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Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978)
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Author: Klaus Podoll 23. March 2005
Edited by: Klaus Podoll

Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978)

Fondazione Giorgio e Isa de Chirico

The Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico is more and more appreciated as one of the emblematic figures of 20th century art. He has developed the style of "metaphysical art" and is seen as one of the forerunners of surrealism. Whereas current interpretations of his work by art historians and art critics focus on the literary and philosophical sources of de Chirico's poetics, e.g. the writings from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the British neurologist G.N. Fuller and the art historian M.V. Gale suggested, in a paper published as early as 1988 in the British Medical Journal, that migraine with aura may have acted as a basis for several unusual and recurrent features of his "Pittura metafisica". According to Dr Fuller's recollection, "the collaboration arose because I shared a house with my sister and one of our lodgers (and now my brother in law) Matthew Gale was doing a PhD on de Chirico (he is now a curator at the Tate). I inevitably saw some of his pictures - and thought they looked like migraine aura and Matthew was able to confirm that de Chirico was indeed often ill - and reviewing his writings led us to the conclusion that he had migraine..." (Email to Klaus Podoll, May 28, 2005).

Visual art and the brain

"In a review of de Chirico's autobiographical writings, Nicola and Podoll (2003; Podoll and Nicola, 2004) have found the artist's experiences to be consistent with a history of migraine." (Liu and Miller, 2008, p. 484)

Liu A, Miller BL. Visual art and the brain. In: Goldenberg G, Miller BL (eds), Handbook of Clinical Neurology, Vol. 88 (3rd series), Neuropsychology and behavioral neurology, Elsevier B.V., 2008, p. 471-489.

Reconsidering the notion of de Chirico's migraine aura as source of his artistic inspiration, Ubaldo Nicola and Klaus Podoll (2002, 2003) have systematically examined his published works as painter and writer, including his "Memoirs", the semi-autobiographical novels "Hebdomeros" and "Mister Dudron" and his collected essays. References to migraine aura symptoms were identified according to phenomenal similarities not only with clinical descriptions of such phenomena as established in neurological semeiology, but also with the paintings and drawings from the Migraine Art collection which currently consists of 562 pieces.

Neuroaesthetics, Neurological Disorders and Creativity

"Chirico is the most famous of the painters of the twentieth century with a supposed migrainous visual aura. Can be mentioned as example of his works where the visual aura may be seen, lithographs 'Calligrammes' of 1930 , 'Mythologie' of 1933 and the oil painting 'Le retour au château' of 1969 (Fuller & Gale, 1988). Ubaldo Nicola and Klaus Podoll (2003) shown how the migrainous visual experiences by Chirico are at the origins of paintings but also of texts including Mémoires, Hebdomeros and some essays."

(Hervé-Pierre Lambert, Neuroaesthetics, Neurological Disorders and Creativity, February 21, 2009)

The available documents provided unexpectedly rich evidence for a diagnosis of migraine with aura, as summarized in the monograph "The aura of Giorgio de Chirico - Migraine Art and Metaphysical Painting" (available here at Google Books).

Nicola & Podoll, L'aura di Giorgio de Chirico, 2003. © 2003 Mimesis Edizioni

As an expansion of Fuller' and Gale's previously reported findings, it was possible to document familiarity, childhood onset and a wide range of symptoms of de Chirico's migraine with aura as described in his writings. Blanke and Landis (2003) objected that the available evidence suggests a diagnosis of temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) rather than migraine, but major criticisms can be raised against their selection and interpretation of data (Podoll and Nicola, 2004; Podoll and Nicola, 2007) and according to the present author's opinion they failed to demonstrate convincing links between the assumed diagnosis of TLE and de Chirico's metaphysical painting (Blanke and Landis, 2004). Vanni (2008) suggested a psychiatric disorder, viz. somatisation disorder, to account for de Chirico's paroxysmal neurological (in Vanni's opinion, pseudoneurological) symptoms.

