; Jean-Charles Gateau, Paul Eluard et la peinture surréaliste (1910-1939), Geneva 1982, p.94.; Jean Clair, 'Dans la terreur de l'histoire', in Giorgio de Chirico, exh. cat., Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1983, p.45, fig.10 and p.147 no.11 (col.), as 'L'Incertitude du poète'; 'Masterpiece Lord Gowrie turned down', Standard, 1 April 1985, p.5 repr.; Robert Bedlow, 'Tate spends £1m on painting Lord Gowrie rejected', Daily Telegraph, 2 April 1985, p.19 repr.; Geraldine Norman, 'Gallery pays £1m. for "free offer" masterpiece', Times, 2 April 1985, p.32; Donald Wintersgill, 'Tate pays £1.5m for surreal classic', Guardian, 2 April 1985, p.4; Tate Gallery Report 1984-6, 1986, pp.68-9 repr. (col.); Matthew Gale, 'The uncertainty of the painter; De Chirico in 1913', Burlington Magazine, vol.130, April 1988, pp.273-5. Also repr: Art News and Review, I, 23 April 1949, p.5; Marcel Jean, The History of Surrealist Painting, 1960, p.45; [Isabella Far (ed.)], de Chirico, New York 1968, pl.29; Catalogo Generale Giorgio de Chirico: Opere dal 1908 al 1930, Rome 1976, vol.1, no.13, as 'L'incertezza del poeta'; Giorgio de Chirico "Le rêve de Tobie": un interno ferrarese, 1917 e le origini del Surrealismo, Rome 1980, p.62 no.78, as 'L'Incertitude du poète'; Bryan Robertson, John Russell, Lord Snowdon, Private View, 1965, p.32; [Maurizio Fagiolo dell'Arco (ed.)], L'Opera completa di De Chirico 1908-1924, Milan 1984,, as 'L'incertezza del poèta'

The imagery of 'The Uncertainty of the Poet' - fruit and a classical cast, mysteriously juxtaposed in front of a shadowy arcade - is typical of the so-called 'metaphysical' phase of de Chirico's work in the period 1911-14. He arrived in Paris from Italy in July 1911 and rapidly attracted critical attention through exhibiting in the Salon d'Automne and Salon des Indépendents. The poet and writer on art Guillaume Apollinaire met de Chirico in 1912 and became the painter's strongest supporter in Paris, writing of the 'originality' of de Chirico's 'inner, cerebral art' and dubbing his works 'metaphysical landscapes' ('La Vie Artistique', L'Intransigeant, 30 Oct.1913 and 'Le Salon d'Automne', Les Soirées de Paris, 15 Nov.1913, quoted in Willard Bohn, 'Metaphysics and Meaning: Apollinaire's Criticism of Giorgio de Chirico', Arts Magazine, vol.55, March 1981, p.109).

Apollinaire was so close to the artist that it is believed he titled some of de Chirico's paintings of this period. The particular source of the title of T04109, however, is unknown. Reference to a poet is found in other titles of de Chirico paintings, for example, 'The Departure of the Poet' 1914 (private collection, repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat. 1982, p.152, pl.27) and 'The Dream of a Poet', 1914 (Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat. 1982, p.160 Uncertainty was central to the atmosphere of mystery and enigma that de Chirico sought to create in his paintings of this period.

Elements of the imagery of T04109 are found in a number of de Chirico's works of the mid 1910s and later. A painting quite similar to 'The Uncertainty of the Poet' is 'The Transformed Dream', 1913 (St. Louis Art Museum, repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat. 1982, p.148 Although not of the same dimensions, this work displays a similar combination of a plaster or stone sculpture (here a classical male head) and exotic fruit (bananas and two pineapples). On the right hand side of the painting there is also a sharply receding arcade and at the horizon a wall and a white tower behind which runs a train at full steam. Later in life de Chirico re-used many of the elements of his early works which had brought him fame. Although smaller in size than T04109, 'Autumnal Mystery in Turin', 1968 (repr. [Maurizio Fagiolo dell'Arco et al. (eds.)], De Chirico, Milan 1981, p.302 no.354, as 'Mystère automnale turinois'), shows a nearly identical arrangement of cast, bananas, arcade, shadows and distant wall. The main difference in the imagery of the two paintings is that in the later work there is no train or ship's mast to be glimpsed beyond the wall.

