Giorgio de Chirico mourned the modern world, says Jonathan Jones, by treating it like a classical ruin

Two lovers are saying goodbye. The man insists he will soon return, but his wife knows it is a lie. He is doomed to die in battle, to be dragged through the dust behind the victor's chariot. Such is the parting of Hector and Andromache painted in words by Homer in the Iliad, the ancient Greek epic poem of the Trojan War. After Hector departed for battle, Andromache went home, recounts the poet, and started to mourn "as if he were already dead".

It is, surely, this strange image of a death mourned before it actually happens that made Hector and Andromache so fascinating to the artist Giorgio de Chirico, and one of his pictures of these classical lovers, in which they have metamorphosised into wooden mannequins mingled with flesh, fabric, eggs and geometry on a parched piazza between two Renaissance palaces, is going on sale at Bonhams.

In the eerie world of this great modern painter, everything seems dead already. The living are ghosts in a city of statues in his ruthlessly modernist yet eternal visions of a frozen, unmoving Mediterranean culture. Time stops, as it might for someone sentenced to spend the afterlife on a railway platform on a sunbleached afternoon, looking at a clock that never goes forward, waiting for a train that never comes. In his 1913 painting The Enigma of the Poet, in Tate Modern, a puffing locomotive goes by in the distance, under a sky heavy as the sea, while the marble torso of a woman –- not a classical fragment but creased and stretching, once-living flesh turned to stone, headless, limbless – and a bunch of grapes rest on a gray plinth in a vast urban space defined by an arched portico receding in steep perspective.

You can catch de Chirico's sickness easily, waiting for a train at a railway station anywhere in Italy on a hot afternoon. It seems nothing will ever happen. The modern world is ancient after all. Architecture is a stage for an impossible drama, time is an illusion, human beings are shadows in the lethal brightness.

Giorgio de Chirico was born in Greece, to Italian parents, in 1888 and grew up in a backwater of an accelerating world. This was the era when the world became modern. Railways – such a melancholy theme in his richly pessimistic mind – transformed the speed of life from the mid-19th century onwards. Yet when he was studying at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts in the 1900s, the motor car was already overtaking them and the Wright brothers had achieved powered flight. The world was getting faster, bolder, and if you were a westerner, more powerful. Electricity and explosives, big cities and bright lights were creating the modern.

But it didn't necessarily feel that way to an Italian born in Greece. While Britain, Germany and America surged forward in this pre-1914 take-off, southern Europeans' main role in the Great Acceleration seemed to be to send emigrants across the Atlantic. For Italian artists in the 1900s, the modern world was an ideal, not a reality.

The Futurist movement published manifestos that berated Italy's 'passéist' backwardness: "We want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians. For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards," proclaimed its leader F.T. Marinetti.

Giorgio de Chirico saw a very different way for an Italian steeped in the classical heritage to be a modern artist. For him, the antiquity of Italy was a key to a night of troubled dreams. He learned this through German eyes. In Munich he discovered the art of Arnold Böcklin. This late 19th-century visionary painter dwells morbidly on lifeless classical scenes. His haunting masterpiece The Isle of the Dead was inspired by a hill outside Florence that is topped by a cemetery. Böcklin turns this hill into a rock emerging from a black, deathly southern sea, where tombs nestle among tall, dark cypresses.

A boat is ferrying the dead to this enigmatic place. The Isle of the Dead fascinated both Hitler and Sigmund Freud, and Böcklin's nightmare of the south sent the young de Chirico to explore the ruins of Italy.

Where Böcklin's deathly isle is outside history, de Chirico's fantastic cities are littered with it. The myths of ancient Greece return in his art as tragic fragments. Abandoned Ariadne, the lamenting Niobids and the doomed lovers Hector and Andromache haunt his raked vistas of Renaissance architecture.

Arriving in Paris at the height of Cubism's assault on the perspective picture, de Chirico was too much of an original to ape Picasso and Braque, as so many lesser artists were doing. Instead, his mesmerizing early paintings take the Cubist revolution as a license to play with Renaissance perspective conventions in deliberately disconcerting ways. He uses it to create impressions of vastness, yet also undermines it to breed his favorite feelings, 'disquiet' and 'melancholy'.

Picasso's friend Apollinaire, avant-garde poet, champion of de Sade and icon of the Paris avant garde, recognized de Chirico's genius. He also coined the world 'Sur-realism'. De Chirico's influence on modern culture is in fact incalculable. He not only did he inspire many of the most powerful images of the Surrealist movement that took up Apollinaire's idea after World War I, but his poetic fictions echo in the works of Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez.

De Chirico himself became more firmly committed to tradition after the War. He called his art Metaphysical and it became purer in its ossified classicism. He continued in this vein, in works such as Hector and Andromache, until his death in 1978. Such is the originality of this artist that even when he repeats himself, even when he risks kitsch in making statues of his painted figures, he remains utterly compelling. You can't really complain when an artist who believed that everything repeats itself eternally, repeats himself. Giorgio de Chirico mourns the modern world as if it were a ruin found by archeologists from a remote planet, for whom railways are as enigmatic as broken statues.

Jonathan Jones writes about art for The Guardian.

You might like to see: Giorgio de Chirico: Myth and Mystery at the Estorick Collection, 39 Canonbury Square, London N1 until 19 April, estorickcollection.com

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