On September 12, 2009, in a lecture [more] delivered at the 14th Congress of the International Headache Society in Philadelphia on September 12, 2009, the Dutch neurologist Joost Haan related: "I do not believe that migraine was an inspiration for ... de Chirico" (Partridge, 2009), his main argument against a diagnosis of migraine in the case of de Chirico being the assumed lack of migraine headaches as jugded from de Chirico's "Memoirs" (see Podoll and Nicola, 2007, for a refutation of this argument). It is worth mentioning that in his book Migraine as a Muse, which was released earlier the same year (cf. Haan and Meulenberg, 2009), he did not express doubts on the said diagnosis in de Chirico ("Gustav Mahler, Giorgio de Chirico, Immanuel Kant, Blaise Pascal en Sigmund Freud leden hun migraine", op. cit., p. 10) but just on its impact on de Chirico's art ("Het is maar de vraag of ze zonder hun migraine zoveel bereikt zouden hebben", op. cit., p. 10).

Symptoms of migraine documented in Giorgio de Chirico's writings

abdominal complaints (abdominal migraine)
gustatory hallucinations
visual hallucinations ("spiritual fevers")
asthenopic scotoma
autokinesis (apparent movement of stationary objects)
recurrent dreams
somatosensory symptoms
depersonalization-derealization syndrome
déjà vu
jamais vu

Analysis of de Chirico's essays on his notion of "revelation" and his autobiographical report on the creation of his first metaphysical painting (The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon, 1909) demonstrate that migraine aura phenomena − especially paramnesias (jamais and déjà vu) and visual phenomena - can be identified at the heart of the painter's creative process during the formative years of development of his unique style of metaphysical art.

Giorgio de Chirico, The enigma of an autumn afternoon, 1909. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2007

Giorgio de Chirico's revelation in Florence, 1909

"... let me recount how I had the revelation of a picture that I will show this year at the Salon d'Automne, entitled Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon. One clear autumnal afternoon I was sitting on a bench in the middle of the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. It was of course not the first time I had seen this square. I had just come out of a long and painful intestinal illness [abdominal migraine], and I was in a nearly morbid state of sensitivity [hypersensitivity to light and noise; migraine aura phenomena]. The whole world, down to the marble of the buildings and the fountains, seemed to me to be convalescent. In the middle of the square rises a statue of Dante draped in a long cloak, holding his works clasped against his body, his laurel-crowned head bent thoughtfully earthward. The statue is in white marble, but time has given it a grey cast, very agreeable to the eye [photophobia]. The autumn sun, warm and unloving [photophobia; exposure to sun as trigger factor of migraine attack], lit the statue and the church façade. Then I had the strange impression that I was looking at all these things for the first time [jamais vu], and the composition of my picture came to my mind's eye. Now each time I look at this painting I again see that moment. Nevertheless the moment is an enigma to me, for it is inexplicable. And I like also to call the work which sprang from it an enigma."

(Giorgio de Chirico, Parisian manuscripts; cited from Soby, 1955, p. 251; additions in square brackets by Klaus Podoll)

Migraine aura experiences presenting as flashes of a sense of surrealism

"I have started just since Christmas, getting a strange new symptom prior to migraines -- a surrealistic rainbow halo around my vision. Granted it is usually faint, but it seems like this has become a new precursor to the onset of a migraine. Is it just me? Or is this something the rest of you experience and if so, how do you handle it?"

(Al and Sharon Amabile, Newsgroups: alt.support.headache.migraine, Subject: New symptom, March 27, 2001)

"Suddenly, a sense of surrealism flashed before me and for a minute I thought this daze was some kind of divine inspiration. But then I realized it was noon and 24 hours had passed since my last meal, if breadsticks deserve to be called a meal... As I walked into GC, my head felt swollen and my brain numb, but this numbness was a strange one. I analyzed this feeling a little more in-depth, and although thinking appeared awfully hard to do, I was able to realize the fact that I had a huge migraine."

(Andrea Martini, Finals week, college enslaves students to stress, The Beacon - The Student Newspaper of Florida International University, April 29, 2002)

"Had visual disturbances about two and a half hours ago. The blind spot quite quickly turned into a bright jagged lightning bolt and a feeling of pressure built up around left temple. Mentally, everything felt very surreal as if logic suddenly took a holiday.This used to scare me witless, but now I know what to expect."

