The Enigma of the Hour

Daniel Barbiero
June 2017

The Enigma of the Hour

It may be a train station, or one of the arcaded buildings common in Turin and other Italian cities. A two-story construction with arches on the ground level, rectangular windows at the second level and a tiled roof, it sits at the center of the picture plane, continuing beyond both edges. An open, public space—a piazza of some sort—opens out in front of the building. Oddly, the building and piazza feel as if they ought to be deserted, but they aren’t. There are three human figures coexisting here—coexisting, but effectively isolated from each other. One, wrapped in white and facing away from the viewer, is in the foreground by a pool with a small fountain; a second huddles in shadow in the shallow space of the building’s interior; the third is barely visible at a second-story window just to the left of a clock. The building and its surrounding space are sunk in shadow at the moment—a moment that could be situated at the beginning or end of the day. In either case, what we see is the visual evidence of a disorienting hour when objects and people take on a grey, soft-edged appearance, and distances are difficult to judge. The ambiguity of the time of day is cleared up by the clock above the arches, which signals five minutes before three. Presumably this is mid-afternoon in late autumn or winter, when the daylight wanes early. Although the hour of Giorgio de Chirico’s great painting The Enigma of the Hour (1910-1911*) can reasonably be disambiguated, the unsettling character—the enigma—of the picture remains.


“Enigma” is the keyword of the painting’s title. Starting with The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon and the slightly earlier The Enigma of the Oracle, which may have been titled retroactively, the word turns up in a number of the paintings de Chirico produced during his metaphysical period, which ran from 1909 to 1919. The word and the concept it represented, which de Chirico understood in a specific and idiomatic way, provided the foundation for the painter’s aesthetic during this period.

De Chirico claimed to have discovered enigma in Florence in 1909. While there, he had an epiphany that proved to be a turning point in his development as an artist. As he described it in an early, handwritten text, he was sitting in the Piazza Santa Croce after recuperating from an illness, and consequently was in “a nearly morbid state of sensitivity.”  He suddenly felt he was seeing his surroundings for the first time, seeing through their ordinary appearances, in a sense. He described this moment of revelation as “an enigma;” the concept became central to his art and turns up frequently in the various manuscript texts written between 1911 and 1913 in which de Chirico formulated his early aesthetic philosophy.**

The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon was the concrete product of the Piazza Santa Croce revelation and signaled the beginning of a particularly creative period for de Chirico. The feeling it gave rise to formed the basis for a series subsequent paintings, including The Enigma of the Hour. For de Chirico the enigma consisted not only in the revelation of the world around him, but, as he wrote in “Meditations of a Painter,” he also “liked to call the resulting work an enigma.” The artwork was an enigma to the extent that it was “a thing that produces a sensation” by refusing the temptation to take the world as it presents itself to us in its ordinary guise. De Chirico called this a Nietzschean aesthetic, but it also reflects the deep influence that the philosophy of Schopenhauer had on him. In explicating his notion of the enigma he turned to a passage from Schopenhauer’s Parerga und Paralipomena which asserts that in order to disclose the true nature of things, “it is enough to isolate oneself so absolutely from the world and things for a few moments that the most ordinary objects and events appear completely new and unknown.” This is precisely a description of what de Chirico felt had happened to him in the Piazza Santa Croce. Consistent with Schopenhauer’s pronouncement, de Chirico’s experience in Florence revealed the world of the everyday as something alien and uncanny in which one no longer feels at home. This moment of revelation is an enigma to the extent that it throws new light onto ordinary things, disclosing them as something unexpected and extraordinary. As interpreted in the metaphysical paintings, the light it throws on them is—quite literally—the light of twilight.

The Meaning of the Shadow

Like many of the metaphysical paintings, The Enigma of the Hour is pervaded by an atmosphere of crepuscularity. The quality of light and the muted colors suggest a sun close to the horizon; the scene is twilit and dominated by shadow. For de Chirico, twilight carried a significant expressive weight. Twilight is an inherently ambiguous state—a period of transition common to both nightfall and daybreak. On the evidence of the hour marked out on the clock The Enigma of the Hour seems to depict an autumn sunset; many of the other metaphysical paintings set outdoors depict dawns—a time that de Chirico declared to be “the hour of enigma.” For most of these paintings, though, engulfing shadows are central motifs.

