Lighting up the terrain

Great art celebrates. It also warns. In our time, the impulses are often one and the same. The modern messenger - the writer, the painter, the poet - celebrates life by warning against whatever diminishes it. Often unwittingly. Did that shy insurance assessor, Franz Kafka, know the prophetic urgency of his literary parables? Or how history would so dangerously fulfill them? Could Giorgio de Chirico have foretold the uncanny accuracy his painting would hold for later generations?

It's a thought that struck me at a recent exhibition of de Chirico's work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Obviously, it had struck others as well. The air buzzed with a single topic: de Chirico's startling prescience, his ability to evoke the mood of an age as yet unborn. Like Kafka, he seized and prefigured the themes that only in time would be our own. In canvas after canvas , de Chirico wrestles with a distinctly modern vision: man disenfranchised from his sources. The art world would later label it Surrealism. But even in 1914, de Chirico knew it for what it was: the landscape of anxiety, the terrain of twentieth-century life.

De Chirico, like Kafka, was haunted by the inhuman. His canvases are inventories of its guises: menacing towers, shuttered windows, deserted squares. It's a climate of claustrophobia, unrelieved by images of escape. Trains puff to nowhere; ships sail within bricked walls. The tension is fed by de Chirico's color scheme - reds that won't warm, blues that shiver. Under icy skies, solitary figures cast shadows twice their size. In these scenes, there are people but, one feels, no witnesses - a sense de Chirico heightens by his use of light. It is the light of the interrogator's lamp. Unforgiving. Faceless.

In time, de Chirico would consolidate this vision, shaping it into the terrifying world of Kafka's Trial. A world of towers and mazes, brutal and unrelenting in their authority, it is a world bereft of humanity. A world without fathers. Like Dali and the later Surrealists whom he would so profoundly influence, de Chirico eventually fell prey to a highly personal vocabulary. After 1918 his work lost much of its original power, its symbols leeched by an arid intellectualism.

De Chirico's finest period, to which ''The Anguish of Departure'' belongs, was his so-called ''metaphysical'' period, which spanned between 1912 and 1916. The paintings of this period are charged with a strange poetic intensity. They're dream fugues, lyrical evocations of loss and departure. Love's mystery is everywhere.

''The Anguish of Departure'' is one of the great examples of de Chirico's metaphysical style. Completed in 1914, his most prolific year, it's a haunting simplification of the symbols de Chirico would use over and over: the tower, the wagon and the shuttered house. Emblems of alienation, for de Chirico they stood for a society moving faster than its conscience. One that had somehow defaulted in its humanity.

What the Greek-born artist was responding to in particular was the dehumanizing industrialization of his adopted Milan and Turin. But that's not what we see now. The modern viewer is burdened with impossible information. He sees the unsettling clairvoyance of de Chirico's scene. Thirty years before its time, the artist has painted the camps of our century: the cattle car, the wall, the furnace. The shuttered windows. The silence. It's not what de Chirico intended, but, rather, what history enacted.

What's at issue here is the validity of an artist's antennae. All art, on one level, is the permanent register of an intuition. For de Chirico it was the gathering of horror. It's not the shape intuition takes for an artist that matters, but his moral duty to record it. And ours to assess it. To dismiss de Chirico or Kafka as hopelessly morbid is to miss the point. Like all art, theirs is a vital exaggeration of feeling.

To read the letters of either man is to know that each was searching for light, not darkness. But if their faith was luminous, its message was difficult. Both were terrified of a world sterilized of memory; a world, therefore, without hope. In this theme alone they earn the title Modernist. In their dark warnings is the urgency of protecting a world we stand to lose. To warn, they knew, is to protect; to protect is to love. It is an act of intuition on their part, of recognition on ours. And in that meeting lies the future itself.

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