Center for Modern Italian Art
421 Broome Street, 4th Floor, New York
9 October 2015 – 25 June 2016
All accounts suggest that the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) enjoyed a life of uninterrupted calm and isolation. Introverted by nature, Morandi spent his entire lifetime in Bologna, in the same apartment no less, and was dubbed il Monaco due to his almost monastic reclusiveness. He tended to paint at home, either in his bedroom or an adjoining studio, committing himself almost exclusively to the natura morta, or still life. Seemingly obsessed with the interplay between form, negative space, and color, Morandi executed upwards of 1,000 paintings and etchings within the genre, and today his oeuvre tends to be seen as an endless parade of bottles, vases, jugs, jars, tea kettles, and cookie tins inching towards—but never quite reaching—abstraction.
In the United States, we have been most frequently treated to Morandi’s later paintings from the 1950s and early 1960s. Small canvases adorned with thin strokes of paint depict densely stacked bottles jockeying for a spot at the front of the line; geometric landscapes push the boundaries of representation, looking more like the clusters of objects in his still lifes the longer we stare. Because of their looser technique, comparatively diminutive size, and inclusion of fewer objects, Morandi’s paintings from this period are more common than those from any other stretch of his career. Yet while they, like the majority of his preceding works, center around the variability of optical reality, to focus on the later paintings alone is to miss the breadth of Morandi’s lifelong pursuit of a personal visual dialect, like picking at the remnants of a creative explosion while failing to examine what led up to it.
Like most lives, Morandi’s was colored by paradox. Despite his eventual commitment to the still life, his early years were marked by exuberant experimentation and an inclination towards the avant-garde. Though his studies at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Bologna exposed him to the Early Italian Renaissance, the young Morandi became attracted to the otherworldly work of Giorgio de Chirico and the rest of the scuola metafisica movement, and he began covering his canvases with lustrous textures and fractured representations. By the mid-1920s Morandi had moved on, alighting on a more ethereal, naturalistic style that earned him the admiration of the Fascist Strapaese movement, which championed Italy’s agrarian roots. Curiously enough, Morandi had developed this approach out of admiration for Paul Cézanne, whose individualistic experimentation would have shocked the state-driven Strapaese. (Due to the brevity of this association, as well as Morandi’s own independent nature, he is presently viewed as the modern Italian artist least tainted by Fascism.)
It is partially thanks to Cézanne that Morandi became so wholly engrossed in the still life. The vigor of Cézanne’s weighty brushstrokes and the way his compositions elicit a tension between geometric forms proved that the natura morta—literally translated as “dead nature”—could indeed hum with fluctuating energy. From the 18th century master Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Morandi learned that the mode could either reflect or obscure the chaos of the outside world. Either way, each composition would need to be considered with unflinching deliberation, possessing its own inimitable visual dynamic.
Though it contains wide-ranging examples of Morandi’s output, the illuminating exhibit currently on view at the Center for Italian Modern Art pointedly focuses on this era of discovery, giving viewers an unprecedented opportunity to grapple with the curiosities driving his art. During the 1930s, after securing a post teaching printmaking at his alma mater, Morandi began relentlessly depicting his unremarkable cast of bottles, vases, jugs, and jars in both paintings and etchings. While he worked at an unusually slow pace, executing an average of one painting each month, it was during this decade that he focused his aesthetic vision and established the parameters that would advance it.
No matter what style they employ, each of these still lifes depicts an arrangement painstakingly labored over. Every object was specially chosen for its ordinary nature; if a bottle possessed too much flair it would find its label removed and its glossy surface muted by paint. In other instances, Morandi would reconstruct certain objects to his liking, employing the ready-made in a far subtler manner than Duchamp. For weeks Morandi would mull over the placement of each item, examining his assemblage at different times of day in order to choose the most visually intriguing option. He would often wait several months to begin painting, after each item had accumulated a sufficient layer of dust.
