De Chirico might have been obsessed with Ariadne, but does that make his work samey, asks Waldemar Januszczak
Certainly, without knowing who Ariadne was, you have no proper hope of deciphering the art of Giorgio de Chirico. The Ariadne myth haunts de Chirico’s art as unshakably as a migraine. He keeps trying to be rid of her, but back she pops, a half-naked woman on a plinth, stretched out in the middle of a square, all alone, wrapped lightly in a chiton that slides up and down her breasts — how flimsy those ancient chitons were! — enticing you to her with an I’m-sad- and-nobody-loves-me routine, yet unreachable, too, because she’s a statue. The Ariadne myth was a sitting tenant that moved into de Chirico’s mind and refused to budge.
A clever show at the appropriately mysterious Estorick Collection — what is this place, a private museum, a billionaire’s home, a crazed display of philanthropy, a tax write-off? — presents a selection of de Chirico’s paintings and sculptures spanning 60 years, every one of which is haunted by the fidgety central presence of the sleeping princess. She’s like a favourite prop that he lugs around with him everywhere. Wherever he fetches up, whether it’s Paris, Rome, Turin, Munich, any of the places he lived and worked, his first act is to open up the trunk of his imagination and assemble that familiar set: an empty square, surrounded by doomy arcades, a tower on the horizon, a puffing train. Then out comes Ariadne. Every version sees her positioned in a slightly different part of the lonely square she lives in. It’s a very, very strange working procedure. Although de Chirico was placed prominently at the head of Tate Modern’s Surrealism extravaganza in 2001, it’s fair to say that he has fallen out of favour. I think my own responses to him are fairly typical. In my youth, I was much taken with his melancholy vistas and relentlessly enigmatic moods. My fierce teenage anxieties seemed to find a resonant echo in his fierce adult ones. Then I went off him. You go off de Chirico for the same kinds of reasons that you grow out of James Dean. His work begins to appear melodramatic, facile, repetitive.
But thanks to this refreshing and attentive exhibition, I am a fan again. Not with the wholehearted adolescent identification of old, but with a clearer appreciation of the independence and tenacity of de Chirico’s vision. What is most surprising about this show, given the number of repetitions it includes, is its unmasking of his inventiveness. There are, after all, more ways of being inventive than by painting different things all the time. How about painting the same thing recurrently as an act of creative awkwardness? Before we stride into this perceptual quagmire, you and I need to synchronise our understanding of the Ariadne myth. Are we thinking of the same story? Classical scholars can skip the next paragraph, but it seems senseless to me to review this show without agreeing on the facts in the case of Ariadne.
Her tale has at least two endings. We know that she was the daughter of King Minos of Crete, and that her brother was that fearsome mythological half-beefcake, the Minotaur. The Minotaur lived in a labyrinth, and every year, to keep him docile, he was fed an assortment of human sacrifices brought over from Greece. One of these was the handsome Theseus, with whom Ariadne fell in love. She smuggled a sword and a ball of twine to Theseus so that he could kill the Minotaur and find his way out of the labyrinth. The two of them then eloped, and it is here, on their travels across the Aegean, that the complications begin. One version of the story has Theseus, the cad, deserting Ariadne on the island of Naxos, dumping her on a strange shore until Bacchus falls in love with her and saves her. The other version has Bacchus stealing Ariadne from Theseus while he isn’t looking.
De Chirico’s Ariadne is surely the dumped one. Her restless self-absorption is the display of a betrayed woman. What’s interesting, of course, is that de Chirico casts the viewer as a kind of surrogate Bacchus, lusting after her from a distance, admiring the lovely Ariadne from a secret vantage point, like a stalker. Women readers, I cannot speak for you, but as an average representative of my own sex, I can vouch for the fact that de Chirico’s Ariadne triggers not only predictable surges of desire, but also bucket-loads of the male protective instinct. Indeed, she inspires an interesting melange of the two.
Nominally, of course, she’s a statue. De Chirico based her loosely on a famous marble masterpiece that’s in the Vatican, which shows the sexy princess asleep, with her head propped up on her hand, as if she has dozed off on a settee. It’s the snatched sleep of someone whose eyes have grown too heavy for them to keep up their vigil. We’ve come across the deserted Ariadne while she waits for Theseus to return, not knowing he never will.
The show is a smallish one. It started off in Philadelphia as a bigger one, which I would have loved to have seen, but the reduction process has certainly focused the action. The first room, dominated by a superb parade of high-quality paintings from 1913, the first year of de Chirico’s obsession with Ariadne, shows him arriving in Paris after a peripatetic art training and immediately unveiling all the typical characteristics of his art. Everything you see in his pictures — the square, the towers, the trains, the shadows — is immediately a frame for her. The centrality of Ariadne in the action is extraordinary. All the wild melancholia that reverberates around these paintings seems to radiate from her plinth.
De Chirico, notoriously, went on to repeat himself constantly in his art. The second room is packed with minute variations on the Ariadne prototype, painted 30, 40, 50 years after his invention of her. His defence for this seemingly endless repackaging is that it never constituted exact repetition, but was always a constructive recooking of the same ingredients. Every picture is tightly different, he claimed. And do you know? The display backs him up.
True, the many late Ariadnes are no match for the sensationally satisfying early ones. The paintings are smaller. The colours more acid. You sense quotation marks around all the images. The catalogue mentions Warhol, and explains de Chirico’s repeats as a pop-style repackaging of his own inventions. I can see what they mean. Yes, there is unquestionably less invention and care involved. But the mass-produced Ariadnes possess their own repetitive miniature anxiety and keep coming at you, like a scary chant.