(Anonymous, Zhurnal Wiki a.k.a. ^zhurnal , the journal of ^z = Mark Zimmermann, Topic Personal History - Migraine Visions, August 8, 2004)

A comparison of de Chirico's pictorial work with images drawn and painted by other migraine sufferers shows striking similarities which suggest headaches, photophobia, scotoma, visual hallucinations and illusions as well as body image disturbances like macrosomatognosia and out-of-body experiences as sources of his artistic inspiration.

(top) Giorgio de Chirico, Ritratto di Apollinaire, 1914. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2007 (bottom) Migraine Art: Photophobia. © 2007
Migraine Action Association and Boehringer Ingelheim

(top) Giorgio de Chirico, Il bagnante solitario, 1934. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2007 (bottom) Migraine Art: Visual aura with parallel zigzags. © 2007 Migraine Action Association and Boehringer Ingelheim

(top) Giorgio de Chirico, Sole sul
cavaletto, 1972. © VG
, Bonn 2007 (right) Migraine Art: Visual aura with radial symmetrical patterns. © 2007 Migraine Action Association and Boehringer Ingelheim

(top) Giorgio de Chirico, Il giorno di festa, 1914. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2007 (bottom) Migraine Art: Metamorphopsia. © 2007 Migraine Action Association and Boehringer Ingelheim

(top) Giorgio de Chirico, Autoritrattio (con ombra), 1920. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2007 (bottom) Migraine Art: Out-of-body experience with duplicate phantom body. © 2007 Migraine Action Association and Boehringer Ingelheim

Giorgio de Chirico: The artist and his double

The notion of the double has attracted the attention of both scientists and artists, as has recently been shown in a documentary film by Daniel Müller, "The Second Body" (2003). Among other examples from the history of art, the film includes a sequence about Giorgio de Chirico's double as represented in his Self-portrait (with shadow) from 1920.

The white shape of a life-sized human body with the characteristic profile of de Chirico's head is depicted back to the artist's physical body which is represented in full colour and detail. The white human-shaped figure is in its entirety located in the invisible sector of space behind the artist's head, which clearly excludes an interpretation in terms of heautoscopy or seeing one's double, but rather indicates an out-out-body experience with the somesthetic sensation of a duplicate or parasomatic body with an extracampine localization behind the physical body. The apparent merging of the artist's physical body and his duplicate body suggests that de Chirico has depicted the process of either separation or return of the parasomatic body from or to the physical body, respectively.

Our explanation in terms of an out-of-body experience, which may occur as a migraine aura symptom, complies with previous interpretations of the artist's self-portrait with shadow. Thus, Wieland Schmied (1980) wrote: "Behind the artist in his dark jacket a bright, almost white shadow turns away. It is as if his alter ego detached itself from him, as if a part of his self left him." Fagiolo dell'Arco (1984) gave the following interpretation: "The most surprising peculiarity consists of the white shadow which detaches itself from his body and looks outwards, quasi transforming into an animistic double (in 1919, in an important writing, de Chirico spoke of the 'Ka, a double of ours ...'". In fact, in de Chirico's essay 'Metaphysical art and occult sciences', the painter has referred to "the fact of considering the possibility of existence of immaterial forms, of imagining a double of ours, a Ka of ours... made up of fluids and of incorporeal substances".

A painting exhibition "Migraine Art: Works and Words Between Headache and Metaphysics?", was organized by the Accademia Romana del Mal di Testa (A.Ro.Ma.T), Alleanza Cefalalgici (Al.Ce.Group - CIRNA Foundation) and the University Center for Adaptive Disorders and Headache (UCADH) as an event accompanying the XI Congress of the International Headache Society (IHC 2003) in Rome, Italy, 13th - 16th September 2003. The show was displayed at the Circolo Brutium at Via IV Novembre 152, curated by the Cà d'Oro Gallery, in collaboration with the Giorgio and Isa de Chirico Foundation − with 18 oil paintings and four calligraphies by Giorgio de Chirico.

