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Inspiration didn't come from above

Philip Guston's great works stem from his admiration for bad art.

September 15, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

If a great artist loves and is inspired by some really bad paintings by another artist, are we obliged to find a way to embrace them too?

No, of course not. But we would do well to consider the really bad paintings, if only in service to a fuller understanding of the great artist's work.

This peculiar circumstance is central to "Enigma Variations: Philip Guston and Giorgio de Chirico," a quirky, modest yet thoughtful new exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. It gets the fall art season off to a gratifying start.

Guston (1913-1980) was profoundly moved by the melancholy metaphysical paintings of De Chirico (1888-1978), which he saw as a teenager in the Hollywood Hills home of legendary collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg. De Chirico's foreboding 1913 "The Soothsayer's Recompense," with its classical statue reclining in an empty, sun-drenched Italian town square beneath a bilious green sky, hung over their living room sofa. In the dining room, 1925's small "The Poet and His Muse" showed a pair of faceless mannequins; their bodies fuse antique sculptures with modern machines; their attitude is forlorn.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 16, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Philip Guston: In Friday's Calendar section, only part of Philip Guston's 1969 oil painting "By the Window" was reproduced. A full image of the painting is shown in today's Calendar section on E2.

The twist is that Guston and De Chirico were both great artists, although their careers went in opposite directions. Guston started out slowly, not hitting his painterly stride until he was nearly 40. De Chirico came out of the gate fast, burned brightly and flamed out. By the time of Guston's 1932 visit to the Arensbergs, the Greek-born Italian's best work was far behind him.

But Guston didn't care. He maintained a lifelong passion for De Chirico's art -- even when the latter devolved into a painter of what can be described most charitably as restaurant art. Guston's youthful encounter had a lifelong effect.

De Chirico was a notorious gasbag, convinced of his unique importance as the modern inheritor of the Mediterranean's ancient artistic legacy -- and eager to tell you about it. The brooding, ominous pictures of abandoned Italian hill towns and of mute, mechanistic figures that he painted in Paris in the 1910s gave chilling form to the new century's gathering storm.

"The Soothsayer's Recompense" is emblematic and riveting. An antique sculpture of sleeping Ariadne -- dreaming of sybaritic Dionysus while her lover, courageous Theseus, is secretly abandoning her -- luxuriates next to an empty Roman archway. The curved arch frames two distant palm trees beyond a brick city wall.

The palms and archway form a double image, which evokes a warrior's ancient helmet. This memory of an armored head turns away from a modern steam engine -- an iron horse -- that's chugging by. It's just before 2 p.m. by the clock on a nearby building. Dionysus, god of life's civilizing forces, is just a daydream, while heroic Theseus, slayer of evil, has fled the scene. It's 1913.

Soon Europe would erupt into "the war to end all wars." De Chirico was 25 when he painted it, and his acclaim in Paris was immediate. For the next decade he made extraordinary pictures, inspiring a generation of Surrealist artists that emerged in the 1920s. But in 1918 he left Paris for Rome, where he soon grew bitter and contentious -- bad-mouthing Parisian dominance, denouncing Picasso and Matisse as charlatans and feuding with just about everyone.

A painted premonition of De Chirico's overweening conviction about his eternal consequence turns up just beneath Ariadne: The date below his signature is written in Roman numerals -- MCMXIII -- as if chiseled for the ages. Eventually he was painting in the trash-epic manner of Cecil B. DeMille.

None of his proud-prancing-pony paintings are on view, but there is the goofy 1927 "Gladiators and Lion," which has all the nuance of a plaster relief from a Kmart home-decor shop. It represents De Chirico's "Oh, yeah?" rebuke to Picasso's turn toward Neoclassicism.

Guston was struck by the painting -- or at least by a magazine reproduction he saw. His own 1938 "Gladiators" hangs adjacent, a surprisingly crisp picture of backyard childhood combats. Curators Lisa Melandri and Michael R. Taylor smartly interweave 26 of the two artists' works in this way. Juxtapositions show where the younger artist transformed his elder's stock devices -- curly Italian-style hair, mute figures, studio paraphernalia and weapons -- making them his own.

Coincidentally, Guston was 25 when he painted his amateurish "Gladiators," the same age as De Chirico when he painted his Ariadne masterpiece. But the Arensbergs' other painting resonated more with Guston; its bleak, dejected figures required no education in the nuances of classical mythology to comprehend. What did a poor kid from L.A. know about that?

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