Vito Schnabel Gallery is pleased to announce Horses: The Death of a Rider, a special exhibition of sixteen paintings by renowned 20th century Italian master Giorgio de Chirico.
This selection of works considers de Chirico’s embrace of the horse as a pivotal subject that would populate his art for six decades. The canvases on view manifest the virtuosity of de Chirico’s pictorial language, which mingles the modernity of his lived experiences with a devotion to the immortal power of classical antiquity, which inhabited the artist’s imagination and shaped his vision. Spanning nearly 50 years, from the late 1920s through 1970, de Chirico’s horse paintings trace the evolution of his world and oeuvre, emblematizing a rapturous unity of the ancient and the modern.
Horses: The Death of a Rider is also a poignant personal exhibition for the gallery’s founder Vito Schnabel, who was first introduced to de Chirico’s art as a child by his godfather Bruno Bischofberger, and who has drawn inspiration from it ever since. “Giorgio de Chirico was one of the first painters whose work transported me into another world. I first saw his paintings as a child, and the encounter had an everlasting effect on the way I look at art to this day. It introduced me to that rare sensation– that indescribable feeling that, for me, comes from the combination of mystery, pathos and sheer visual beauty– that I am always searching for in art. It’s an honor to be able to present this group of works by one of the great painters of the 20th century."
An elusive and enigmatic maverick in the history of modern art, the Greek-born Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico (1888—1978) was hailed as the master of Metaphysical Art and a visionary influence on the Surrealists for a painting style that he had established by 1910. Best known for his series of disquieting and desolate urban landscapes created between 1910 and 1919, de Chirico seduced modernist artists and thinkers with the ambition of his metaphysical paintings, which stand as an enduring contribution to 20th century art. In a career that spanned seventy years, de Chirico witnessed the Western world accelerating at an extraordinary pace. Railways and timekeeping systems saw rapid technological development, transforming the speed of European life from the mid-19th century onward.
While a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, de Chirico discovered the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose spirit of thought proved profoundly influential. The allure of Nietzsche’s dialogue resonated with de Chirico in a very particular regard: he embraced the philosopher’s emphasis on cultural heritage, his love of classicism and antiquity, and a discordant attitude towards modernity. From his early metaphysical paintings through to the work of his late career, de Chirico “mourns the modern world” and treats it as “a ruin found by archeologists.” Visual enigmas, his works amalgamate a sense of the familiar with the disorienting and strange. Reckoning modernity with antiquity, de Chirico muses over existential questions of being and invests his pictures with an eternal sense of time and space.
The paintings of horses on view at Vito Schnabel Gallery reflect de Chirico’s intent revival of Classicism, supported by an emphasis on craftsmanship and the technical traditions of painting. The majestic, powerful animal first appeared in the artist’s oeuvre in 1910 and stood as a “symbol of Nietzsche’s extreme clairvoyance” before the philosopher’s descent into madness. Tempered by de Chirico’s romantic nostalgia for a “retour à l’ordre”, the subject of horses became one of the artist’s most beloved and successful tropes during his second period in Paris. During the ’20s and ‘30s, while de Chirico resided between Italy and France, his art would explore the co-existence of dual and contradictory realities of past and present that were inspired by ancient Grecian worlds, Italy’s antiquity, and mythological themes.
Two of the works on view in the exhibition, The White Horses (1926) and Horse and Figures by the Sea (1930), attest to de Chirico’s style of the period, which was inspired by the writings of Pausanias, a Greek traveler and geographer in the second century AD. At the time these works were made, the artist was reading a translation of this ancient guidebook, which described the Hellenic realm: the whispers of the wind and sea, of decay and ruin, fallen temples and columns, and the vastness of the obsolete. The White Horses depicts two wild, rearing stallions facing the crashing ocean weaves that rise and fall on the beach. The magnitude of the sky and cliffs the surround them hint at a timeless and immensity, imbuing the image with a metaphysical nature. Horse and Figures by the Sea is set within a beach landscape and depicts two tall, lean, muscular male figures surrounding a grand and mighty horse, whose flowing, full mane and anchoring tail ground him in place. A temple rises in the distant background, while pieces of ancient Greek architecture– column drums– are scattered in the sand.
In late summer of 1936, Giorgio de Chirico traveled to the United States in preparation for a solo exhibition with Julian Levy Gallery in New York, where he would remain until the beginning of 1938. The artist’s paintings of horses would be among his first works shown to the American public. Warriors in Combat (1936-37) and Death of a Rider (1937-38), both on view in the exhibition, date from this period. Rendered with a bold palette and expressionistic modeling, de Chirico incites drama and narrative amongst the horses and warriors that populate the seashore landscapes.
The charge, conflict, and trauma of the Second World War ruptured the continuity of de Chirico’s palette and artistic style, shifting his painterly approach toward one that recalled the Baroque. Contrasting forms, dramatic lighting, and deep, saturated colors invoke a vitality within his canvas as well as his subjects. Battle at a Castle (1946) depicts a violent, claustrophobic scene of turmoil and chaos. De Chirico’s brushwork here is loose and animated, teeming with emotive tension. Executed in a similar style, Roman Landscape (1945) evokes a sense of grandeur and, perhaps, even hope. A rainbow stretches across the sky in a pastoral scene filled with remnants of ancient civilizations.
A pioneer of the modern age, de Chirico sought to reinvigorate contemporary painting through a classical language steeped in tradition. In the latter decades of his career, his style continued to shift and evolve. A painting in the exhibition from 1955, titled Combat of Puritans, feels deceptively modern despite its classical subject. Form, color, and line coalesce in de Chirico’s signature aura of enigma and disjuncture.
Entering his Neo-Metaphysical period in the ‘60s, de Chirico began to return to established compositions and popular themes, creating variants and copying earlier paintings with a post-modern sensibility. He termed these imitative reproductions verifalsi or “true-fakes.” One example, on view in the exhibition, is Horse and Zebra on Seashore (1963), which recalls an earlier painting from the late 1920s. Inhabiting an ancient world littered with architectural ruins, these mythic and majestic animals appear as in a bizarre and fevered dream. De Chirico’s palette here is bold, his pigmentation is heavy and saturated, and the paint is dense. An air of the uncanny and austere settles into the landscape as the viewer navigates the strangeness of the master’s time and place.