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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).
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.
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).
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
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
Bild-Kunst, 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
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".
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