By the time Giorgio Morandi discovered himself as an artist he had reduced his universe to a handful of things. These were primarily bottles, tins, jugs, vases, and a few bowls. In a pinch, Morandi was perfectly happy with two tins and a vase. He would arrange the three things and then paint them. Generally he stuck to a muted palate: grays and beige, an overall preponderance of brown. Even when Morandi used brighter colors it still seemed like brown dressing up in drag for the occasion. His paintings do the opposite of pop. They simmer. They wait for you to come to them.
If Morandi painted his two tins and vase in an arrangement one day, he would move the vase a few inches and paint them anew the next. These minute transformations amazed Morandi. He didn’t need anything more. A slight change in the light, a subtle shift in direction, and his world of three things was forever fresh and new.
By all rights, these ought to be the most boring paintings in history. Nothing happens in them. His works aren’t quite abstract and so do not have the formal freedom to impress us with proportion and color as Mondrian’s can, or a wildness in pure movement and action as Pollock’s can. They aren’t full-bodied realism, either, and so cannot show us the richness of fruits and flowers and so forth of traditional still lifes, nor the striking still life deconstructions of someone like Cezanne. Morandi is content to do as close to nothing as a painter can do. He sits at his easel, year after year, shifts his two tins and the one damn vase, and then paints the scene in his own special vision of muted brownness.
Yet, these are extraordinarily beautiful and moving paintings.
That’s the shock of it. Looking at the current retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, one wonders: How did this homely and private Italian man pull it off? People who like to make a distinction between those who merely paint and those who are “painter’s painters” like to brag about Morandi and his monkish dedication to the study of light and space and color. Well, he was monkish and unworldly and he loved nothing more than the act of painting, the physical process by which a human being applies a wet, colored substance to a canvas using strokes of a brush. People also like to point out that Morandi studied the paintings of Renaissance masters, particularly Piero della Francesca and Caravaggio. Morandi did learn from these painters, and he carried a certain Renaissance detachment to his studies of objects and the way that they look.
Being a painter’s painter is fine, but it doesn’t explain the broader appeal of Morandi’s work. The results of these paintings are compelling beyond the lessons that they provide for those who think deeply about the practice of painting. The same is true of the Renaissance. It is possible to be excited by Morandi’s canvases without seeing them as continuing a tradition of the Quattro and Cinquecento.
| “Paesaggio,” 1962. © Giorgio Morandi
by SIAE 2008.
Morandi himself never provided much of a roadmap. His most famous comment regarding his own work is, “nothing is more abstract than reality.” It’s a nicely gnomic utterance and interpreters have jumped all over it. Truly, late Morandi landscapes like “Paesaggio” (1962) — essentially a couple of blocks of white surrounded by fluffy gray-green spirals and a few hints of pink — are as close to abstraction as any realist painter would dare to get. When Morandi looked at a landscape he looked at it as areas of shape and color counterposed against other areas of shape and color.
But another famous Morandi quote reveals a rather straightforward naturalism. He said, “What interests me most is expressing what’s in nature, in the visible world, that is.” That’s a commitment to representing the world as we actually encounter it. When you put these two things together you don’t get a contradiction exactly, but you do get a certain amount of confusion. The two quotes lead us directly to a third: ” Everything is a mystery, ourselves, and all things both simple and humble.”
I think Morandi is exciting because he is sneaky and he’s a liar. He pretends that he’s just a modest man letting objects be objects and letting nature be nature. His pastels and repertoire of browns dull the senses and draw you in to his Circean web. Once you’re in, Morandi has you. He takes you through a nearly infinite set of examples of how much control he has over the very objects that normally mark our limits as human beings. Every day we are impinged upon. Every day we serve the mute indifference of things, stuff that we cannot control.
Morandi pared his universe down to just a few of those things. He took away the background and the foreground. He shifted everything into a color spectrum of his own choosing. You can actually watch him do it. In the still lifes from the late ’30s, there’s still a sense of menace in some of the objects. An uncomfortable contrast in white and black and red makes the vases and bottles project outright menace. “Natura morta” (1937, V. 221) and “natura morta” (1938, V. 225) are chaotic and threatening works; the objects are not under any direct artistic control. By the early ’40s, Morandi has figured things out, literally. He has decided how he wants things to be. Things, objects, are going to play by his rules.
|“Natura morta,” 1961. © Giorgio
Morandi by SIAE 2008.
Thus the obsessiveness of Morandi’s last two decades. He knew what he was up against and he knew what he had to do. He had to make objects conform to his vision while still portraying them as real objects. So he arranged his bottles and tins and vases in one way and then he arranged them in another. He painted them in the morning and the evening and at night. He observed them through shifts of light and color and position. For 25 years, Morandi painted canvas after canvas using the same handful of tins and bottles and vases, sometimes shifting their position no more than an inch or two. He was always able to overcome these variables and make the objects look as he wanted them to look. Take a painting like “natura morta” (1954, V. 906). This is a vase and three tins not as they are found on an actual kitchen table, but as Morandi would have them. It is soothing and rapturous to stare at that painting, to know it exists, to realize that one man was so able to master the world immediately before him — calmly, surely, on his own terms and none other.
So, in a sense, Morandi was another great egotist of 20th-century art. The modest scale and subject matter of his paintings tricks us into talking about Morandi as a painter of humility and small gestures. But that is wrong. He chose his own field of battle — the kitchen table and a handful of objects upon it — and he waged a war on all those material things that resist our attempts to understand them. We may never understand them, say Morandi’s paintings, but we can make of them something grand, something brown, and something completely our own. • 22 October 2008