The identity of the classical sculpture depicted in 'The Uncertainty of the Poet' has not been firmly established. It appears to be an Aphrodite-type cast which had its origins in the practices of nineteenth century academic art rather than in any Greek or Roman prototype. It is possible that de Chirico used the same cast in a work entitled 'I'll be there ... . The Glass Dog' 1914 (repr. Soby 1956, p.202). Roland Penrose (1900-84), an English artist and critic who lived in France in the late 1920s and early 1930s and who later acquired T04109, purchased a similar plaster cast in 1935. He brought it home to England and used it in his construction 'The Last Voyage of Captain Cook', 1938 (T03377 repr. Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1982-4, 1986, p.300). In conversation with Richard Francis of the Tate Gallery in 1984 Penrose said of this cast, 'it was well known in Paris. It was on sale in lots of shops round Montparnasse. Always that size'. Freely available in Paris, this cast featured in works by other artists. It appears in a painting by Henri Matisse, 'Plaster Torso and Bouquet', 1919 (Museu de Arte de São Paulo, repr. Henri Matisse Sculptor/Painter: A Formal Analysis of Selected works, exh. cat., Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth 1984, front cover in col.). Using gouache and collage the Surrealist artist Max Ernst transformed the front and back views of the cast shown in a postcard. This was reproduced in the catalogue of the exhibition 'Max Ernst' held at the Galerie Vignon in Paris in 1930 (repr. [Werner Spies (ed.)] Max Ernst Werke 1929-1938, Cologne 1979, p.77 no.1713).

The presence of classical-type statuary in de Chirico's paintings has led some commentators to suggest that the artist was preoccupied with the ancient world and was a harbinger of the revival of interest in classicism in the 1920s. In this context it is often noted that de Chirico spent his childhood in Greece. However, the artist himself categorically denied that he was influenced by Greece (see Eugenio La Rocca, 'L'archaelogia nell'opera di de Chirico' in Giorgio de Chirico 1888-1978, exh. cat., Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome 1982, I, p.32). Paolo Baldacci in 'Le Classisme chez Giorgio de Chirico: Théorie et méthode', (Cahiers du Musée national d'art moderne, Paris, no.11, 1983, pp.18-31) has shown that where de Chirico used a classical model in his paintings he copied not the originals in museums but illustrations in manuals of drawing such as the Cours Elémentaire de Julien or in archaelogical texts such as Saloman Reinach's Répertoire de Ia Staruaire grèque et romaine, published in several volumes 1897-1930. Baldacci has suggested that the conjunction in de Chirico's works of the modern and the antique (even if mediated by recent academic art) reflects the influence on the artist's thought of Nietzsche and his concept of an eternal present in which there is no fundamental distinction between past and future (p.23).

De Chirico was attracted to classical statuary in part because of the tradition of academic art with which it was associated. In an article in 1919 he urged his fellow artists to return to the study of statues and to what he called the 'religion' of drawing as a means of escaping naturalism and recommended that they should waste no time in buying a classical cast ('Il ritorno al mestiere', Valori Plastici, vol.1, nos. 11-12, 1919, p.18). In T04109 his preoccupation with an academic style of drawing can be seen in his use of heavy black outlines and obvious demarcation of areas of shadow. Although it seems likely that the image of the plaster cast was based on an actual cast rather an illustration in a book, it is depicted with crude hatching lines in the manner of a drawing or engraving. The flatness of de Chirico's handling of volumes, together with his imagery's air of irreality, prompted some critics in 1914 to liken his pictures to theatrical scenery. In an angry letter of protest at this comparison which he sent to the newspaper Paris-Midi, de Chirico denied that his works had anything to do with scenery, a fact he said was proved by their titles. Although he also used unexpected colours, such as in T04109 emerald green for the sky, de Chirico relied heavily on drawn outlines to create images that appeared preternaturally real and, at the same time, strangely insubstantial in order to create the sense of enigma he desired.

