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De Chirico and London as Exoskeleton

Visiting the deserted city during lockdown

by Lewis Duncan

23rd May 2020

Since lockdown began more than six weeks ago, I’ve started to view the unfolding events and adapting city life framed by architecture. It feels as though more people are walking down my street than ever before while others aren’t able to leave the house at all and fear the narrow pavements of London’s residential pockets. People, presence and space are variables of the ‘new normal’. The (social) distance, anonymity, solitude and confusion/misinformation affecting people in many different ways evoke a sentimentality which I find in Giorgio De Chirico’s metaphysical paintings.

Gare Montparnasse, Giorgio De Chirico, 1914 © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome

When cycling into town for a more exciting excursion than a walk around the block, there is a palpable emptiness and slowness. The central London streets are mostly deserted, where the wide pavements and tall buildings are deprived of human activation. De Chirico’s dream spaces, depicting dramatic sunlight against disembodied architecture and the occasional plaster bust, resemble lockdown London in April’s sunshine. There is a sense of foreboding contained in De Chirico’s empty vistas and strong shadows stretching back to vanishing points, as if despite the cloudless skies, a sudden intermittent hail and torrential rain could fall, like that in London the week entering May. The eerie imagery captures the urban mood during pandemic.

Metaphysical Art was a small Italian movement that holds an important place in art history for its later 20th century influences such as the Surrealists. Arriving in Paris in 1911, De Chirico became a figure among the avant-garde community and painted in the metaphysical style up to 1917. In Sull'Arte Metafisica (1919), he writes about how the style is like the surface of a calm ocean with the disturbing unknowability of what is below.

Gare Montparnasse (1914) highlights the metaphysical taste for empty piazzas and enigmatic combinations applied to one of Paris’ busiest train stations. The perspective is inconsistent along the blind arcade and the colonade below. The wind blows strongly on some flags above the clock tower but does not affect the train steam in the distance, and the clock tower does not tell the sunlight hour. The geometricism and use of dark lines suggest urban intensity, but here the urban space becomes rural with architecture imposing upon arid terrain. Two tiny figures in the top right of the frame are not socially distanced. In the foreground, a bunch of green bananas are a puzzling still-life inclusion upon a small parapet, a reminder of indoors-living like plant pots on window sills.

Image by Lewis Duncan

My early evening route took me through Dalston then Hoxton. I paused briefly at the Barbican for the numinous quality of cold concrete against the golden hour glow, before circling the London Museum which has a cylindrical shape similar to De Chirico’s The Red Tower (1913). To avoid the Fleet Street incline I made my way past the partly cordoned-off Chancery Lane station.

Approaching Covent Garden, I moved in and out of the back streets losing any direction, carefree because of the lack of cars, slightly unsettled by the number of police on patrol. The Anxious Journey (1913) presents an unnerving span of portals like the home of significant Catalan sculptor Xavier Cordero, a maze of colonnades in a Barcelona suburb; an interesting place to self-isolate during the city’s seven weeks of strict lockdown, only just permitting a return to life and open-air (from the 2nd May). De Chirico’s painting traps the viewer in the frame, with one hopeful passage into the open, but a threatening locomotive behind a brick wall blocks the atmospheric perspective. In my area there is trepidation at every street corner where a 2 metre breach could occur, followed by mouthed apologies or scowls and behind-back tutting. The metaphysical spaces in the paintings expect a gliding tumble-weed or a mysterious figure to jump out from behind a column. I experienced the very real danger which remains in the city’s roads when only a week into lockdown another cyclist recklessly shot out from the pavement and crashed into my side, smashing a brake and scraping off some paint.

The Red Tower, Giorgio De Chirico, 1913 © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome

On my more cautious journey through London, I arrived at Trafalgar Square. A row of homeless sit about a metre apart along the wall before the National Gallery, all the while police vans circle like vultures. And then, I’m onto Pall Mall’s wide-open stretch.

De Chirico founded the Scuola Metafisica with fellow artist Carlo Carrà in 1917. The artists interpreted metaphysics using the theories of Friedrich Nietzsche, in search of metaphysical unity in their art, to depict what binds the ‘unseen’.

In aphorism 280, The Gay Science, the philosopher insists that building creates the world because it protects the human condition and supports an appreciation of nature:

“There is and probably will be a need to perceive what our great cities lack above all: still, wide, extensive places for reflection; places with tall, spacious, lengthy colonnades… buildings and places that express as a whole the sublimity of stepping aside to take thought for oneself.”

