The Disquieting Muses

Giorgio De Chirico-The Disquieting Muses-1918
A superbly disturbing painting by De Chirico that had an immeasurable impact upon the Surrealists, The Disquieting Muses presents us with the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But is there a key? If so, do we really want to open the blue box (a version of which is at the heart of the conundrum in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr, see Dreams of Desire 6 (Mulholland Dr.), for fear of what it may be contained inside?

Painted during WWI in the Italian town of Ferrara where De Chirico lived, it features a piazza bordered by the imposing medieval fortress of the Castello Estense and industrial brick chimneys. The only figures within the square are faceless mannequins; the muses of tragedy and comedy, Melpomene and Thalia with their traditional attributes scattered around, and the God Apollo on a pedestal in the shadow. The perspective and the long shadows add to the air of frozen stillness and uneasiness.

Several Surrealists were directly inspired by exposure to De Chirico’s early metaphysical work including Max Ernst (see the series of posts starting with A Week of Max Ernst: Sunday), Yves Tanguy (Time and Again), and Kay Sage (Surrealist Women: Kay Sage). Sylvia Plath also wrote a poem of the same name that was inspired (in part) by the painting and which is included below.


The Disquieting Muses

Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?

Mother, who made to order stories
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Whether you saw them, whether you said
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.

In the hurricane, when father’s twelve
Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
“Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Thor is angry: we don’t care!”
But those ladies broke the panes.

When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.

Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother,

I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
But the little planet bobbed away
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here!
And I faced my traveling companions.

Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Will betray the company I keep.

Sylvia Plath

37 thoughts on “The Disquieting Muses

      1. Not silliness at all, I think about these writers and artists a lot and I feel quite close to them so the idea of conversing with them in some way is something I like to entertain. I am quite odd Miss Dawn

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  1. I love the painting. I’m imaging the storm clouds of war or the smoke of battle in the sky beyond. Ironic that Thalia the Grace of youth and beauty is featured. I wish I was not on my phone, I hate the small screen. More later.

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  2. P. Delvaux fell too under De Chirico’s influence about the late 1920s, when he discovered his work.
    Right now I notice a shadow at the bottom right side of the painting, projected by something or -most probably- someone who is out of frame. Maybe the painter himself?…

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    1. You are quite right and I should have included that information as I have written about a number of Delvaux paintings. That is an interesting theory worth investigating, I will get back to you. Thank you

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  3. So to continue my thought, I see the effects of the war in the entire work: the punching bag head of the one Muse, the Roman helmet beside the other. The blue box as an equipment locker or vessel for the personal effects of a dead soldier. It is in the same sky blue as the French uniform. Perhaps Apollo stands in the shadows because the Muses are beyond being directed, out of his influence, silenced by the war. Li mentioned the shadow of a figure out of the scene. Could it be an artillery weapon? One of the big guns? Maybe I just see war everywhere and I’m dead wrong about it. Let me know what you think. The Plath poem: this painting is an odd inspiration for the piece. It is rather amazing to see the connections one mind makes where another would go to a completely different place. It’s an excellent poem. I thoroughly respect Sylvia’s immense talent but have to admit not being a huge fan. She overuses the simile in all her stuff. They’re fantastic similes, mind you, but it gets to be a little much after a while. That might just be a matter of taste.

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    1. It is certainly an interesting theory regarding the war aspects and certainly one I hadn’t considered. He enlisted but was declared unfit so never saw service. I don’t think the WWI effected the Italian psyche nearly as much as it did the main combatants, Britain, Germany or France. The Italian futurists were very pro war, though he wasn’t a futurist. I think we also have a skewed Anglo view, which is all very elegiac, but I think this has much to do with the decline of the Empire which WWI started. As for Plath I would refer to The Interview… I like her work but I think the Bell Jar is over rated, Anna Kavan and Leonora Carrington asylum memoirs are better because they derive some positives out of the experience of madness (to speak of mental health is anachronistic, the term in their day was madness and they believed they were mad), however both Kavan and Carrington survived and lived long lives (Kavan was around 70 but she had been a heavy drug user of heroin and uppers for almost 50 years so relatively long) and didn’t achieve the mythic status that Plath suicide certainly helped cement

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      1. Right, perhaps the suicide fostered the myth. The Interview with all the repeated suicides? Was that inspired by Plath? I didn’t realize that… That was truly a ‘mad’ piece and I mean that as a compliment! Back to the painting. I see your point about the Italian view of the war versus the Anglo French and German. But given the timing of the painting, it just seemed like an inevitable conclusion to reach. Anyway, like I said, much of what I see is colored by my own research and reading at the moment. I’m nearly finished with Storm of Steel and in my history book I just finished reading about the battle of the Dardanelles. Hope you’re having a good weekend.

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      2. All work work work unfortunately. It is an interesting theory, you see war and I see mystery. I can find a bowl of soup mysterious though. The Interview wasn’t inspired by Plath but the good Doctor Dee does deconstruct her suicide along with Mishima and Van Gogh, it is a mad piece and I do take it as a compliment

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      3. Of course I’m mad. You should know that by now. But my point was that I’m less familiar with The Interview compared to the rest of your stuff because of not touching it. I wasn’t suggesting that I should either!

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  4. Dear Mr. Cake, De Chirico’s painting, “The Disquieting Muses”, is disquieting and unsettling. It’s like the nightmare you can’t quite wake from, hovering between sleep and wake, only to drift back into the nightmare. The colors are beautifully vivid, the long shadows with a very dark sky makes this rather disorienting, is it day or is it night? Sylvia’s poem captures the same unease as the painting, along with strong references to the painting, she tells harrowing tales from her childhood. The poem is exquisite. Thank you for directing me to this post. ~ Miss Cranes

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    1. Thank you Miss Cranes, I thought this would be up your alley. I think it is a perpetual twilight in De Chirico’s world. The poem is exquisite as you say. I will try and dig up some other post that you may like and have missed.

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      1. You’re so welcome, Mr. Cake. “Perpetual twilight’, paints beautiful images, thankfully just this side of of a very dark midnight.Your post is exquisite and the pairing of the painting and the poem, fantastic, each enhanced the other. Thank you, I see you’ve sent me a link, will check it out. ~ Miss Cranes

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      2. De Chirico world is frozen, static, a menacing eternity. Needless to say I am very fond of the early metaphysical works. His novel that he wrote is excellent as well, as his autobiography which doesn’t have a good word to say about the Surrealists. Enjoy

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