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The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street

Updated: Jan 22, 2023

Giorgio De Chirico, The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, is recognized as one of the greatest Surrealist paintings of the 20th century. In it, a street has been captured in the late afternoon sun. Shadows grow long, suggesting movement along diagonal lines as well as the drama of an exaggerated perspective. Darkness falls toward the viewer creating a stark constrast between light and dark, seemIngly poised for an imminent clash, a showdown, and one would be forgiven for interpreting this as depicting something of a latent Manicheanism, a clear depiction of good vs. evil. (Indeed, Chirico is often credited with founding metaphysical painting).

A long band of gold, the street has been staged for an encounter between the playful innocence of the girl, identified with the gleaming and airy white surface of the building on the left, and the menacing shadow which seems to rise directly out of the darkness of the building to the right. The effect is a heightened sense of anticipation and fear, and perhaps some measure of sadness too with our attention turning to the open boxcar which suggests entrapment.

The apparent metaphysical duality Chirico presents us with is of especial interest when considering the inspiration for the work which comes, at least in part, from a poem by infamous 19th century (anti)philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche bearing the same title, Mystery and Melancholy of a Street. This lends a certain irony to the painting too, as Nietzsche’s project famously invited his reader to imagine a world “beyond good and evil”. In any event, here is Nietzsche’s haunting poem.

The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street

As dayspring swallows darkness light hangs curdled, olivine like the toxic breath of gods.

On the piazza’s edge a callous sun splits the arcades: white hot stucco; charcoal ashlar.

A wagon stands iron-wheeled and empty, the beast not long gone its warm dung still steaming.

In the street a clockwork child bowls her hoop along an egg-yellow avenue of innocence.

Her pulse is clotted, beatless her childhood stiff as a stick. Dissonance rapes the stillness.

The poke of a growing shadow looms black as sin, its saurian tail flicking the ground with lust.

Lips curled; hackles matted the prowling creature drools behind the cool colonnade.

Inside the box I crouch, twisted flawed, braced in the corner waiting for the scream.

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