Giorgio de Chirico’s Willful Claustrophilia


April 26, 2017

Join us for a special talk on Giorgio de Chirico’s “willful claustrophilia” with Ara H. Merjian, professor of Italian Studies at New York University and author of the recent book, Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City: Nietzsche, Paris, Modernism.


With wooden fragments pressed close to the picture plane and set in shallow, cloistered spaces, Giorgio de Chirico’s so-called “Metaphysical Interiors” from Ferrara (1915-18) seem resigned to confinement. In his mid-century monograph, James Thrall Soby described the scenes as “still lifes …for which the word ‘claustrophobic’ does not seem too strong.” This description has stuck to de Chirico’s interiors ever since: a convenient counterpart to the presumed agoraphobia of his pre-war piazzas. A close reading of the paintings and their philosophical sympathies, however, tells a different story. And it is a story of willful claustrophilia.


“My room,” de Chirico wrote from Ferrara, “is a magnificent ship in which I can set off on adventures worthy of a stubborn explorer.” Even leaving aside the nautical pennants and maps that punctuate several paintings, these interiors posit the still and the static as means to exploration; they insist upon the willful constriction of space as the only path to mental transcendence. Continuing his self-appointed apprenticeship to Friedrich Nietzsche, de Chirico insisted in word and image upon the liberation of finitude. What Nietzsche called “the prison-house of language” forms not a hampering limitation, but rather – for a select few initiates – a means to far-flung exploration. Merjian argues that the unrelenting interiority of de Chirico’s Metaphysical still lifes burrows into the building blocks of architecture as a site of mental adventure, beginning with the wooden support of the canvas itself.

Ara H. Merjian is Associate Professor of Italian Studies at New York University, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and the Department of Art History, as well as Director of Undergraduate Studies. He received his B.A. from Yale University and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City: Nietzsche, Paris, Modernism (Yale University Press, My 2014), which garnered a College Art Associations Meiss/Mellon’s Author Award, as well as the forthcoming volume, Against the Avant-garde: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Art and Politics, 1960-75, for which he received a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.

Missed the event? Watch the video here!