Though seemingly impersonal, these arrangements often allude to the monumental quality of medieval Italian architecture, reminding us that even at his most abstract, Morandi pursued the interchange between the world outside and worlds constructed. In this defining period, he created a personal universe from varying shades of brown, frequently depicting the same tableaux using several different approaches. Occasionally he would apply his brushstrokes evenly, though more often they would leave thick globules in their wake; sometimes objects are graced with dramatic shading on one edge but not another; or they are stretched to add drama. In other instances, two objects, for example a vase and a candlestick, will overlap to create an unreal amalgamation that could never actually exist but could be concocted by the fallible human eye. Even more frequently, negative space will outshine physical actuality, with untamed swatches of paint leaping from the encircled boundaries of a tea kettle’s handle. Whether veering towards realism or surrealism, or instead implementing a childlike brushiness, every canvas is adorned with Morandi’s contemplative fervor, his boundless passion for each object pushing him towards unending variability.
While some may get bogged down in the apparent repetition of Morandi’s paintings, most viewers will find themselves invigorated by the astonishingly diverse visual languages he used to communicate. Even his etchings, three of which are on display at CIMA, reflect a persistent desire to convey the protean nature of visual authenticity. One of them, its arrangement seemingly cloaked in darkness, contains cross-hatching so dense and so fine that it resembles woven cloth, an illusion furthered by an irregular edge that evokes an unsewn hem. Its next-door neighbor portrays the same cluster in a thinly veiled brightness, shifting the focus back to contours and textures instead of the specific quality of light. The third print features a more sparsely populated gathering and combines the two techniques, using a chiseled background to emphasize the dynamism of its subjects, several of which contain delicately erased highlights.
In such a comprehensive context, Morandi’s narrow band of subject matter communicates his own dogged commitment to receptive observation as well as the equally high demands he placed on his audience. By repeatedly returning to a visual theme, Morandi instilled each attempt with a distinct optical truth. His intensity continually led him towards variation, ensuring that students of his catalog would need to maintain a similar level of dedication in order to develop any sort of literacy. To truly see a Morandi we must look upon it with the same pliability and fervor that he was able to summon time and time again.
With our minds thus focused, previously opaque works suddenly spring to life. Certain arrangements take on the monumentality of looming cityscapes, while others bring to mind a troupe of performers enacting a particularly harmonious collaboration. Aligned on Morandi’s humble stage, we recognize specific objects—a carafe, or a sea shell, perhaps—that we have seen before, in another impossibly different portrayal. While our cherished carafe may have starred in one especially striking depiction, across the room it fills a minor role, gladly submitting to Morandi’s interchange between individuality and group dynamics.
As it unravels in a series of dips and dives, knotting itself here and there, history—more accurately termed “time” until it can be fully parsed and dissected—is marked by untidy variations. The artist, whether choosing to comment on this state of flux explicitly or not, finds his or her work transmuted by it all the same, entire novels, sculptures, or performances eternally backlit by impermanence. Over the course of the 1930s, Italy’s mounting vulnerability triggered a concurrently increasing volatility. Not surprisingly, Giorgio Morandi changed during this period as well, and so did his work. Still enthralled by his objects, by the end of the decade he had drifted towards heightened clarity and had added the reds and blues of medieval texts to his earth-tinted palette. With the inevitable outbreak of the war, Morandi quickly shifted back to a mud-colored and increasingly unsettling world of near abstraction, nodding towards the chaos at large by reminding his audience to stay nimble.
Seeking safety and a reclamation of the monastic calm he is so commonly remembered for, Morandi spent a great deal of World War II in Grizzana, a mountainous village about twenty miles southwest of Bologna. Forced to leave his precious belongings behind, he turned the focus of his continual visual interrogation upon the land itself. These telescopic imaginings are completely void of intelligible horizon lines, and they use trees, ravines, plains, and mountains to create shapes and negative spaces much as Morandi’s still lifes do. Though able to return to his assemblages in time, Morandi used this hiatus to deepen his exploration of the fertile middle ground between consistency and variation. Thanks to his vast oeuvre, and CIMA’s skillful display of such a vital swath of it, we also realize that volatility, exhilaration, and vitality can grace the canvases of one of modernism’s most reclusive and reflective masters.