Italian Art Heritage Abroad: The Song of Love

Can dreams and restlessness be painted? Just look at Giorgio De Chirico, the metaphysical painter

The Song of Love may sound like a piece of romantic Italian music, but in fact it is the title of a painting displayed at the Museum of Modern Art – MoMA — in New York, painted by the Italian painter Giorgio De Chirico in 1914. De Chirico was the leading representative of metaphysical painting, an art movement born in his soul and his imagination in the years just before the Great War (World War I). In fact, although he was born in Greece to a noble Italian family, De Chirico moved to Italy when he was 18, spending a period in Milan and Florence. Right there he painted his first metaphysical picture concerning a town square, charmed by the mystery of the city of Dante.

But another Italian city would affect the vision of Giorgio De Chirico and his development of metaphysical art, another mystical place which was the first capital city of the Kingdom of Italy, before Florence and Rome: we are talking about Turin, regarded as a ‘metaphysical city’ by the Italian painter. De Chirico stopped in Turin along his way to Paris, where he joined his brother Alberto — who was an artist too — in 1911. Thanks to the artistic turmoil reigning in Paris, Alberto introduced his brother Giorgio to significant artists from that period, such as Pablo Picasso, Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire. Those avant-garde artists would forever influence the works of Giorgio De Chirico, the mystical suspension of his shapes and colors, and it is no coincidence that one of his masterpieces — ‘The Song of Love’ — was made in 1914, during the peak of his time spent in Paris.

Behind the painting

In the same year the Great War broke out, the De Chirico brothers decided to volunteer for the Italian army and they were sent to Ferrara. Two years later a nerve disease led Giorgio De Chirico to hospitalization, but despite these conditions, he made his most important works during this time. In the hospital he met the Futurist painter Carlo Carrà, with which he would found the metaphysical painting movement. This dreamlike style and these blurred visions were going to influence — a few years later — painters like Salvador Dalí, André Breton and René Magritte, by stimulating the surrealism art movement. René Magritte himself was impressed by the painting ‘The Song of Love’, describing how the work by De Chirico would forever change his mind and his concept of art.

The Song of Love at the MoMA in New York

The Song of Love’ is strictly linked to the enigmatic painting style of Giorgio De Chirico, and you can look at it a million times but you will never find an explanation for the objects represented. The background is of course one of the Italian town squares — with the typical medieval arches — but what ties together Apollo’s head, a rubber glove, a green ball and a locomotive? Probably everything or nothing: there are some who say that — with the blast of war blowing through Europe — the colors of the three items (a green ball, a white Apollo’s sculpted head and a red rubber glove) represent the Italian flag, since Giorgio De Chirico was proud of his origin and missing Italy so much while in Paris. Others say that every item is related to the hometown of our Italian painter, born in Greece and always very nostalgic of his past. In fact, Apollo’s sculpted head strongly resembles classical art and Greek mythology; the rubber glove beside it could represent the empty industrial seriality (the rubber gloves had been introduced recently on the market) against the beauty of the human hand; the ball could be related to the games that children play in the square or simply the shape of the world; the locomotive is surely a family element, given that his dad was a railway engineer while working in Greece.

Road to New York

So, why did this piece of Italian art heritage go overseas? Put simply, Giorgio De Chirico temporarily moved to New York City in 1936, bringing with him some of his best artworks, which were exhibited in the Julien Levy art gallery, famed for giving space to avant-garde artists. ‘The Song of Love’ was seen and then purchased by the rich and philanthropic Rockefeller family. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in particular — mother of the well-known Nelson Rockefeller — was a pioneer and creator of the MoMA in New York,  which over time became the most important museum of modern art in the world. Her son Nelson Rockefeller — although he would be more focused on business and politics — would follow in his mother’s footsteps, enriching the MoMA with his cooperation. Ten years before his death, in 1969, he gave MoMA the artworks of 119 artists of his large collection, including ‘The Song of Love’ by Giorgio De Chirico. In a twist of fate, Nelson Rockefeller always had a special bond with Italy: indeed, together with the Caprotti family and Marco Brunelli in the ’50s he opened the first supermarket in Italy. You can read more about this story in our article on the history of Esselunga, the first supermarket in Italy. It is certainly less enigmatic than the story behind ‘The Song of Love’, but the result no less stems from a great vision.