The Stupidity of All Mankind
by GIORGIO DE CHIRICO
In 1935 the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico spent over a year in New York. It was his first trip to America.
I was disgusted by the low level, material and moral, to which painting in Paris had sunk. I therefore followed the advice of a friend and after a short rest in Tuscany I had a certain number of canvases packed up and left for New York.
I embarked one August morning, at Genoa, on the liner Roma. It was infernally hot and the liner was like an enormous floating boiler. In addition, the continual motion of the ship made me terribly ill. I was also very depressed in myself. Isabella had not been able to leave with me. On the boat were many parties of young Americans returning home from holidays in Europe and they made an infernal din; these noisy young people caused a good deal of disturbance and all this increased my physical and moral discomfort. The voyage from Genoa to New York has remained in my mind as one of the worst memories of my life.
Finally, after nine days of pitching and tossing and the deafening noise made by the young Yankees, we arrived in New York; the sea was soapy and warm, the light that of a greenhouse or aquarium, the temperature equal to that of a Turkish bath, and I was dead tired. I was so impatient to reach the end of this infernal trip that I had not been able to sleep during the night before arrival and spent the entire time on deck. With the first light of morning the skyscrapers of Wall Street appeared on the horizon; I thought of Babylon and of certain archaeological reconstructions modelled in plaster of Paris I had seen in a museum in Germany.
A damp heat, a tropical, mineshaft heat, hung over the oily water in the harbour. The sun could not been seen; men and objects had lost their shadows; a diffused light, as though we were in a photographer’s studio at the end of the last century, hung over everything.
After the interminable formalities of passports, visas, interrogations, customs and even a medical examination, I succeeded in leaving the floating boiler. On the quay, in an atmosphere saturated with strange odours, Isabella’s aunt and uncle, a lady and gentleman whom I had met in Paris, were waiting for me. Meeting these two people, who were so noble, cordial and understanding, consoled and encouraged me greatly. I had barely set foot on American soil when I felt a great nostalgia for Europe, for any European country whatsoever, even for the least beautiful, even for the least interesting.
It was strange how in the city of New York I felt I had died and been born again on another planet. Those smooth, monotonous buildings, from which protruded no balcony, no capital or column, no cornice, no ornament, no pole or nail, alarmed me greatly. I thought with nostalgia of the warmth and humanity of the baroque style, the Second Empire style, and even the Umbertino style and art nouveau. I consoled myself by remembering that I had come there for my work, for my paintings. I thought that Isabella would soon join me and that I must bury myself with my exhibitions and that afterwards I would be back in that old, harassed, awkward but, all things considered, pleasing Europe.
Later I discovered in New York a certain beauty, a certain metaphysic, but I will speak of this another time.
I came to know a few art dealers and realised that there also, as in Paris, the disgraceful totalitarianism of those who trafficked in painting still persisted. Among those I met was Mr. Julien Levy, who was the classic type of good, well-educated American Jew and who, among all the art dealers I met in New York, Americans, Frenchmen, Germans and Poles, seemed to me the most honest and intelligent and, although in his gallery he often exhibited the ‘daubs’ of the modern painters, he was the least intellectual and the least snobbish of all of them. It was decided that Julien Levy would hold an exhibition of my work at the end of October.
In the meantime I met Dr Barnes, whom I had known in Paris and who owned twenty-five of my paintings, including a portrait of him which I had painted during one of his many stays in the French capital. Dr Barnes had a passionate love of painting and near Philadelphia, at a place called Merion, he has founded a type of museum where all the paintings he bought in Paris have been put together. The method used by Dr Barnes to attract the attention of his contemporaries towards his museum consists in being as contrary and misanthropic as humanly possible; it is the same method, with a few variations, as that of Derain. Special permits have to be obtained to visit the Barnes’ museum; there are some imbeciles who even make the journey from other American cities, a whole day by rail away from Philadelphia, in order to visit the museum, after interviews, telephone calls and long waits. Many people return home having failed in their purpose, after a categoric refusal from the Doctor.
There is no doubt, as Renan says, that the stupidity of mankind is as infinite as the universe, otherwise there is no explanation as to why people apparently of sound mind will go to so much trouble and make so many efforts to see one of those pictures which can be seen in any gallery or at any dealer’s in Europe and the States. One need only tell the Americans that at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and at the Frick Gallery in the same city they can see such collection and such quantities of masterpieces that a hundred Barnes’ put together, collecting paintings for the whole century, could not have exhibited even half as many.
In the meantime autumn came; Julian Levy’s gallery had inaugurated my exhibition which had achieved an outstanding success; various paintings were sold; dollars poured in; I opened a current account with the Chemical Bank and Trust Company. After the pettiness, avarice and meanness of Paris during the crisis period I confess although I have never been mercenary, the receipt of this money did in fact give me a certain pleasure and a certain sense of security. In the meantime Isabella had arrived from Europe and I had begun to work again.
