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The many masks of mdoern art

Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) spent the last fifty years of his life denying his youthful genius and insisting that only his later work would achieve artistic immortality.

History, I'm certain, will disagree. In fact, it has already begun to do so, for it perceives de Chirico's early paintings of haunted courtyards, empty buildings, phantom locomotives, oddly assembled mannequins, and strange, isolated figures as among this century's best. And he sees his later, more academic and contrived works as barely fit even to be called art.

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I couldn't agree more. The canvases he produced between 1910 and 1918 were startlingly original, provocative in imagery, monumental in conception and form, and beautifully painted. On the other hand, his later works were disturbingly eclectic, pseudo-classical, rubbery in form, chalky in execution, and often quite ludicrous.

I know of no other major twentieth-century painter who was so magnificent when good, and so awful when bad.

I've often wondered why that was. I suspect partly because his mood and his attitude toward life changed as he entered his thirties, and partly because he became increasingly more professionally self-aware. His early paintings, after all, had been dominated by a brooding stillness of the sort that only exists between dreaming and waking. It was the real subject of these paintings, the element that bound them together and gave subjective significance to everything that appeared on his canvases - no matter how odd or illogical their presence there might seem.

One senses that these paintings weren't so much willed into existence as allowed to happen. They were dreams that shaped themselves on canvas. Unfortunately, however, as the second decade of this century came to an end, de Chirico, so to speak, ''woke up.'' And as that all-enveloping dreamlike stillness gradually ''evaporated,'' so did the heart and soul of his art.

De Chirico's art, at this point, was like a balloon from which the air had been withdrawn. It collapsed, leaving him creatively drained and disoriented. He still, of course, had everything else: his talent, imagination, intelligence, and ambition. But of what use were they without subject or direction?

Faced with this dilemma, de Chirico took stock of his resources. He looked more closely at the art of his contemporaries, studied the masters in the museums, and began to think. That latter activity, I suspect, was the source of his future difficulties, for he began to concoct a half-baked mythological art predicated on classical themes and forms, the techniques of the old masters, and an attitude that was more academic and illustrational than genuinely creative. He was, in other words, desperately trying to pump creative life into an empty shell - and coming up with little more than puffery and dead dreams.

It was very sad, and the art world rapidly became aware of it. Cut off from his earlier creative resources - one might even say from his genius - de Chirico was increasingly forced to invent and to concoct. He threw himself into the art of the past, and gradually began to see himself as one of modernism's greatest victims, as well as the twentieth century's only potentially great artist in the classical tradition.

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Before long he had severed all ties with his early work and had begun to denounce it (it must, after all, have been a continuing source of embarrassment that only ruthless denunciation could exorcise). He had also begun to pontificate against modernism in all its forms and manifestations.

Most of all, however, he had begun to paint his own private and very artificial version of an updated classical art that reminds us of nothing so much as Mussolini's attempt to refashion modern Rome according to his ''classical'' architectural ideals. Although some of what de Chirico produced was technically impressive, most of it was ridiculous and quite embarrassing.

If I seem harsh about his later work it is because I intend to be - though not, I hasten to add, because I lack respect for him. He is, after all, one of modernism's towering figures and the creator of some of my favorite twentieth-century works of art. No, I'm critical because of what he did to himself, and because his career can serve as an important lesson to us in our attempts to differentiate between the genuine and the artificial in art.

This confusion between the genuine and the artificial is not, of course, new. It's something that has plagued us for many years. What is new, however, is the concerted effort being made today by some of our younger painters to enthrone artificiality and a blatantly willful form of idiosyncrasy at the expense of genuine creative intuition and judgment.

I was first made aware of this roughly three years ago when paintings by some of Italy's most highly touted younger artists began appearing in American galleries. Soon after certain younger Americans and other Europeans followed suit, with art that was invariably bold, blatant, aggressive, and intentionally clumsy-looking.

It was obvious that de Chirico had served as hero and role model for several of these younger Italians. Not the early de Chirico, however, but the later. And if that wasn't discouraging enough, they had taken their cue from some of his most rubbery and artificial neoclassical works.

I don't really blame such painters as Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, Nino Longobardi, and Francesco Clemente for drawing ''inspiration'' from this work. It was, after all, part of their cultural heritage, and they have since done some mildly interesting things with what they took from it. No, what disturbs me is the apparent intensity of their attraction to de Chirico's later work, and the fact that they and quite a few others found it such a fertile and meaningful source of inspiration.

It's quite possible, of course, that this attraction was part of the younger generation's rebellion against the art establishment. If the latter thought so little of de Chirico's later work, then it was precisely this work they would choose as their model. But, while this impulse may have been part of it, I suspect that even greater importance should be attached to the fact that the younger generation actually liked and respected the very qualities in de Chirico's later work which the older generation found so offensive. So to them, grossness, artificiality, vulgarity, rubbery painting, and clumsy draftsmanship became virtues rather than vices.

I find this distressing, most particularly since art, in its deepest sense, is precisely about such things as genuineness, integrity, quality, and truth. To deny that, and to embody that denial in a painting, is to fashion something other than art. What that is may be fascinating and even of great interest, but it is not art. And I would go one step further: any advocacy of decay, chaos, regression, in a painting, print, sculpture, or any other form of expression, cannot achieve the status of art. That is something any true study of art's relation to man should make clear - unless, of course, such a study is short-circuited by an individual's or a culture's inability to distinguish between sensationalism and feeling.

The problem is not so much one of the present as of the future. What will the next generation of artists, and the next, and next, be attracted to? Will they also fall victim to this century's apparent inability to stabilize and to build upon moral, ethical, spiritual, or aesthetic grounds? And will they continue our century's mad game of demanding ever greater sense-gratification and ever more total forms of self-induced oblivion? I hope not. But I see no way of preventing it unless we keep our important priorities in their proper order.

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