Unreal Nature

December 12, 2016

The Problem of Light

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

“… To close the doors and windows of consciousness for a time; to remain undisturbed by the noise and struggle of our underworld of utility organs working with and against one another; a little quietness, a little tabula rasa of the consciousness, to make room for new things …”

Continuing through Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City: Nietzsche, Modernism, Paris by Ara H. Merjian (2014):

… Despite de Chirico’s would-be prominence as an originator of pictorial estrangement, his architecture preserves — rather than destroys — clarity and boundaries. For all its affinity with Rimbaud’s hallucinations — a “drawing room at the bottom of a lake” — even Gare Montparnasse‘s displaced bananas sit as tautly within their skins as the station that frames them. The painting’s strangeness hinges upon an unflinching immanence to language, to line, to daylight.

dechirico_garemontparnasse1914
La gare Montparnasse, 1914

Despite rejecting the visible shading of night into day, de Chirico complains that viewers tend nevertheless to “see these [Metaphysical] paintings as imagined in the twilight” — as if, despite the sun that bathes them, his images conjure up a hazy gloaming. Much of that misprision derived from later Surrealist tropes of “hallucinatory shadow” foisted upon Metaphysical imagery.

[line break added] Even Coquiot errs early on in his early comparison of de Chirico’s images to the wooly dreamscapes of Albert Trachsel; despite the cloudless exactitude of images like The Enigma of a Day, the critic describes them as “lunar,” as “evening apparitions.” Such misreadings help crystallize the peculiar lucidity of the Metaphysical city. De Chirico would later recall his skies as painted in a “tenebrous blue,” an inaccuracy that evokes the paradox of their clarity.

[line break added] For as much as the painter disdained the haze of Sturm und Drang — or even the new age whimsy of a painter like Trachsel — he reviled the positivism of light. Light promises a leveling, and thus ignoble, transmission of information. Of course, in their photomaniacal” realism, de Chirico’s scenes risk a vulgar availability. This was precisely the purpose of which Impressionist realism (and some of its avant-garde heirs) had put light, whether in Paris, Normandy, or the Mediterranean: a registering of duration and contingency; a vehicle of immediacy; a languageless transmission of the present and of presence.

… His anxious comparisons of Impressionism to “sensationalism” … confirm his absorption of Nietzsche’s later writings … [for example] “Artistically appraised, nature is no model … Studies ‘from nature’ seem to me a bad sign: they show subjugation, weakness, fatalism, — this practice of lying in the dirt in front of petits faits.” It is not only the “bad weather” of German Romanticism that Nietzsche disdains, but the overweening attention to naturalism, its submission to time, to timeliness, to climate.

… As he came to paint the enigma of day (rather than of stormy oracles), de Chirico needed to circumvent the problem of light: a vehicle of common vision in common places. His solution lay in the yoking of lucidity to obfuscation. “The wedding day has come for light and darkness.”

Zarathustra parades his mysteries in the plain light of a “Great Noon [Grosse Mittag].” His terror echoes in “halcyon tones.” Nietzsche’s “cloaks of light” (Beyond Good and Evil), his anthems to “We somnambulists of the day!” (Zarathustra), inspired de Chirico and Savinio’s exploration of light, clarity, and line as vehicles of a more ironic obscurantism. Summing up some of his chief Metaphysical tenets, de Chirico writes: “As far as I am concerned, there is more mystery in a fossilized piazza in the clarity of midday than in a dark room in the heart of the night, during a spiritual séance.”

… For Nietzsche, the “chief creative means” of post-Wagnerian aesthetics — specifically of an art that approximates myth — “are omitting, overlooking, and ignoring.” He writes, in The Genealogy of Morals:

Forgetting is no mere vis inertiae as the superficial imagine; it is rather an active and in the strictest sense positive faculty of repression … To close the doors and windows of consciousness for a time; to remain undisturbed by the noise and struggle of our underworld of utility organs working with and against one another; a little quietness, a little tabula rasa of the consciousness, to make room for new things, above all for the nobler functions and functionaries, for regulation, foresight, premeditation (for our organism is an oligarchy [sic] — that is the purpose of active forgetfulness, which is like a doorkeeper, a preserver of psychic order, repose, and etiquette: so that it will be immediately obvious how there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hope, no pride, no present, without forgetfulness.

… the Futurist leader F.T. Marinetti attacked Nietzsche as a past-loving pedant. De Chirico gleaned something different from the same writings — an attack against the “malady of history,” as something that “tattoos” the face of representation.

Metaphysical painting is still read as an evocation of horror vacui — the “loneliness of modern man,” rendered an image. Yet the desertion of space is not lamented in de Chirico’s imagery. It is celebrated for its brave renunciations. Metaphysical painting by 1914 does not, as scholars have long assumed, perform a “melancholic repetition of loss.”

[line break added] It exalts loss as the mode of privileged vision itself. ” ‘I wish at any cost to be alone’ said the statue with the eternal look … And in everlasting happiness the statue immerses its soul in the contemplation of its shadow.” De Chirico’s poetic apostrophe of his own Ariadnes, here in 1912, suggests anything but the unreconstructed nostalgia ascribed to his images.

My most recent previous post from Merjian’s book is here.

-Julie

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