The origins of de Chirico's use of classical statuary lie partly in his fascination with the work of Arnold Böcklin and Max Klinger which he saw whilst studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich in 1905-10. Their images of mysterious and often melancholic figures, drawn typically from mythological tales, can be seen as the forerunners of de Chirico's seemingly anxious and weary statues. The shrouded figure in Böcklin's 'Ulysses and Calypso', 1883 (repr. [Fagiolo dell'Arco et al. (eds.)] 1981, p.17 no.8, as 'Ulysse et Calypso'), for example, was quoted directly by de Chirico in 'Enigma of the Oracle', c.1910 (private collection, repr. ibid., p.17 no.9) and appears there as isolated and motionless as any statue or cast.

Another source of de Chirico's preoccupation with classical statuary lay in his love of Turin. He passed through the city en route from Florence to Paris in 1911 and although he stayed there for only a few days the neo-classical arcaded squares and abundant statuary made a lasting impression on him. In an article of 1935 de Chirico claimed that his paintings of 1912-5 were inspired by the city:

The autumnal charm of Turin is made all the more penetrating by the rectilinear and geometric construction of the roads and squares and by the porticos which allow you to wander around at leisure ... In Turin all is apparitional. You come upon a square and find yourself in front of a man of stone who gazes on people as only statues know how to gaze ('Quelques perspectives sur mon art', L'Europe centrale, 27 April 1935, quoted in Paris 1983, p.254).

James Soby has noted that the prevalence of statuary in Turin was likely to have confirmed the painter's respect for Schopenhauer's essay 'On Apparitions' (Soby 1956, p.35). In 1919 de Chirico wrote, 'Schopenhauer advised his fellow countrymen not to place the statues of their famous men on high columns or on pedestals, but on low plinths, "as they do in Italy, where some marble men seem to be on a level with the passers-by and seem to walk beside them" ' ('Sull'arte metafisica', Valori Plastici, nos.4-5, 1919, p.17 quoted in Soby 1956, p.35).

Introduced into de Chirico's work in 1913, images of plaster casts allowed the artist to depict the human figure as part of a still-life arrangement, in scale and interest no more significant than, for example, the fruit beside it. Like the earlier images of statues, the plaster casts functioned as symbols of the human presence, from which the temporal and transient aspects had been stripped, and can be seen as an important element in the artist's rejection of naturalism.

T04109 is one of a small group of paintings of the period 1913-14 which show fruit and vegetables. Bananas are included in 'Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure)', 1914 (Museum of Modern Art, New York, repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat. 1982, p.155 in col.). Because of the date of this latter work, T04109 and 'The Transformed Dream' (St. Louis Art Museum, repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat. 1982, p.148) are conventionally thought to have been painted in the winter of 1913 (see Matthew Gale 1988, p.273). Maurizio Fagiolo dell'Arco relates the bananas, which first appeared in de Chirico's paintings in 1913, and the palm trees in works of the previous year, to Italy's invasion of Libya in 1911. Italy's colonising efforts, he writes, would have added a contemporary dimension to the mythical images of Italy that the artist and his brother, the composer and later playwright, Alberto Savinio, cultivated during their stay in Paris. In support of this he cites a reference in a contemporary manuscript by de Chirico to 'African feeling' and the 'happiness of the banana tree, luxury of ripe fruits, golden and sweet' (Tate Gallery exh. cat. 1982, p.34). The imagery of tropical fruit undoubtedly introduced an element of exoticism into de Chirico's work, but it can also be seen in terms of the tradition of the still life painting. In the 1920s de Chirico used fruit and flowers as symbols of the transcience and life and its sensual pleasures, contrasted with the permanent or eternal values represented by art and the figure of the artist. It is possible that the 'golden and sweet' bananas of T04109 fulfilled a similar function and, together with the cast of a female torso, were meant to offer a contrast in their physicality and appeal to the senses to the idea of a voyage, intellectual or spiritual, symbolised by the train beyond the distant wall.

