Gare Montparnasse – The Melancholy of Departure
Giorgio di Chirico (1888 – 1978)
‘Maestro di Alienazione’
A Study in Melancholia – The Far Side of the Bananas
The strange thing about alienation is, we’re always looking to share it with somebody. ‘The Kindred Spirit’ syndrome?
If you ever get to NYC, go to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – 11W 53rd Street - indulge yourself in the beauty of the Demoiselles d’Avignon, reflect on your hunger in front of Warhol’s soup cans, but be sure to realise how alone you truly are by standing in front of ‘Gare Montparnasse – The Melancholy of Departure’.
Have you ever left someone at a railway station on a sunny day and chased off through the cool shadows towards your emptiness?
The Gare Montparnasse in Paris is rarely quiet at any time, but in this picture there are but two people, just thin lines really, no proper definition. We take them to be walking away, up a steep ramp, into the distance, towards a departing steam train. (A Mystery Train to …)?
According to the clock-tower, near the train, the time is a little after 25 minutes past 1 in the afternoon. The sun is shining, but it is casting odd shadows. The horizon and the light are not consistent. A strong wind blows some pennants horizontally on flagpoles, yet the steam from the train rises into the sky unperturbed.
In the foreground, a striped pavilion and, to the right, on some brickwork, a bunch of what appear to be bananas. Now there’s a topic rarely explored – the significance of bananas in 20th Century Alienation. An arched and pillared, concrete construction dominates the mid-ground.
I had forgotten the painter, di Chirico and his works, which I had greatly admired as a youth. When I stood in front of this again, after so many years absence, I could feel the pricking of my tear-ducts. It was as if I had met up with an old friend, unaltered by the passage of time.
You’re never alone with a di Chirico, and, paradoxically, you’re never so alone. Great waves of emptiness washed over me and fear knotted my stomach. ‘I was right all along’, I thought. ‘Born alone, live alone, die alone, surrounded by loved ones and friends’. This picture captures it.
The technique applied in the painting is very simple, almost simplistic – flat oil on canvas, no flourishes, no bravura moments: dull, dark, with a flash of illumination.
Painted at the start of WWI, it is the moment when barbarism asserted itself again in Western civilisation. ‘Plutôt la barbarie que l’ennui’ as Gautier put it in the 19th Century, and perhaps this is a study of ennui before the barbarians tear down the gate.
Melancholia was one of the four humours to which the body could be affected. Galen, a 2nd Century AD physician wrote a treatise on them. The other three were: sanguine, choleric and phlegmatic. If the body was balanced with equal measure of the four, all was well; if the body was predominant in one of these humours, you were liable to show unwonted symptoms of one kind or another.
Characterized by low levels of enthusiasm and activity, it would nowadays be termed ‘depression’, but melancholia isn’t quite the harsh, unbending term that depression is. Melancholia is a spiritual state of ‘un-one-ness’ with the world, a sense of futility and indifference. The world races by, chasing the ineffable, while the melancholic stands in the shadows and watches.
And that is what we are in the painting – the 3rd person in La Gare Montparnasse is us – seeing the two, what, lovers, probably, going away from us. We are on the far side of the bananas, mutely staring, impotent, desolate and melancholic.
When you are confronted by the painting, it is as if you are doubly alienated. You stand outside the boundary of the canvas, yearning to be within, yearning to participate in the life just beyond, the eternal Etranger.
Di Chirico was also a surrealist before his time. Look at Love Song and you will see the vocabulary of Dali some 20 years before the moustachioed charlatan stunned the world with La Persistencia de la Memoria – The Persistance of Memory.
But it is di Chirico’s metaphysical period that will endure. In a long life, this period lasted only from about 1910 to 1919. Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, The Anxious Journey – summations in oil of La Condition Humaine, or what it means to be a stranger in a strange land. Maybe somewhere down one of the piazzas is Heartbreak Hotel – take a left onto Desolation Row and bring a bottle.
Brian Williams – tMx 24 – 04/06