“What is especially needed is great sensitivity: to look upon everything in the world as enigma….To live in the world as in an immense museum of strange things.”

This quote is attributed to Giorgio de Chirico, favorite artist of my poetry mentor & best pal, the late David Dunn. I like the way this idea is phrased (it may be the translator, it may be de Chirico): to live as in a museum; for a museum’s purpose–behind its collection, curation, and presentation–is simply to offer up items for the community to observe.

Paolo Baldacci makes an argument for de Chirico as “the first conceptual artist” that I find intriguing if ultimately unconvincing. There is merit, however, in considering the artist’s “surrealist era” paintings as conceptual in the sense that experiencing the work unsettles the viewer, distorts her sense of the real and requires her to enter the world of the painting with its enigmatic strangeness. And to observe without knowing, exactly, what it is she can see.

Artist Deborah Barlow, on her blog Slow Muse, has some words worth reading on the subject of “not knowing” that visitors to museums and galleries, and those who can view the world as an immense museum of strange things, may recognize. Barlow suggests that there may be an “essential incomprehensibility” in the acts of art-making and path-making as the human being moves from the known to the not-known. The enigma, as de Chirico terms it. The ambiguous and uncertain, the experiment, the unanswered question.

David Dunn often wrote letters to me in which he expressed his occasional discomfort with words, with sentences and language; he wished he could paint or play a musical instrument–felt that jazz might have enabled him to enter the enigma more fearlessly, as his jazz heroes did when they jammed and improvised.


“L’enigma della Oro” (1910)

We wrote about writing, often. Poetry–and the problem of saying the unsayable. Lately, I feel almost ready to retrieve his letters from the box where I’ve kept them for 20 years. My personal museum, those old letters. My immense museum, this strange, strange world.

A poem that offers entrance into a potentially uncomfortable world–by Luisa Igloria on Dave Bonta’s via negativa site: click here.


6 comments on “L’enigma

  1. Chris Cocca says:

    This rings true to me, especially as I read the small poems of Valerie Worth. Some of them are exquisite exercises in craft, lessons, as it were, on observation and communication.


  2. De Chirico is a fave of mine, too, for the world-building strangeness his paintings do. And I love the quote.


  3. Lou Faber says:

    I must say I do find it fascinating that language has a word, ekphrasis, to describe a written work, often but not exclusively poetic, that describes/comments on/represents a visual work of art. Yet I have found no equivalent word where a visual artist engages in the “reflection” of a written work.


    • Can you think of any examples? There are illustrations of literature/poems–I’m thinking “The Lady of Shalott” –and there is, kind of stretching the concept, Demuth’s “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold.” But other than outright illustrations? Can you come up with any? Also, I don’t know of a word expressing that idea, other than “illustration.”


  4. Lou Faber says:

    There are other examples: Dali’s Mad Tea Party (talk about loose) and Picasso’s Don Quixote come to mind. And of course, William Blake, though he could be deemed a self-illustrator, though that opens the chicken/egg debate, painting to his words, or writing to his painting? And if you deem cinema an art form, and i do in some cases, the work of great cinematographers (e.g., John Alcott’s Cinematography of Thackery’s “Barry Lydon”) comes to mind. But as the curators/creators of language, why are we bereft of a term analogous to ekphrasis. And why, while I am ranting, is perhaps the single most common title of art works created in the last century, Untitled. That would be, in my view, the equivalent of a shelf of books in the fiction section merely entitled “Novel.”


  5. You’ve got me thinking this morning, and I love it. I also love that you wrote letters with someone dear to you and that you have kept them. I think too many people now don’t know, understand, or respect the importance of sitting to write a letter. Whether there is something deep and philosophical to say or not. I have boxes of letters with friends myself. Boxes that keep growing. A museum of words shared in musing, in conversation. A museum of the individual and of friendship. So many things to think on this morning now. =)

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