The combination of the plaster cast and bananas has sexual overtones which is difficult not to regard as having been intentional. There is no evidence, however, that de Chirico read or was interested in the writings of Freud, for example, and thus any discussion of the extent to which the artist was conscious of the sexual symbolism of the other elements of this painting, for example, the train and arcades, appears to be post hoc speculation.

The arcade shown in the right hand side of T04109 was a characteristic feature of the scenes of Italian towns that de Chirico began to paint after arriving in Paris. A single rounded arch is found in part of the church facade shown in 'Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon', 1911 (repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat. 1982, p.134 pl.4, dated 1910). Maurizio Fagiolo dell'Arco has suggested as a source for de Chirico's preoccupation with the rounded arch Böcklin's painting 'Arcades in a Landscape', 1872 (repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat. 1982, p.12). Arcaded passages of the style depicted by de Chirico, however, can be found in Munich and, in particular, in Turin, a city about which Soby records that its arcades are 'so extensive that a local author has written a book tracing a full day's walk which may be taken without once leaving their protective shade' (Soby 1956, p.35). From a manuscript written in the period 1911-15 it is plain that de Chirico himself associated arcades and their shadowy internal spaces with a sense of mystery:

There is nothing like the enigma of the Arcade - invented by the Romans. A street, an arch: The sun looks different when it bathes a Roman wall in light. In all this there is something more mysteriously plaintive than in French architecture. And less ferocious too. The Roman arcade is a fatality. Its voice speaks in enigmas filled with a strangely Roman poetry (quoted in Soby 1956, p.247).

The mystery de Chirico found in the arcade appears to have been suggested to him partly by its simple geometrical form. From reading Otto Weiniger's theories of the metaphysical implications of geometry de Chirico became interested in the idea that geometrical shapes symbolised eternal values and could be seen as clues to the existence of a hidden order. In an article of 1919 ('Sull'arte metafisica', Valori Plastici, nos.4-5, 1919, p.17) de Chirico quoted Weininger as saying, 'The arc of the circle, as an ornament, may be beautiful: it does not signify perfect completeness, beyond all criticism ... In the arc there is still something unaccomplished which needs to be and can be completed: it still permits presentiment' (quoted in Soby 1956, p.40). This presentiment of something beyond everyday appearances was an essential element in the atmosphere of nostalgia and longing created in de Chirico's 'metaphysical' pictures. Contrasting his paintings with the naturalism, or attention to the surface reality of things, found in the works of the Impressionists and Cubists, de Chirico wrote of the relationship between reality and a linear transcription of it in a manuscript dated 1911-5:

A picture reveals itself to us, while the sight of something does not reveal a picture; but in this case the picture will not be a faithful copy of that which has caused its revelation, but will resemble it vaguely, as the face of someone seen in a dream resembles that person in reality. And in all this, technique plays no role; the whole sensation will be given by the linear composition of the picture, which in this case always gives the impression of being something unchangeable, where chance has never entered (quoted in Soby 1956, p.244).

For de Chirico the image of the arcade was both real and, in its simple form of lines and volumes, a metaphor of something unchangeable'.

