Giorgio de Chirico Copied His Most Popular Works to Mess with His Collectors
In Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’s famed 1939 short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” a contemporary writer copies, word for word, Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th-century masterwork, Don Quixote. While Menard’s text is identical to that of Cervantes, the unnamed narrator still finds differences between the two versions. According to him, Menard’s work is more subtle than that of the Spanish novelist, with a unique style for his day. Ultimately, the tale considers the importance of authorship: How does our knowledge of a writer’s biography and social context influence the way we read their work?
Throughout the early 1900s, the Grecian-born de Chirico moved around Europe. He studied art at Munich’s Academy of Fine Arts and ingratiated himself into the day’s most influential creative circles: He met Guillaume Apollinaire,
In Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure) (1914), for example, a platform elevated on pillars supports a brick clock tower. In the distance, a train approaches. Look closer, however, to find that the geometric details are unsound: A yellow ramp below the platform rises toward the locomotive, making the viewer question both the viability of the depicted structure and the sense of depth within the painting. De Chirico plays with perspective to create a visual puzzle for the viewer; the picture becomes more unsettling the longer one looks.
In 1915, de Chirico settled in Ferrara in Italy. Two years later, he established the Scuola Metafisica (Metaphysical School) with fellow artists
Around 1919, de Chirico shifted his practice, abandoning his metaphysical style. Throughout the 1920s, he painted mythological figures, gladiators, horses, and furniture, occasionally adopting a maximalist, neo-
While de Chirico had moved on from his metaphysical period, the public hadn’t. His early paintings remained in demand; collectors were uninterested in his subsequent endeavors. According to The Brooklyn Rail, in 1924, Surrealist poet Paul Éluard and his wife, Gala, attempted to purchase de Chirico’s 1918 painting Le Muse inquietanti. The work features two sculptural figures with pawn-shaped heads—one black and disproportionately small, the other orange with a small black cross for an eye. The owner of the original, a critic and art historian, didn’t want to sell. Éluard asked the artist if he could buy another metaphysical work, but de Chirico offered to create a copy of Le Muse inquietanti instead. Yet truth and mythmaking always seem to mingle in discussions of de Chirico’s career. The New York Times, on the other hand, proposes that de Chirico actually made his first duplicate as early as 1919, for Surrealist
In any case, market interest prevailed for de Chirico’s earlier output, so the artist obliged by continuing to duplicate older works. He called these copies verifalsi, or “true fakes.” De Chirico didn’t see any ethical issues in copying his own work. He thought “that the idea is important, and the idea is what the artist owns,” explained Laura Mattioli, founder of New York’s Center for Italian Modern Art. In other words, de Chirico was making an argument about intellectual property. His compositions and motifs belonged to him, not collectors—why shouldn’t he repeat them? Additionally, he believed that the original concept for a work was more important than the authenticity of a painting’s brushstrokes. These ideas were decades ahead of their time. The
As Paolo Picozza, president of the Fondazione Giorgio e Isa de Chirico in Rome, asserted, “Such pieces may be a copy or a reprise of a theme with small variations, but one is always in the presence of an authentic artwork.” Rather than “fakes,” Picozza considers these as legitimate paintings within de Chirico’s oeuvre. Indeed, his copies have a Menardian quality: As duplicates made at the market’s behest, they adopted new meanings and embedded critiques that the first iterations lacked.
Picozza stressed the distinction as a variety of more insidious de Chirico forgeries—made by criminals—have come to market within the past few decades. According to a 2005 ARTnews survey, de Chirico is one of the top 10 most forged artists in history. Even before the artist died in 1978, counterfeits were rampant. “Few have been the moments in which he has not been involved in legal battles over the authenticity of paintings attributed to him,” Luigi Barzini wrote in a 1970 article for the New York Times. De Chirico may have supported his collectors’ nostalgia for an earlier period as he subverted prevailing ideas about originality, but unfortunately for contemporary scholars, he didn’t always make clear which year he actually created many of his works. Further confusing matters, collectors sometimes requested that de Chirico backdate a work to the year of the original.
Assessing the weave of a canvas, determining whether or not de Chirico created a detailed drawing beneath the painted surface, or studying what year his pigments were produced can help scholars identify the true year of production. Conservator Gianluca Poldi, for instance, studies de Chirico’s work from around 1910 through 1930, building a database that examines the material elements of the artist’s paintings over time. As Poldi explained to Artsy over email, he tracks the types of “supports (canvas or wood/cardboard), pigments, brushstrokes, and underdrawings” by using “a broad spectrum of non-invasive exams: multispectral imaging (visible light, UV, IR, X) and some spectroscopy to detect pigments, as well as microscopy.”
Picozza also noted that this practice of copying isn’t an anomaly within de Chirico’s career (other artists, such as Lucas Cranach the Elder and Leonardo da Vinci, probably did the same thing). It’s actually a strikingly modern thing to do. wrote Neil Printz in The Brooklyn Rail. The
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.