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De Chirico’s “The Red Tower” May 17, 2012

Posted by Jenny in art.
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“The Red Tower” by Giorgio de Chirico, 1913

This painting shows a disjunction in time that creates a sense of melancholy, nostalgia, and uneasiness all at the same time. It speaks the language of dreams, it lays out vivid and impossible cards as on the table of a demented fortune-teller.

The statue that’s cut off at the right has the general outline of a military figure. It could be a hero who showed courage in battle or it could be a tyrant who ruled in the past—or something else entirely. The one thing that feels certain to me is that this figure lived in a time of intensity and drama, a time that has faded away. This past time has given way to a still, silent scene that is almost pastoral—except that some things don’t fit.

The giant red tower looms over a farm, but I make an equation between the time of the tower and the time of the figure on horseback, and I put both in the past. I can’t logically justify this; this is just the way it seems to me. It is the farm that seems to belong to the present, even though no human activity can be seen.

In the foreground we see one of de Chirico’s typical desolate, empty arcades, an urban scene that has been abandoned, where no people laugh or stroll or visit shops.

I’ve seen interpretations of this painting that try to make a coherent narrative out of it, but those efforts are doomed. For instance, it isn’t “people hiding from a dictator”—that is much too literal-minded.

“Love Song” (1914} has a similar arcade to the right

To me, the subject of “The Red Tower” is the passage of time. It captures the  terrible sadness of the perpetual disappearance of the present—we cannot hold time still no matter how hard we try—all things glide unstoppably into the past, where they can never be retrieved, only imperfectly remembered.

Giorgio de Chirico in 1936



1. TWL - May 19, 2012

Thanks for this thoughtful expounding of this work. I like the way you reject the simple, political explanation and instead embrace the complexity of the message.

I am also amazed at how much can be captured in a simple image.

I suspect one of the characteristics of great art is that the message and emotions communicated are complex.

Jenny - May 21, 2012

Thanks for your observations! Well, I suppose you could say that it’s amazing how much a person can read into an image…

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