For de Chirico, the shadow was a kind of index of enigma. As he put it in one of the manuscripts, “there is more of enigma in the shadow of a man walking in the sun than in all the religions of the past, present and future.” It’s little wonder that he connected a shadow-engulfed world to enigma. By its nature, shadow is a multivalent carrier of meaning. Correlated as it is with the movement of the sun, the shadow is a natural sign indicating the time of day. That would seem to be simple enough. But beyond its natural meaning it carries a meaning liable to interpretation in terms of human rhythms and projects. A long shadow signals time getting short to complete something, night approaching and time to turn homeward, a downshifting of activity and an impending move to a resting state. Or it can signal the transition of night to day, that moment just before the time one emerges from oneself and into the world outside to begin work or otherwise to engage in public life. With its relatively low stimulus environment and implicit promise of concealment, twilight is conducive to reflection or introspection, creating the kind of otherworldly atmosphere in which enigma, as de Chirico understood it, could make itself felt.

Thus de Chirico’s depiction of shadow does more than record a particular moment of the day during a particular season; instead, it serves to create a pervasive atmosphere or Stimmung—the German word he favored in the early manuscripts to describe the mood of an artwork. Atmosphere was for de Chirico a substantial presence that could realize the potential of things to convey meaning; in his “Meditations of a Painter,” he could well have been describing the twilit Stimmung of The Enigma of the Hour when he described a moment when “the light and shadows, the lines, the angles, all the mysteries of volume begin to speak.” It is through this crepuscular atmosphere, emblematized by the shadow, that de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings suggest something deeply felt about being in time, through time. 

Time and Transience

Being in time is a particular mode of being peculiar to humans. In an important sense, time comes into the world through human self-consciousness. In one sense, time exists as a humanly-instituted, quantitative measure of change. Beyond time as a quantitative construct, there is a sense of time as meaningful, as carrying a significance that only we, as finite, futurally-oriented self-conscious beings, disclose. The experience of human temporality is the experience of being finite and relentlessly projecting into a future that must at some point run up against the limit of nonexistence. It is precisely this finitude and intimation of limit that gives time its human meaning.

As such, human temporality is susceptible to the sense of unsettledness or disquiet that arises in the face of the uncertainty of the future. It may be a matter of a choice I have to make or something I have to do, the outcome of which is never guaranteed. Our constantly projecting into the future orients us toward something ahead of us that we can only anticipate through inference and speculation. In relation to our present situation, it is necessarily only vaguely known or unknown by virtue of its not having yet confronted us. We live in time through a kind of anxiety coming to us from the future, as it were. But there is another disquieting experience of time that points in the other direction—toward the past. This is the experience of transience or impermanence. It is the experience of time that, embodied in the mood of crepuscularity, permeates The Enigma of the Hour.

Through the sense of transience we apprehend the world as being-in-flux, as a process of becoming and, more importantly, becoming nonexistent. The Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus was one of the earliest and most evocative thinkers to put the notion of flux at the center of his philosophy; he encapsulated it in the saying, quoted in Plato’s Cratylus, that “all beings move and nothing remains still.” Appropriately enough, Heraclitus was the third philosopher—beside Schopenhauer and Nietzsche–whose ideas played a significant role in forming de Chirico’s metaphysical aesthetic. The focal figure of The Enigma of the Oracle, a pensive figure wrapped in a dark cloak facing away from the viewer, may in fact be meant to represent the Greek Ionian philosopher—“the Ephesian meditating in the faint light of dawn,” as de Chirico imagined him in a typically effusive early text. (Iconographically, the figure itself traces back to Böcklin’s painting of Odysseus and Calypso, but in appropriating it for his own use de Chirico may well have intended it to represent the philosopher.) In The Enigma of the Hour an echo of this figure appears twice, first in white in the foreground by the fountain, and secondly and more obscurely as a dark shape in the window to the left of the clock. But whether or not Heraclitus is supposed to be symbolized by these figures, he does seem to preside over the picture’s engagement of time and loss. Its engagement with being-in-flux. 

