Metaphysical Painting
Characteristics, History of Pittura Metafisica.

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Mystery and Melancholy of a Street
(1914) Private Collection.
By Giorgio de Chirico.

Metaphysical Painting (c.1914-20)


What is Metaphysical Painting?
History of the Metaphysical School (Scuola Metafisica)

Song of Love (1914)
Museum of Modern Art, New York.
By Giorgio de Chirico.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.
For a quick guide to specific
styles, see: Art Movements.

What is Metaphysical Painting?

In modern art, the phrase Metaphysical Painting (in Italian Pittura Metafisica) describes a style of painting developed during the era of World war I by two modern artists, namely Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) and Carlo Carra (1881-1966), later joined by the still-life expert Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964). The name Pittura Metafisica was first adopted by de Chirico and Carra in 1917, while convalescing at a military hospital in Italy. The main characteristics of Metaphysical Painting include the use of images designed to convey a sense of mystery. Such enigmatic, dreamlike imagery is typically marked by unreal lighting, impossible linear perspective and strange symbolist iconography. However, most metaphysical compositions retain a noticeable structure, with an almost architectural sense of stillness, derived from Renaissance art traditions of the early 16th century. The style also borrowed heavily from the European Symbolism movement. In turn, it had a significant impact on Surrealism, in particular on the quiet classical work of Salvador Dali (1904-89) and Rene Magritte (1898-1967). Examples of metaphysical painting include: The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914, Private Collection), The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913, Tate Collection, London), and Song of Love (1914, Museum of Modern Art, New York).

The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913)
Tate Collection, London.
By Giorgio de Chirico.

For a list of the Top 10 painters/
sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.
For the best oils/watercolours,
see: Greatest Paintings Ever.


The term "metaphysical" comes from the Greek for "beyond real things". De Chirico was born in Greece, and often drew inspiration from classical culture. In contrast to the noise and movement evident in (say) Futurism, De Chirico's paintings are quiet and still. Their distinctive characteristics include: a variety of architectural features with classical trimmings, distorted linear perspective, and strange dream-like imagery; the juxtaposition of incongruous objects, such as gloves, portraits, busts, bananas, trains; and, above all, a disquieting air of mystery. Human presence - and absence - which is suggested by classical statues or featureless mannequins, is no less unsettling.

The Metaphysical painters believed in art as prophecy and in the artist as the poet-seer who, in clear-sighted moments, could remove the mask of appearances to reveal the "true reality" that lay behind. Their strategy was to transcend the physical appearance of reality, to unnerve or surprise the viewer with indecipherable or enigmatic images. Although they were not interested in naturalistic representation, nor in recreating any specific time or place, they were fascinated by the eeriness of everyday life, and - like Surrealist artists, by whom De Chirico was later canonized - aimed to create an atmosphere that captured the extraordinary of the ordinary. As De Chirico wrote in 1919: "Although the dream is a very strange phenomenon and an inexplicable mystery, far more inexplicable is the mystery our minds confer on certain objects and aspects of life."

Many of his paintings show a desolate city square or claustrophobic interior painted in sombre colours with theatrical lighting and ominous shadows. Some may have been based on scenes in Turin and Ferrara, where De Chirico lived. Describing his own work, he spoke of the loneliness created when "still lifes come alive or figures become still".

On the other hand, Carra's pictures generally show a lyrical approach to the same type of iconographical images, with more light, brighter colours and occasional humour. While his oil painting can be disconcerting, it is seldom sinister. See also The Drunken Gentleman (1916), one of Carra's most imaginative Renaissance-inspired still lifes.


History of the Metaphysical School (Scuola Metafisica)

Carra and De Chirico met in 1917 at the military hospital in Ferrara, where both were recovering from nervous breakdowns; they soon began working closely together. Carra joined De Chirico, his brother, Alberto Savinio (1891-1952), a writer and composer, and Filippo de Pisis (1896-1956), a poet and later a painter to form the Scuola Metafisica (Metaphysical School). Many of their ideas were informed by the brothers' interest in the German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Otto Weininger (1880-1903), whose work they had read while living in Munich from 1906 to 1908. Schopenhauer's idea of intuitive knowledge, Nietzsche's theory of the enigma, and Weininger's notion of geometric metaphysics all supported and fed into the artists' own ideas. Metaphysical Painting also owes a noticeable debt to the European Symbolism movement, which is not only visible in its symbolist motifs, but also in its "quietness" - compare, for instance, the stillness in symbolist paintings like Bocklin's Isle of the Dead (1880, Kunstmuseum, Basel) and Hodler's The Night (1890, Kunstmuseum, Bern). Another important influence and source of support was Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), the French poet and art critic, who was the first to call De Chirico's painting 'metaphysical' in 1913. They met regularly between 1911 and 1913 while De Chirico was living in Paris. This was the period when Apollinaire was involved with Orphism, and certain Orphic themes (the redemptive qualities of art, the idea of art as a mystical or esoteric activity) can be felt in the work of the Metaphysical School.

The School only lasted until around 1920, when a bitter argument between De Chirico and Carra as to who had initiated the movement split the group. By that time the style of the Pittura Metafisica had been spread by the publication Valori plastici (Plastic Values, 1918-20), which also sponsored travelling shows. In 1921, the exhibition entitled 'Young Italy' was dominated by the metaphysical paintings of Carra, De Chirico, and Giorgio Morandi who had adapted aspects of the styles.


Although the Scuola Metafisica proved to be one of the more short-lived of modern art movements, it was highly influential throughout the 1920s. In Italy, the 20th century painters who found inspiration in it included members of the Novecento Italiano, such as Felice Casorati and Mario Sironi; in Germany it made a significant impact on artists such as George Grosz (see Die Neue Sachlichkeit), Oskar Schlemmer (see Bauhaus), and Max Ernst, who like most Surrealists, hailed De Chirico as the most important precursor of Surrealism. And in Australia, the influence of Metaphysical Painting can be seen in the arid landscapes of Russell Drysdale (1912-81).


Paintings by the Metaphysical School are represented in several of the world's best art museums, including: the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Tate Collection, London; Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart; Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan; Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome; and Foundation Giorgio de Chirico, Rome.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of reference material from the modern art book, entitled Styles, Schools and Movements (Thames & Hudson, 2007) by Amy Dempsey, a publication we strongly recommend for anyone studying 20th century painting in Italy.

• For the chronology of modern Italian painting, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For more about 20th century painting and sculpture in Italy, see: Homepage.

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