Life rushed by. For me it was not the ideal life, but in fact I worked and when I work I am always more or less calm and happy. Some magazines, including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, asked me for illustrations and I did some, but I must confess that the atmosphere of these magazines, just like other atmospheres where the snobbery of American elegance flourished, were totally unpleasing to me, for I have observed in them such stupidity, such ignorance, such ill-will, such cynicism and such disguised vulgarity that in comparison the lowest illiterate Neapolitan beggar, thief and pimp seems a genius, a gentleman and a saint.
Winter passed and spring passed. Summer came, the terrible American summer. Since I had agreed to hold another exhibition, again in Julien Levy’s gallery, in the following autumn, Isabella and I decided to remain in the States. The heat, however, was suffocating and we sought a little coolness by a strange beach called Oyster Bay. The place was a few miles from New York. We left by train and arrived at a place where we took a kind of mail coach or bus which went to our holiday destination.
I had rented a bungalow there, a small villa built of wood and consisting of a ground floor and a first floor. The beach was very ugly: not a single rock or a single villa. For ugliness it even surpassed the beach between Poveromo and Forte dei Marmi, which is saying a lot. Strangely shaped trees, which I believe no professor of botany would have succeeded in classifying, were scattered here and there, as though by mistake.
We lived a monotonous life by the sea, in a humid, colonial heat. We passed most of the day on the beach, lying in the sun and sometimes going in the water. When I lay on my back I made drawings, in order to keep my hand in, of the bathers who surrounded me. At night we were disturbed by the shrill sound of some kind of nocturnal crickets which made an infernal din from a kind of tree which local people said were oaks. In fact, the ground beneath the trees was covered with acorns, but the trees bore no more resemblance to oaks than does a sewing machine to a lightning conductor.
Autumn came. The atmosphere (in a metaphorical sense) of autumn in New York has nothing in common with the classic atmosphere of the good old autumn sung by the poets and writers of our dear old Europe during the last century. No leaves falling, no melancholy, memories, yearning, and nostalgia for the villas and castles left behind and the abandoned beaches; nothing, adieu vive clarte de nos etes trop courts! No heartbroken accents of the romantic poets. If Victor Hugo had lived in New York he would never have been able to write those beautiful lines:
Quand novembre de brume inonde le ciel bleu,
Que le vent tourbillonne et qu’il neige des feuilles
O ma muse en mon âme alors tu te recueilles,
Comme un enfant transi qui s’approche de feu.
Even less, O reader, will you find in New York, in autumn, that ineffable melancholy, that strange, distant and profound poetry that Nietzsche discovered in the clear autumn afternoons, especially when they lie over certain Italian cities such as Turin.
During autumn in New York you are either oppressed by the duration of the damp heat, or you are subjected to cyclones with downpours of torrential rain which are reminiscent of certain old American films, and galoshes, umbrellas and raincoats with hoods are powerless against them.
I came back to exhibit at the Julien Levy gallery; I had worked hard during the year in the States. I had made progress with my research into technique and I had perfected the preparation of primings. Many works which I had exhibited on this second occasion were superior as regards quality of painting and plastic power to those shown at my first exhibition. The critics took an interest and several articles appeared, not very intelligent but fairly favourable, together with reproductions of my paintings, in the magazines and newspapers.
Naturally the critics, as always as in every country, had understood nothing of the quality of my pictures and spoke only about the subject matter. In the meantime I had begun to tire of the States. During my stay there, in July 1936 to be precise, I received the very sad news that my mother had died. A few months previously my brother had written that our mother’s health was declining, and the feeling that I was at the time so far away from her, with that vast ocean between, made me very sad.
One night I had a dream; I dreamt that I was in Greece, in the countryside near Athens; I saw those trees and bushes which I had seen during my childhood, and the place where I found myself in my dream was somewhere I once went to paint a landscape with a friend of my own age. In my dream I saw the olives and pine trees just as I had seen them in my distant childhood, and between the trees I saw the back of a little church painted pink, with its small apse jutting out and a door at the side, just as I had painted them so many years before. Suddenly my mother appeared among the olives and walked towards the little church. I wanted to go and meet her, but I could not move. I wanted to call out to her, but my voice failed, my heart filled with worry and anguish. I saw my mother, who seemed very old, small, bent, weak and unsteady on her feet, just as I remembered her from the last time I had seen her in Paris. I saw my mother pass like a shadow near the apse of the little church, come up to the side door and then disappear.
I woke up troubled and weeping and with the terrible thought that my mother had died just at that moment: in fact, when ten days later I read the letter from my brother in which he told me that our mother was alive no longer, I compared the date of the letter with that of my dream and, taking into account the difference in time between the United States and Europe, I realised that this really was the case.
I decided to return to Italy.
You can purchase the memoirs of Giorgio de Chirico, translated by Margaret Crosland, here.