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.