the return of the prodigal

Finding yesterday a de Chirico that eerily answered my (failed) state of mind tweaked an old memory. Rolled up on a shelf at the top of a cupboard under the stairs in the first house I lived in in Sydney was a reproduction, on stiff, high quality paper, of a pencil drawing called The Return of the Prodigal (1917). It was one of a number of intricate drawings de Chirico did at this time, others include The Mathematicians and Solitude. De Chirico returned again and again to certain images and the prodigal was one of them. A later painting

reiterates most of the main features of the 1917 drawing although the gibbet I recall is absent from it. Another was made in 1929, a closer view the two figures in more or less the pose above. It is bad, as are most, though not all, of the later works.

How did the drawing come to be there? The previous tenants were a couple of painters, friends, but it wasn't theirs. The landlord and lady were an art critic and a painter respectively, George was from Vienna and Mimi a Serbian-born 'abstract impressionist'. Berger was their married name. George had invented the movement of which Mimi was the only known exemplar and together they struggled to advance the cause of art in their world, which was not ours or even, realistically, theirs. They lived off rentals, which in our case and probably in others, if there were others, were always being raised: to compensate for the loss in the purchasing power of the Australian dollar, George used to say. It is hard to imagine a work more different than the de Chirico from Mimi's hectic acrylic washes. She is still alive, still working, under the name Mimi Jaksic-Berger, in a tradition now known as lyrical abstraction.

Not neccesarily but perhaps because of that coincidence Chippendale, where the house was, could put me in mind of de Chirico. The evening skies were sometimes green, there was a distant rumour of trains, the nearer presence of roaring traffic on Cleveland Street, people frozen in enigmatic attitudes (usually outside pubs) at end of day, most of all the facades and silhouettes of buildings in the warehouse district that seemed to exist, incontrovertibly but for no known purpose, in a darkness all their own beneath the radiance of that sky.

I found other things in the house. A commemorative badge, a relief of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, opened in 1932, mislaid at the back of another cupboard in the upstairs bedroom. Somewhere else, can't recall exactly where, a small metal anchor to be hung around the neck, which I still have, an antique symbol (it's on the Coat of Arms) of Sydney Town. And, in the garden which was a midden of black sand from an ancient swamp, a rusty old fob watch. When we moved out, for some forgotten reason I left the drawing where I found it, rolled up, creased, in the cupboard under the stairs.

Anyway ... the return of the prodigal: what is it about? At the time (1981) I thought it concerned the Great War and its aftermath, a flesh and blood father meeting his son returning from the Front as the mechanical or schematic man of the future. This can't be sustained in the painting, the suited man, if he is indeed the father and not the son, looks like he's made of marbled cloud, not flesh; while what I recall as an embrace in the drawing, in the painting looks more like two men bowing to one another so that, in faint absurdity, their foreheads touch. I see the horsed figure in the background as a conquistador and the low, flat building behind as some adobe compound from out of the new or old Mexico of Billy the Kid. But where was the gibbet?

There is no warrant for interpretation in any of de Chirico's work, it exists to confound interpretation in its infinite and possibly redundant suggestibility ... Robert Hughes writes: He could condense voluminous feeling through metaphor and association. One can try to dissect these magical nodes of experience, yet not find what makes them cohere. ... Et quid amabo nisi quod aenigma est? (What shall I love if not the enigma?) - this question, inscribed by the young artist on his self-portrait in 1911, is their subtext.


Olivia Rickman said...

I've just read your entry about de Chirico and The Return of the Prodigal. I need your help. I was in Portobello Market today and stumbled upon a de Chirico like drawing. I wanted to know more but my Google searches threw up nothing until I found your blog with a picture that almost exactly matches the picture I saw. The drawing was dated 1917 but the paper is in far too good a condition for it to be genuinely by de Chirico himself, however it's interesting and a copy of the painting you've illustrated. Where is that painting, what year was it done? I can't read the date on your digital image. I used to work at The Peggy Guggenheim Collection which owns "The Red Tower" by de Chirico 1913. The equestrian sculpture in that painting resembles the one in your image and is of King Carlo Alberto in Turin, a memory of de Chirico's time spent out of military service during the 1st WW. It resembles memory and nostalgia, an important element of metaphysical and dream theory. Anyway, your story of finding another such drawing is facinating. Please tell me as much as you can!

Martin Edmond said...


I've left a message about this on your blog.