Nostalgia and Lost Time

The awareness of being-in-flux is the awareness that the world is something temporary—a passing configuration of objects, events and states of affairs in which things that appear solid eventually erode and vanish, and become lost in time. This consciousness of loss brings with it a sense of being as an ongoing process of dispossession, of the separation of oneself from oneself and one’s world by the action of time. If time is the engine of dispossession then the awareness of transience is the awareness that discloses time as the engine of our dispossession. In effect, the world that being-in-flux discloses as temporary is our world; it brings time down from the level of abstraction to the lived world of the concrete. Ultimately, the experience of being-in-flux and the correlated awareness of the transience of oneself and one’s world is the experience of a particular kind of negation. For, like the future, the past represents a negation of the present, albeit in its own particular way. If the future negates the present in the name of a posited situation that doesn’t yet exist, the past negates the present through the non-presence of the people and things that are no longer there. It is a kind of nothingness discerned beneath the surface of the present.

It is this nothingness on which nostalgia is based. Put another way, nostalgia is a nothingness that depends for its effect on distance—a distance in time. This distance represents the transposition of the physical distance of the voyage home (“nostos”) into a temporal key, as it were. Distance is separation—which is itself another kind of nothingness or mode of not being, one based on our not being where we wish we were or could be. Unlike the physical distance of a real voyage, this temporal distance can never be covered and made good by a return. It holds out the lure of a homecoming that is impossible to achieve.

The nothingness that the past represents and the distance it signifies is paradoxical, though, in that the past, by virtue of its having been, leaves behind monuments and traces inscribed in the material world of the present. De Chirico’s metaphysical paintings reveled in this paradox, with their portrayals of the piazzas, towers and arcades that stood as landmarks in a twilit world—as monuments to lost time as memorialized in the stolidity of architecture.

The awareness of lost time is the defining theme in many of de Chirico’s paintings of the metaphysical period. It often took the form of an explicit invocation of nostalgia and melancholy—two words that appear repeatedly in the titles of the metaphysical paintings as well as in his literary work. Both melancholy and nostalgia are moods that are themselves transient, but as such they are symptoms of a deeper grasp of time as dispossessor of being and of the past as a nothingness that nevertheless is palpable. The crepuscular world these paintings portray is a world pervaded by nostalgia–a world we regretfully apprehend as withdrawing from us in time.

Interestingly, the mood of nostalgia and lost time that animates the metaphysical paintings doesn’t entirely vanish after de Chirico’s turn toward neoclassicism in the post-World War I years. If anything, nostalgia, mostly directed toward an imagined classical past, becomes an explicit motif in many of these paintings—of horses running past the ruins of fluted columns by the sea, of gladiators incomprehensibly crowded into a room, of draped figures whose torsos are made up of jumbled classical architectural elements. In effect, nostalgia permeates and unifies the larger project that the neoclassical and other later paintings were an otherwise incommensurable and seemingly incoherent later part of. Nostalgia and the sense of lost time were the outward manifestation of the sensibility that makes of de Chirico’s work a synthetic whole, despite the stylistic shifts it underwent over the years.

Conclusion: Enigma and Finitude

Ultimately, the enigma of things consists in their transience. This seems to be the fundamental psychological insight communicated through the metaphysical paintings, which portray nothing if not a world apprehended as being-in-flux. But gleaning this from the paintings entails recognizing the impossibility of one of de Chirico’s methodological ideals and rejecting the metaphysics behind the metaphysical paintings, as it were.

Under the influence of Schopenhauer’s distinction between the phenomenal world and the reality underlying it, de Chirico declared that to grasp and to portray the enigma of things was “to suppress the human as a point of reference.” But if time is the key to the enigma, this suppression cannot be effected. The world as such isn’t in time the way we are—time is something that happens to things, to objects, whereas time is something that we experience and make sense of. We can imagine the things inhabiting de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings—the fountains, architecture and even the human figures—as enigmatic because of our way of being in time. It is through our self-awareness as finite beings that we grasp these things as transient and disclose them in the crepuscular mood that de Chirico so powerfully conveyed in The Enigma of the Hour and many other paintings. We lend them our knowledge of our own transience, in a sense; time is disclosed as the engine of loss only for a finite being aware of its finitude.

*Establishing the correct dates for de Chirico’s paintings is notoriously difficult. My source for dates is Paolo Baldacci, De Chirico: The Metaphysical Period.
** I used the edition of de Chirico’s early manuscript texts collated and dated by Giovanni Lista in L’Art métaphysique, ed. Giovanni Lista, L’Échoppe, Paris 1994. Other editions and arrangements of the various texts exist. All translations are mine.

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