Mystery and Melancholy of a Street by Giorgio de Chirico

Giorgio de Chirico

Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, 1914, Oil on canvas, 87 x 71 cm, Private Collection, Private Collection / De Agostini Picture Library / G. Nimatallah / Bridgeman Images

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Out on the Street

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
John Handley

I will rise now and go about the city,
   in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.
(Song of Solomon 3:2)

The world askew, unknown, unfathomable, was often the vision of the painter Giorgio de Chirico. His painting Melancholy of a Street (1914) is a prime example, and arguably his most ominous work. Created as part of his Metaphysical Town Squares series, beginning in 1910, it demonstrates his fascination with architecture, dramatic light, shadow, and mysterious subjects. The painting draws the viewer into the scene: what does it mean to wander the streets, to seek, and not to know what we might encounter?

Two great influences on the artist were his visit to Turin, Italy, in 1910, where he described the architecture as ‘metaphysical’, and also the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose world-view questioned the very reliability of how we represent reality. From these De Chirico was inspired to probe the depths of existence, being, and reality. His criticism of the Impressionists, for example, was that they were occupied only with the visible world, while dismissing the interior world of the imagination.

Melancholy of a Street presents us with a striking image in ochres, browns, a gradient sky in blues and greens, juxtaposed (in stark contrast) with the white building at left, and a curious wagon at right. Within the stillness of the scene, we see the silhouette of a girl chasing her hoop as she runs across the plaza, her legs in mid-stride, her hair flowing. She is running somewhere, wherever the rolling hoop leads, like the maiden in the Song of Solomon, who searches the streets.

The hoop, like the woman in the Song’s desire for her lover, is taking the girl on a wild chase.

The painting is one of the few works of the artist in this period to include motion, accented by the flag in the distance, flapping in the wind. And also in the distance is the ominous shadow of a person, long and stretched, by the raking light of the setting sun. Multiple and conflicting perspectives add to the sense that one is hovering above the picture ground, offering a view from a place that cannot possibly exist.

As with the shifting perspectives and locations of the Song of Solomon, we are left wondering where exactly we are; what is real and what isn’t.