Artist Spotlight: Alberto Savinio and Giorgio de Chirico

"Untitled" by Alberto Savinio, oil on canvas. Sold for £245,000 via Sotheby's (October 2015).

Hailed as the archetypal Renaissance man by French artist and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, the Italian artist Alberto Savinio (born Andrea Francesco Alberto de Chirico in 1891) was a polymathic producer of paintings, fiction, musical compositions, theatrical set designs, and numerous critical essays.

The younger brother of Giorgio de Chirico, Savinio’s career was often overshadowed by the mainstream success of his accomplished sibling; however, the relative mystery that surrounds his prolific career and diverse artistic output remains increasingly important to collectors, curators, artists, and critics alike. To celebrate the often overlooked career of Savinio, the Centre for Italian Modern Art in New York is presenting the first major US exhibition of Alberto Savinio’s work, on view until June 23, 2018. The show has a particular focus on paintings produced in Paris after 1926, where Savinio became part of an artistic circle which included Pablo Picasso, Francis Picabia, Constantin Brancusi, and Amedeo Modigliani.

While Giorgio de Chirico is more often emphasized in the art historical lineage of Metaphysical painting, early Surrealism, Magical Realism, and eventually Postmodernism, the diverse and enigmatic output of Savinio is of equal importance to this trajectory.

The Dioscuri: Two Inseparable Brothers

As many biographers have noted, Savinio and de Chirico were inseparable. They referred to themselves as the Dioscuri, after the sons of Zeus and Leda who joined the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece. Like Castor and Pollux, Savinio and Giorgio were continually on the move, travelling between Athens, Paris, and Rome.

The Departure of the Argonauts” by Alberto Savinio, oil on canvas, 1929. Sold for €228,750 via Sotheby’s (May 2010).

The brothers’ individual careers often converged. They both held a fascination with classical mythology, perhaps derived from their experiences of Athens and Rome. In their paintings, the classical world is explored through the ancient Greek notion of conceptualizing nature, whereby natural forms become architectural and human depictions are seemingly hybridized. In their paintings, this diversity is explored by merging ancient and modern worlds.

Savinio in Paris

Savinio and de Chirico moved to Paris in 1911. There they began to develop the Metaphysical style, which was applauded by Surrealists like Apollinaire. Savinio collaborated with Apollinaire on a performance piece entitled Les Chants de la mi-mort (1914) at the headquarters of Apollinaire’s literary journal. Combining music, theater, literature, and set design, the work was an important expression of Savinio’s diverse artistic output.

Left: Giorgio de Chirico, “Il Ritornante,” oil on canvas, 1918. Sold for €11,041,000 via Christie’s (February 2009); Right: Alberto Savinio, “Mother and Child,” oil on canvas, circa 1928. Sold for €288,750 via Sotheby’s (November 2011).

Savinio’s first solo exhibition was in 1927 at the Galerie Jacques Bernheim in Paris, which brought his work to the attention of the collector Leonce Rosenberg. In Rosenberg’s home, Savinio’s paintings hung alongside works by Max Ernst and Fernand Leger. Between 1927 and 1930, Savinio was a prolific producer of paintings. In works produced during this period, Savinio subverts classical representational painting techniques to create strange, parodist compositions.

Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical

Left: Giorgio de Chirico, “The Great Metaphysician,” oil on canvas, 1917. Sold for $7,175,500 via Christie’s (May 2004); Right: Giorgio de Chirico, “Metaphysical Composition,” oil on canvas, 1914. Sold for $6,130,500 via Christie’s (November 2008).

Giorgio de Chirico is largely associated with the development of the Metaphysical School of painting, but contributions made by Savinio are no less important. Biographers of de Chirico typically consider the prime of his Metaphysical period to be between 1911 and 1918, during which time he became associated with Italian artist Carlo Carrà. In works like The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913), the Metaphysical style can be seen to involve a theater-like composition, merging classical architectural and sculptural forms with everyday objects. While the Metaphysical period was relatively short-lived, its influence on Surrealism was pronounced.

Left: Giorgio de Chirico, oil on canvas, circa 1930s. Sold for £829,090 via Christie’s (October 2005); Right: Giorgio de Chirico, “The Sacred Fish,” oil on canvas, 1919. Sold for £2,254,545 via Christie’s (February 2006).

Following his Metaphysical era, de Chirico began a transformative period which was broadly vilified by his previous admirers as being too academic. After copying the work of Old Master paintings by Titian and Lorenzo Lotto, Chirico developed highly innovative egg tempera and litharge techniques. Although these paintings were not appreciated in their time, they have been retrospectively commended for their ironic blend of classicism and modernity.

As de Chirico began to lose relevance to his contemporaries after 1919, Savinio’s artistic career flourished. Savinio began to explore the concept of “mixedness” by depicting uncannily hybrid human figures.

Contemporary Legacy

Untitled” by Alberto Savinio, oil on canvas. Sold for £245,000 via Sotheby’s (October 2015).

A number of later reappraisals of de Chirico’s work have created a more ameliorative perspective on the artist’s later work. Perhaps most notably, Andy Warhol was an admirer of this late period because of the serial methods of production and the kitsch qualities of individual paintings. In 1982, a major exhibition of de Chirico’s work in MoMa New York cemented his relevance to a generation of younger artists including Francesco Clemente and Julian Schnabel. Several years later, Warhol was commissioned to produce a series of paintings “after” de Chirico. He would eventually produce 23 paintings based de Chirico’s work.

At auction, de Chirico’s early paintings command significantly higher prices than his later works. Compared to de Chirico, Savinio’s works are rarely seen at auction, which enhances their value.

Left: Giorgio de Chirico, “The Archaeologists,” oil on canvas. Sold for $946,000 via Sotheby’s (November 2015); Right: Alberto Savinio, “Untitled,” oil on canvas, circa 1926. Sold for €216,750 via Sotheby’s (May 2011).

A comparative assessment of de Chirico’s paintings and the mixed literary and painterly contributions of Savinio provides a complex layering of classicism, modernity, irony, and pastiche. Their contributions to the development of Surrealism and their retrospective appraisal by Postmodernist painters have been well acknowledged.

In Savinio’s novel Tragedia l’infanzia: A Song of Return (1948), which was published seven years before his death, he uses the metaphor of a voyage at sea in order to reminisce about his childhood. In the novel’s conclusion, Savinio reflects on the end of his journey with the knowledge that “we have left an oeuvre” – a remarkable artistic career of great complexity that will be cherished for many years to come.


Jewell, Keala, Art of Enigma: The de Chirico Brothers and the Politics of Modernism
Gowling, Elizabeth and Jennifer Mundy, On Classic Ground: Picasso, Leger, De Chirico and the New Classicism 1910-1930
Merjian, Ara H., Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City: Nietzsche, Modernism, Paris
Mondador, Arnoldo, The Dioscuri: Giorgio de Chirico and Alberto Savinio in Paris, 1924-1931
Kimmelman, Michael, An Ambitious Effort to Praise de Chirico’s Later Works
Printz, Neil, On Warhol’s “After de Chirico”
Morganl, Robert C., A Triple Alliance: de Chirico, Picabia, Warhol