The language reflects the imagery adapted by De Chirico, and metaphysical navigation is somewhat pertinent today when we are all doing a bit of introspection; meanwhile the world’s social-political and economic infrastructure is strained under the pressure of the COVID-19 infectious agent.

Image by Lewis Duncan

Pall Mall is calm and expansive. In the city, the scale of the stage is unprecedented - and only realised when the streets are cleared. Yet even so, outside Buckingham Palace police have to announce on a loudspeaker that those who are not exercising must move on, and restrictions are still in place and will be enforced - surreal, like something from a post-apocalyptic thriller. Passing through these spaces, the city reveals itself as alienating and akin to urban solitude, incubating a late-capitalist condition. Moreover the ‘metaphysical city’ does not offer the tranquility it depicts; De Chirico inspired elements of Fascist urbanism (such as Mussolini’s Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana). This is the dark depths of the ocean De Chirico described.

In Living with Buildings: And Walking with Ghosts – On Health and Architecture, Ian Sinclair describes the residents of Golden Lane Estate as they fight against the health implications of ‘The Denizen’, another rampant developer land grab shooting-up all over the city - part of the late capitalist city, where speed and space manifest as glass and elevators. On my route I cycle along Golden Lane, the no-man’s land between the estate and the development, but all is quiet for now. Some major works have stopped, and the residents of the estate won’t suffer the pollution. On the other hand, the estate tennis courts and playgrounds have been closed for lockdown making it difficult to fully recuperate. Sinclair’s musings on the city and health accompanied an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection last year. He walks from the Wellcome in Euston to Vernon Rise, the Courtauld's temporary location. Usually on my cycle to uni I am peddling in a cloud of bus fumes. With the lack of cars on the road the city can breathe.

Sinclair highlights how architecture can aim to heal illness, but also how architecture exacerbates sick people. For example, Modernism’s response to tuberculosis and Le Corbusier’s inclusion of solariums in his sanitary ‘machines for living’. But in the Golden Lane Estate case, the residents are inundated by inner-city pollution.

In 1918, the Spanish Flu pandemic infected 500 million people and took an estimate of between 17 million and 50 million lives. De Chirico suffered chronic stomach ailments but evaded the flu, although the deadly influenza did kill his greatest advocate, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. De Chirico’s paintings of the period do not reference the pandemic overtly, instead, the artist pursued a number of indoor still life images.

The Anxious Journey, Giorgio De Chirico, 1913 © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome

Inspired by De Chirico, Edward Hopper’s paintings have garnered attention for their expression of lockdown living indoors. There is a slight tension in Hopper’s figures as they operate in isolation. Steve McQueen’s pastiche work Deadpan 1997 has the A-frame timber house fall flat on the artist like a Buster Keaton sketch, and Gordon Matta Clark’s Splitting 1974 also literally deconstructs the domestic space, as a response to light and conceptualising domestic notions. These collapsable and transient stage-like structures like De Chirico’s metaphysical city that can be traced back to his time designing theatre sets for the opera in Florence. The fragility and separation in the household will feature in the ‘new normal’ that will last until a COVID-19 vaccine.

By 1919, De Chirico had renounced not only metaphysical and surrealist painting, but all of modern art. By revisiting traditional iconography and techniques in neoclassical and baroque styles, he was widely disregarded by artistic circles. He would later repaint his earlier paintings which sold better, as an ironic jab because he believed his practice had matured since. Architectural history experiences a recycling and evolution of styles, but developing cities and technological advances seem to focus more on innovation. Anticipating the move to softening lockdown measures, I am keen to re-engage with my own city and make the most of what’s on offer, while travelling abroad will from here on out be by train over plane. This refocus could lead to safer and smarter cities, but the strength of global cities might wane post-Coronavirus.

South Korea’s quick and invasive action using tracking technology and surveillance is rightly being lauded as a success over COVID-19, and in turn has supported speed’s efficacy. My worry is London’s cuts, scars, aches, and pains are often due to overexertion, ill-conceived plans, and quick fixes. My cycling didn’t identify anywhere new and fresh, which highlights a lack of genuinely healthy spaces in London. In parks we find refuge, but for now, ‘park-life’ is a sort of simulation of healthiness in urban space. The route I took through dense buildings made me realise that London is already so built-up, so perhaps it is not with the architecture, but with the reinjection of people where a shift may occur, back to when it was so easy, enjoyable and healthy to cycle through an empty city. Even as the country begins to pick up the pace again, we might be more inclined to think before we move and track our movements carefully when we wake up from the De Chirico-esque dreamscape.


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