When Our World Became a de Chirico Painting: How the Avant-Garde Painter Foresaw the Empty City Streets of 2020

This past spring, media out­lets of every kind pub­lished pho­tos and videos of eeri­ly emp­ty pub­lic spaces in cities like Bei­jing, New York, Milan, Paris, and Seoul, cities not known for their lack of street life. At least in the case of Seoul, where I live, the depop­u­lat­ed image was a bit of an exag­ger­a­tion, but tak­en as a whole, these stunned visu­al dis­patch­es from around the world reflect­ed a real and sud­den change in urban life caused by this year’s coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic. They also got us think­ing, not just about our cities but about the built envi­ron­ment, and even human civ­i­liza­tion, in gen­er­al. Life, as often, had imi­tat­ed art: specif­i­cal­ly, it had imi­tat­ed the paint­ings of Gior­gio de Chiri­co, the founder of the Meta­phys­i­cal art move­ment.

“In 1909, de Chiri­co was sit­ting on a bench in the Piaz­za San­ta Croce in Flo­rence, recov­er­ing from an intesti­nal ill­ness, when all of a sud­den he had a pro­found expe­ri­ence.” So says Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, in his new video essay “When the World Became a de Chiri­co Paint­ing.”

As the artist him­self lat­er remem­bered it a few years lat­er, “The whole world, down to the mar­ble of the build­ings and foun­tains, seemed to me to be con­va­les­cent.” There fol­lowed the paint­ing The Enig­ma of an Autumn After­noon, depict­ing a hol­lowed-out Piaz­za San­ta Croce, its stat­ue of Dante now head­less. “This and all the plazas in his Meta­phys­i­cal Town Square series are sim­pli­fied, emp­ty, cut with dra­mat­ic shad­ows.”

Sel­dom does a human being — that is, a human being not made of stone — appear in de Chiri­co’s Meta­phys­i­cal Town Squares. But he does include the occa­sion­al train in the dis­tance, usu­al­ly with a bil­low­ing smoke­stack. This sug­gests that, though life in the fore­ground seems to have stopped indef­i­nite­ly, moder­ni­ty con­tin­ues apace in the back­ground. To many of us, the vague dis­ori­en­ta­tion this caus­es now feels almost nor­mal, as does the sen­sa­tion of see­ing famil­iar places made unfa­mil­iar. In 2020, Puschak says, “cities and towns became immense muse­ums of strange­ness, and it was pos­si­ble to see what we built through alien eyes.” For more than a cen­tu­ry, De Chiri­co’s paint­ings have, on a much small­er scale, pre­sent­ed us the same oppor­tu­ni­ty for reflec­tion. But among oth­er things we’ve learned this year, nobody wants to live in a De Chiri­co for long.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

See Web Cams of Sur­re­al­ly Emp­ty City Streets in Venice, New York, Lon­don & Beyond

How To Under­stand a Picas­so Paint­ing: A Video Primer

A Quick Six Minute Jour­ney Through Mod­ern Art: How You Get from Manet’s 1862 Paint­ing, “The Lun­cheon on the Grass,” to Jack­son Pol­lock 1950s Drip Paint­ings

2,000+ Impres­sion­ist, Post-impres­sion­ist & Ear­ly Mod­ern Paint­ings Now Free Online, Thanks to the Barnes Foun­da­tion

The Muse­um of Mod­ern Art (MoMA) Puts Online 75,000 Works of Mod­ern Art

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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