I’ve worked at the Phillips for almost six years and until recently, I hadn’t seen this curious painting by Giorgio de Chirico. When I think of de Chirico, images of his desolate cityscapes come to mind; apparently they’ve even been memorialized in a video game. But what about these proud, dreamy horses with their flowing tails and cascading manes? And why are they posing on the beach with classical ruins?
When de Chirico exhibited his new work—with paintings like Horses—in the 1920s, some critics decried the direction of his artwork. Poet Raymond Queneau said, “His work is divided into two parts: the first and the bad.” In the 1930s, New York Gallerist Julien Levy organized a show of de Chirico’s work, and in his correspondence with the artist he stated his preference for his “older paintings.” Levy thought the new ones had “too many horses.” Not surprisingly, de Chirico defended his recent work, “My production is very varied . . . I have many other subjects: gladiators, chariot races, mannequins, ruins and landscapes in rooms, etc., etc. There exist few painters who have the varied production that I do.”
When the exhibition opened in 1935, Levy addressed the public perception upfront, quoting Albert Barnes’s essay in the gallery press release, “De Chirico depicts horses so frequently that unless one identifies their varied compositional purposes, these paintings would be monotonous . . . De Chirico’s horses are drawn in the best sense, that is integrated units of line, color and space.”
Even after Horses entered the Phillips in 1929 it received mixed reviews. Artist John Graham wrote the museum founder congratulating him on the purchase saying, “I saw the Chirico you have chosen and must say it is one of the very best Chiricos in existance (sic), if not the best, a very beautiful painting.” By the 1950s, Duncan Phillips had a different perspective. When the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston asked to borrow the painting for an exhibition, Phillips responded “The Chirico hardly represents him at his best.”
Personally, I like this painting very much; it’s quiet and mysterious. But I think my favorite work by de Chirico might be this ad he did for the Fiat 1400 in the 1950s. I could have never imagined a Roman gladiator, Pegasus, and Fiat within the same frame!
De Chirico is just one of many artists who have collaborated with car manufacturers. If you’re interested in the intersection of cars and contemporary art, have a look at my colleague Sandy’s recent post.