Text by Geoffrey Smith
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The poet, writer and critic Guillaume Apollinaire (Wilhelm Albert Wladimir Apolinary de Kostrowitcki) was born in Rome in 1880, the illegitimate son of a beautiful, aristocratic, but feckless Polish mother, Angélique-Alexandrine Kostrowitcka. The identity of his father is unknown but may have been an Italian army officer (he always relished the uncertainty surrounding his paternity and hinted at other candidates including a cardinal). The young Apollinaire was placed under the protection of the Bishop of Monaco and was educated at various schools in the French Riviera before moving to Paris with his mother in 1899.
Whilst engaged in a number of mundane jobs, Apollinaire attended literary evenings and gradually became acquainted with a number of poets. In late 1903 (or possibly early 1904) he was introduced to Picasso and his circle after which he rapidly became a central figure in the life of avant-garde Paris, writing extensively on the ‘new art’, championing Cubism and Fauvism and counting the great names associated with these new ideas, from Braque and Picasso to Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp, as his friends.
Georgio de Chirico was also drawn to the cultural magnet of Paris like so many of his contemporaries. He arrived in July 1911 and, after recovering from illness, he exhibited paintings at the Salon d’Automne of 1912 and again in 1913 (when he sold one picture). In the same year he started to attend Saturday gatherings organised by Apollinaire. The poet became a friend, providing encouragement and inspiration for de Chirico and coining the word ‘metaphysical’ to describe his work.
In this painting the ‘portrait’ refers to the silhouette ‘projected’ on the Veronese green background or sky and not, as one might expect on an initial glance, the monochrome bust with the incongruous sunglasses in the foreground. This classical bust may represent a generalised metaphor of poetry or ‘the poet’ – the dark glasses might hide blind eyes – but, as with most of de Chirico’s work, precise interpretations remain elusive. The object which dominates the right hand section of the composition is an out-of-scale kitchen mould or baking tin. The indented images of the fish and the shell are used extensively in Christian and classical iconography. The fish is linked with fertility and is the early Christian symbol of Christ the saviour; the sea shell is symbolic of femininity and birth (as in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus). Crammed between the giant mould and the right hand edge of the painting we can see a single dark, blind, arch culled from one of the sinister arcades that populate so many of de Chirico’s metaphysical pictures and help to make them so unsettling.
Three planes enclose the bust imparting a claustrophobic feel as though the viewer is confined to the bottom of a box. The silhouette of Apollinaire appears in the space above these undefined planes. The white circle described upon the head of the poet may be a reference to a duelling target but it gained a curious significance two years later when Apollinaire, having volunteered to join the French army, received a shrapnel wound to the head in the precise area delineated by de Chirico’s circle – hence the initial word of the painting’s title.
De Chirico’s metaphysical paintings had an obvious and profound influence on the Surrealists (the term is another Apollinaire invention). In his work he constructed a world where everyday objects take on a new significance merely by their unexpected juxtaposition with articles which, in another context would remain unremarkable. A decade and more later the Surrealists enthusiastically tapped this rich source of inspiration.
1914 Franz Marc: Composition III, Hagen, Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum
1914 Robert Delaunay: Homage to Blériot, Basel, Kunstmuseum