Jarring Bottles: The Paintings of Giorgio Morandi
Giorgio Morandi by SIAE 2008
The paintings of Giorgio Morandi express an apparent humility of means underwritten by a life of seemingly total dedication to art. His works are searching, unassuming and small, 30 by 40 centimeters being the average dimensions of a canvas. They are imbued with a muted passion and appear to be unconcerned with anything beyond their manifest subject: simple houses set in dull landscapes or still lifes composed of the most ordinary household objects, bottles chiefly, but also nondescript boxes, carefully placed and painted with a diffident touch in matte pinks, pale yellows, pistachio and colors that have no name--the color of putty, say, or baked unglazed clay. Once he settled into his mature style, Morandi invariably titled his painting Natura morta if it was a still life or Paesaggio if it was a landscape. One irresistible Natura morta, painted in 1953, depicts five objects arranged in two rows. The front row contains a box painted with three wide horizontal stripes of white and muddy brown, a buttery yellow box and a grayish brown box, all rendered in slightly distorted perspective. The striped box and the yellow box occlude a black, handleless cup and an ornamental glass carafe with a wide lip and twisted neck. The group, which stands in a washed-out background of indeterminate color, casts a collective shadow to the right. The gray box seems almost to be shoving the yellow box at its side, exerting such a strong force that it distorts the edge where their tops meet.
Like this Natura morta, each of Morandi's paintings suggests a fresh return to the basics of art, undistracted by passions, erotic or political. Born in 1890, Morandi spent most of his life in Bologna, Italy, where he taught art and lived as a bachelor in an apartment with his mother (she died in 1950) and his three unmarried sisters. In Janet Abramowicz's essential book Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence, there is an exceedingly moving photograph of the artist's bedroom, which doubled as his studio. A lumpy, skimpy bed is placed against a wall, and a few of Morandi's small framed pictures are hung here and there above it. On the adjoining wall are some shelves holding flasks, compotes, jars, saucers, pitchers and boxes--the kind of bric-a-brac that one might find in this country at yard sales in tidy hardscrabble neighborhoods. Whatever there is to say about Morandi's exemplary life can also be said about his paintings: they are honest, quiet and modest, a reproach to the distracted, uncertain lives of the rest of us. San Giorgio of the Table Top!
How can small paintings of a few simple bottles and boxes be so irresistible? Why did Morandi return to these objects over and over, and without the gloss of routine ever dulling his art? The literature about Morandi almost universally answers these questions with recourse to two metaphors: his pictures are poems in paint, or they are studies in stillness and silence. Painting is silent by default, but paintings of silence are another matter. Ut pictura poesis--"as is painting, so is poetry"--was a notion first articulated by Horace. But if poetry is what we adore in Morandi, what is the poetry specific to painting? If one were to subtract the meaning from poetry, leaving only the music, then that which corresponds to the music would be what remains when meaning is subtracted from painting. If the nature of that substance could be divined, then perhaps the mystery of Morandi's work could be solved. Of course, we could set aside such conundrums and just enjoy the Morandi retrospective (the first in the United States) currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through December 14), especially the last, long part of it, where Morandi's signature style quietly asserts itself and each work is a minor revelation. But a critic has certain responsibilities.
Peter Schjeldahl has written of how the painter Vija Celmins, upon first seeing a Morandi still life in 1961, was struck by the way the objects seemed to be fighting for one another's space. For me, Morandi's objects are like people squeezing between others in the subway, making room for themselves at their neighbors' expense. Morandi's still lifes are scenes of dampened violence, and the compositions closest to them, in terms of feeling and tone, are those dense groupings of abstract forms in Philip Guston's paintings of the mid-1960s, where one too many objects are crowded into a clotted space when there is plenty of empty room elsewhere on the canvas, so that the array seems to quiver and dilate.
Morandi's still lifes are not that still: they are not Platonic placements of rigid geometrical bodies. The components interact and jostle, exerting pressure on one another rather than sitting quietly at rest. One begins to wonder if an allegory is being enacted. The artist Robert Irwin speaks of Morandi as dealing with the "time and space relationships within the painting per se." What can he mean by that? Where does time come into these paintings, and how? I have read that Morandi drew chalk circles around the bases of his objects, so that he would know where to place them, as if he were choreographing a sequence and the paintings implied internal narratives. I sometimes think that the same bottle may occupy two--or even three--spaces in a painting. Of course, there could be two bottles of the same shape and size. But what if there is one bottle that occupies two different spots in the same composition? Then the composition would have a history of displacement. Morandi's compositions certainly have a history of simultaneity. It is striking that the shadows in his paintings go this way and that, as if there were different sources of light, or as though the bottles were sundials casting shadows made at the different times of day they were painted. In any case, Morandi's compositions of humble household objects placed on a table are not dreamy. They are something more dynamic and aggressive; their physics and geometry are up for grabs.
