Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Carlo Cirelli Portrait (1915)

Giorgio de Chirico
Portrait of Carlo Cirelli (1915)

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Gallery 169, Modern and Contemporary Art, first floor
Promised gift of C. K. Williams, II

"a Carlo Cirelli gentile
mio e multisensibile amico
G. de Chirico
Ferrara ottobre M.CM.XV"

This is only a quick sketch of one of the most amazing new possessions of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, located in my favorite room with Picasso's Three Musicians (1921) and Leger's The City (1919) on either end. The painting has additional meaning because it belongs to Charles K. Williams, II, director of excavations at Corinth (1966-1997) and one of the most important figures in the intellectual development of American archaeology in the 20th and 21st centuries. I haven't had a chance to talk to Mr. Williams about the portrait, but I will go ahead and write some premature thoughts. I saw the painting for the first time on June 29, 2008, ca. 12 pm; at that very moment, who would pass right next to me but Michael Taylor, PMA curator of Modern Art? This was a true Surrealist coincidence. In 2002, Taylor curated "Giorgio de Chirico and the Myth of Ariadne." I was so struck by the sudden appearance of Taylor (he rushed right by me, almost brushing my shoulder) that I was rendered speechless; if I had been bolder, I would have stopped him right then and there to inquire about Mr. Williams' promised gift. The magic would have been completed only if Mr. Williams himself appeared on the halls of the great museum.

What is most exciting is that in July 2009, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will hold an exhibition on Mr. Williams' collection of early 20th-century art: Adventures in Modern Art: The Charles K. Williams, II Collection. The exhibition will be curated by Innis H. Shoemaker and a catalog will be published by Yale University Press. I CANNOT WAIT!

Anything that I might say about the de Chirico painting is, thus, provisional. I am counting on my good friend Jennie Hirsh to visit the piece and give me a more learned interpretation. Hirsh is a specialist on De Chirico's portraits and self-portraiture, see "Self Portraiture and Self Representation: The Painting and Writing of Giorgio de Chirico" (Ph.d. thesis, Bryn Mawr College, 2003) and highly anticipated book manuscript.

On yesterday's blog, I gave some thoughts on British Surrealist John Nash and archaeological method. In the case of Carlo Cirelli, the archaeological connection is tenuous, hinging on Mr. Williams and his artistic taste. Giorgio de Chirico was raised in Greece. His father was an engineer working in the construction of Greece's rail system. De Chirico grew up in Volos, where one of his earliest childhood memories involved the Turkish armada. Most importantly for the history of modernism, he received his first artistic training at the Polytechnic Institute in Athens (1903-1906), where he became close friends with Greece's future avant-garde. After his father died, the de Chirico family moved back to Italy and Giorgio enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (1906-1911). Carlo Cirelli entered de Chirico's life during his military service, while stationed in Ferrara.

Who was Carlo Cirelli? He was not a particularly close friend of De Chirico, but a fellow soldier that attracted the painter's early attention. We can reconstruct the circumstances of the work, from The Memoirs of Giorgio de Chirico, trans. Margaret Crosland (New York, 1994), pp. 81-82:

"Among the Ferrarese whom I knew at that time there was a corporal who worked at my regimental depot. He was a highly original boy. He would sit in the storeroom of the depot, among pyramids of shoes, gaiters, cloaks, jackets, etc., and carry out, with the patience of a medieval chatelaine, the most beautiful and complicated embroidery. He had long finger-nails, which were lustrous and extremely well cared for; his hands often felt hot and then he would raise his arms over his head and move his hands, like certain dancers performing in the aesthetic style. He did this to cool his hands, he would say. The bedroom floor was so highly polished with wax, so smooth and gleaming, that you had to walk one tiptoe and spread out your arms in order to keep your balance, like a tightrope-walker or someone learning to skate. If you did not take this precaution you were in danger of falling down at every step and ending up flat on the floor. He had bought from an antique dealer an old bed, an historic bed, which he had covered with a baldachin and with heavy, expensive hangings. The name of this individual young man was Carlo Cirelli. I painted his portrait and gave it to him, some for year later this portrait was sold, probably by Cirelli himself, to the Milanese collector Adriano Pallini, who bought it for a large sum. Signor Carlo Cirelli never gave any sign of life. Naturally, the portrait was his property and he could dispose of it as he wished, but I think that after the sale of that portrait, which had not cost him even half a lira, he could have remembered me and without paying me a high percentage of the price received, he could at least have sent me a little present--for example, well, half a packet of Tuscan cigars, which four years ago could still be found easily and cost relatively little. This has happened to me in fact with other friends who earned large sums by selling paintings of mine which they had acquired first for modest sums. These dear friends never had the slightest feeling of gratitude towards me; in fact I would say they are slightly irritated when any reference is made to the splendid profit earned for them by the fruits of the honest work due to my genius."