Exhibition "ARTeMICRANIA: opere e parole tra mal di testa e metafisica?" (Migraine Art: Works and Words Between Headache and Metaphysics?), Rome, September 10-17, 2003. © 2003 Galleria Cà d'Oro

Opening of the Exhibition "Migraine Art: Works and Words Between Headache and Metaphysics?", Rome, September 11, 2003. From left to right: "Gloria Porcella, Prof. Giuseppe Nappi, On. Pino Nisticò, Avv. Paolo Picozza." (see here) © 2003 Galleria Cà d'Oro

The present endeavour of a sort of "neuro-psycho-pathography" of de Chirico's life and work contributes fresh evidence to the current discussions on the discipline of neuroesthetics founded by Semir Zeki in the 1990s, demonstrating the impact of a spectrum of neuropsychological phenomena resulting from a neurological disorder, viz. migraine, on one of the greatest artistic revolutions in the 20th century. However, one must not misunderstood the identification of Giorgio de Chirico's migraine as a source of inspiration in the sense of a unidimensional reductionism. In "Mister Dudron", de Chirico wrote: "One must decoct a very precise and special dosage from the various sources from which one draws one's inspiration." To explore these various sources of meaning is the fascinating adventure offered to the viewer by de Chirico's "Pittura metafisica".

Exploring the Influences of Artists Who Experience Migraine With Aura

"Dr Podoll has found that artists with migraine are often particularly attracted to the works of other artists who share their migraine experiences. These shared experiences 'act like a filter,' contributing to the an artist's perspective and leading to 'elective affinities between migraine-inspired artists,' he said. In a presentation at the 14th annual International Headache Congress in Philadelphia, titled 'Elective Affinities Between Migraine-Inspired Artists,' Dr Podoll discussed the influence that migraine art has on other artists with migraine. 'The notion of elective affinities between migraine-inspired artists relates to the idea that the passion and interest that one artist may take in the work and life of another artist may be governed or regulated by their sharing of the experience of migraine aura as artistic inspiration,' he said. ... Contemporary artist J. J. Ignatius Brennan discussed his interest in works by Giorgio de Chirico, who had migraine with aura. In art school, Mr Brennan's tutor pointed out that there were similarities in their work, especially in the way that shapes were put together ... 'When I first saw [the work of Giorgio de Chirico], it was love at first sight,' said Mr Brennan. 'De Chirico's migraine experiences also determined-like a filter-his perspective of reception of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose writings have previously been thought to have been the primary source of De Chirico's metaphysical art,' said Dr Podoll. It has been well documented that Nietzsche had migraine. He described the effects of this on his work: 'In the midst of the torments brought on by an uninterrupted 3-day headache accompanied by the laborious vomiting of phlegm, I possessed a dialectician's clarity par excellence, and I then thought out things, for which when I am in better health I am not enough of a climber, not refined, not cold enough.'" (Partridge, 2009)


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Reviews of the book by Nicola and Podoll (2003)

Anonymous. L'arte di de Chirico? Solo mal di testa. La Provincia Pavese, June 15, 2003
Anonymous. L'emicrania di De Chirico? Segno di genialità. La Provincia Pavese, June 17, 2003.
Audisio E. Il mal di testa "metafisico" di Giorgio de Chirico. La Repubblica, June 15, 2003.
babino c. Giorgio de Chirico - Canto d’amore. Exibart.com March 15, 2006.
babino c. Giorgio de Chirico - Canto d’amore. Exibart.com September 25, 2009.
BBC World.service com "Outlook" Edition from Friday 26 September 2003 (online audio interview featuring an interview with Klaus Podoll on the subject of de Chirico's migraine)
Giacovazzo M. L'arte di de Chirico? La cefalea non c'entra. Sfatato il rapporto tra Metafisica e mal di testa. Il Tempo, January 2004 (lost webpage)
Gramiccia R. Le emicranie di de Chirico. Liberazione, August 6, 2003.
Picascia ML. Recensione. Confinia Cephalalgica 2003; 12:179-180.
Ticini LF. Elogio del dolore. STILE arte n. 70, July/August 2003.

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