The anti-naturalism of de Chirico's paintings was perhaps most clearly signposted in his abandonment of traditional perspective in favour of multiple vanishing points of the sort found in fourteen and fifteenth century Italian fresco art. In T04109 the impossible conjunction of the foreground and background, linked by the exaggerated diagonal of the arcade, emphasises the fact that the space in the painting is not intended to be naturalistic. This was made clear by the artist in 1925 when he asked, 'Who can deny the troubling connection that exists between perspective and metaphysics?' (Courbet, Rome 1925, pp.8-9, quoted in Soby 1956, p.33).

The long brick wall depicted in T04109 is found in a number of paintings by de Chirico in this period, often also with trains and ships in the background. These works include 'The Soothsayer's Recompense', 1913 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat. 1982, p.143) 'The Lassitude of the Infinite', 1913 (private collection, repr. ibid. 1982, p.142) and 'The Transformed Dream', 1913 (St Louis Museum of Art, repr. ibid. 1982, p.148 in col.) The image of the train appears to be an autobiographical reference by the artist to his father's profession of railway engineer. His father died when de Chirico was eleven and this may account for the artist's typically child-like depiction of trains. In a pencil sketch of 1913 entitled 'Joy' (repr. Soby 1956, p.83), for example, a small toy-like train runs on a track around the base of a statue of a male figure in modern dress and a tower. A. Bates in a letter to the Tate Gallery dated 6 October 1978 suggests that a source for the motif of a long wall may have been the perimeter wall surrounding Volos, the small town in Greece where de Chirico spent his childhood. A. Bates, who has visited Volos, writes, 'this wall is about 6ft high and runs straight and level for about 500 yds. and so must have appeared immense and endless to the young Chirico'. At the same time, the wall serves perhaps as a metaphor for the divide between the here and the hereafter. Over the top of the wall we glimpse a train and the mast of a ship which appear to symbolise the voyage of the mind or soul beyond the terrain of the known and familiar.

Departure and arrival were constant themes in de Chirico's paintings and, as is clear from titles such as 'The Anxious Journey', 1913 and 'Gare Montparnasse (Melancholy of a Departure)', 1914, were associated in the artist's mind with a sense of melancholy and unease. De Chirico had led a peripatetic life from the time he left Greece, moving between various Italian cities and later studying in Munich and Paris. In the four years he was in Paris before the War he is known to have had four different apartments. De Chirico first addressed the theme of voyages in 'The Departure of the Argonauts', 1909 (private collection, Rome, repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat. 1982, p.133). In this painting two ancient Greeks watch the departure of a square-rigged ship. The wind-filled sails of such a ship was a much-repeated motif in de Chirico's pre-War works and was often associated with the figure of Ariadne, represented generally as a classical statue. The mast shown above the wall in 'The Uncertainty of the Poet' can be seen as related to this earlier image of heroic departure. Beside it is an indecipherable shape that is white like ships' sails but has the silhouette of a tree.

In this period de Chirico had a contract with the dealer Paul Guillaume who in return for an agreed number of canvases per year paid the artist a monthly stipend. When de Chirico left France to join the Italian army in May 1915, most of his recent paintings were left in the hands of his dealer. In the spring of 1922 Guillaume held an exhibition of de Chirico's work for which Andre Breton, who later became the leader of the Surrealist group, wrote the catalogue preface. Among the fifty-nine canvases exhibited was 'The Uncertainty of the Poet'. At the time of the opening of the exhibition in March the poet Paul Eluard was away in Düsseldorf and returned to Paris only in May. Jean-Charles Gateau believes that it is likely that Eluard acquired this painting in the autumn of 1922 when he had returned from a second trip abroad and had renewed his friendship with Breton from whom he had been temporarily estranged (Gateau 1982, p.95). T04109 passed to Roland Penrose in 1938 when Paul Eluard sold him a large part of his collection of leading contemporary artists (for list of works see Gateau 1982, pp.359-60). Photographs showing the painting hanging on the wall of Penrose's farmhouse in Sussex are reproduced in Roland Penrose 1981, p.198 fig.493 and in Bryan Robertson, John Russell, Lord Snowdon, Private View, 1965, p.32.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.123-7


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