De Chirico was obviously ticked off that his "gentile amici" sold his portrait for profit. Earlier in the Memoir, De Chirico's description of Ferrara and its society is striking, as a place of sensuality affected by hemp-induced delusions.

"The Ferrarese are also terribly lecherous; there are days, especially at the height of spring, in which the libidinous atmosphere which hands over Ferrara becomes so strong that it can almost be heard, like rushing water or the roar of fire. Professor Tambroni, the eminent phrenologist, who at that time directed the Ferrara mental hospital, and whom I knew, explained to me that this abnormal state of the Ferrarese is due to the fumes given off by the hemp and to the perpetual humidity. In fact, the entire city is built over ancient macerating vats." (ibid, p. 81)

In Ferrara, De Chirico also met poet Corrado Govoni. Visiting his house on the hot days of summer, reminded him of this life in Greece:

"I met poet Govoni, but rarely saw him. He lived in seclusion and did not welcome many people. I remember his house which seemed to be lost in the middle of the countryside. On the rare occasions when I went to see him the heat of the dog-days lay over Ferrara. The heat was suffocating, but in the poet Govoni’s house all the shutters were closed. It was shady and deliciously cool and I was reminded of certain houses in Greece, in summer, during my childhood. There was also Govoni’s wife, a very beautiful woman with a light brown skin, with that deep gaze, that ‘nocturnal’ gaze and those special eyes which are characteristic of some women of Ferrara." (ibid, p. 80)

De Chirico's sensualized memories of Ferrara remind me of Ancient Corinth. I know it's quite a stretch, but in the early 20th century, Greek poets had sensualized the archaeological site in similar ways. In 1939, that sensibility was passed on to Henry Miller who visited the site and wrote in The Collosus of Maroussi (New York, 1941) p. 212:

"There is something rich, sensuous and rosy about Corinth. It is death in full bloom, death in the midst of voluptuous, seething corruption ... Everywhere this lush, over-grown, over-ripe quality manifests itself, heightened by a rose-colored light flush from the setting sun. We wander down to the spring, set deep in the earth like a hidden temple, a mysterious place suggesting affinities with India and Arabia."

The sensualized representations of Corinth is another matter all together, first noted by Mike Keeley. But that's another story altogether, perhaps the subject of a future post.

The Archaeological Institute of America is having its annual meetings in Philadelphia this year. I urge all participants to escape the sterile conference environment (unless they are staying at the PSFS building next door), visit the Museum and contemplate one of the most beautiful De Chirico portraits in an American collection. What lies in store for the visitor is one of the most erotic depictions of a male hand in the history of painting. Having Ferrara's (and Corinth's) summer imageries in mind will add to the portrait its due amount of heat.

1 comment:

Andrew Innes said...


Like you I am in awe of the painting, which I approach as a painter. What particularly struck me, when I saw it, was the use of parallel, diagonal lines throughout the piece. I don't have it in front of me but, from memory, the long fingernails, the pupils and other features are strongly related diagonally.

Thanks for posting the background of the sitter. I thought, perhaps, he was a guitar player, but the description of him makes perfect sense.

Andrew Innes
Round The Bend Gallery

Blog Archive

Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States