Morandi was educated at the Accademia di Belle Arti in his native city. Its curriculum had changed little since it was established by the Carracci brothers, Agostino and Annibale, and their cousin Ludovico in the late sixteenth century. The Carraccis concentrated on life drawing, and they brought Italian painting out of the artificial and arch complexity of the high Mannerist style into what came to be known as the Baroque. It was a time of immense opportunity for artists who could create convincing narrative representations of the Christian epic featuring the suffering of Christ and his followers. The Bolognese School commanded a near monopoly over the images that decorated the Roman churches of the Counter-Reformation, which were expressly designed to strengthen the Catholic faith. In the Carracci atelier, painters were taught that their depictions of the human body wracked by pain and agony had to be so convincing that worshipers would bond with the martyrs they saw portrayed on the walls.
Morandi entered the Accademia in 1907, the year Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Two years later the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti hectored his Italian contemporaries in the pages of the French daily Le Figaro. "We want to demolish museums and libraries," Marinetti shouted in his Futurist Manifesto. "We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath...a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace." In 1913, recently graduated from the Accademia, Morandi was curious enough about Futurism to travel to Florence to see the first exposition of Futurist painting (which had opened at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris in February 1912). The paintings experimented with representing the speed and violence of modern life as simultaneously perceived and remembered. In his special theory of relativity, Einstein talked about a light flashing on a railroad car. How much more exciting for the Futurists if a revolver were fired from a passing train!
Like all painting academies since the seventeenth century, the Accademia enforced a hierarchy in which history painting was considered the most demanding and prestigious of genres. Still life was so off the scale of respectability that it was an act of insurrection to take it up. I would conjecture that Morandi gravitated to still life, in which he started to work regularly around 1915, because it was the genre in which he could experiment most freely, manipulating bottles and jars--the very bric-a-brac that the Futurists rejected as being "filthy and worm-ridden and corroded by time"--to investigate the questions regarding time and space that the Futurists lobbed like so many bombs. Obviously, moving a bottle from one place to another in a small still life can scarcely be considered a militant act. Yet for all its modesty, the gesture introduces a certain dynamism into art. It's telling that Morandi loathed the staid work of Baroque masters, most particularly Guido Reni, a painter of cloying saints, typically female, whose welling large eyes gazed raptly heavenward. Reni was the artistic counterpart to the syrupy liqueurs relished by Italians of an earlier generation. At the Met exhibition I bumped into Milton Glaser, who studied etching with Morandi. Glaser recalled looking at some Reni paintings with Morandi, who told him that Reni excelled at painting toes. It's an intriguing remark, since it reveals an irony that the paintings would not have led one to expect: toes as the seat of the soul.
Morandi was drafted into the Italian infantry in 1915 but was soon discharged as being psychologically unfit for military service. During his convalescence he encountered the work of Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà, both of whom had turned their backs on Futurism and had begun to develop what they called pittura metafisica, which used ordinary objects as windows into dimensions of reality hidden from consciousness. Discarding Futurism's speedolatry, de Chirico and Carrà made paintings of quiet, hauntingly vacant piazzas under relentless sunlight, creating a mood that would later be absorbed into Surrealism. The two men were inspired by Italian cities--in de Chirico's case, Turin, with its arcaded streets and heavy shadows. (De Chirico studied philosophy, particularly Nietzsche, who had found Turin hospitable, though it was there, in the Piazza Carlo Alberto, that he suffered a complete nervous breakdown.) In pittura metafisica, Morandi encountered a vision in which disparate mundane objects in emptied spaces evoke something dreamlike and allusive.
Morandi's Bottles and Fruit Dish [Still Life], 1916, features three banal objects--a fluted fruit dish and a carafe, both with helical patterns, and a tall, slender flask shaped like a truncated cone. All three objects seem to be made of opalescent glass; they are ghostly presences in a mysterious space. As a trio, they suggest a larger undisclosed meaning. The painting, which is considered an important contribution to pittura metafisica, today seems inconspicuous, a lesson in the way paintings that changed history fade into an exhibition when the history has been forgotten. Perhaps that's a measure of how drastically our sense of the commonplace has been transfigured by a certain iconic array of thirty-two Campbell's soup cans. Andy Warhol unveiled that work in 1962. Morandi died two years later.
Futurism and metaphysics are ideological antonyms to the whatness and whereness into which Morandi comfortably settled. Futuristic speed is hardly a value if what one needs for a human life is in the here and now; the emptiness of metaphysical painting is too thin for human habitation. In contemplating the achievement of Morandi's paintings, I can't help thinking of Jane Austen's wry characterization of her novels in a letter to her nephew James Edward Austen, also a writer: "What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow?--How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?" The bombast and posturing of the Futurists could not elbow themselves into the fine, dynamic space that Morandi made his own--an adventure deeply different from what most still life aspires to.