Giorgio Morandi: A Master of Stillness

Tom Birchenough

Magazine issue: 
#4 2008 (21)

The great Italian artist of the 20th century Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) received major renown in New York in Autumn 2008, with a landmark exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, accompanied by a range of other shows at other galleries in the city. The largest retrospective in North America for the artist to date, it will move back, in a slightly adjusted format, to the artist’s hometown, Bologna, to be displayed at that city’s Museo d’Arte Moderna from January 22. It was in Bologna that the artist spent the greater part of his life, and where a museum dedicated to his memory occupies an honoured place in one of the city’s central town square buildings.

Though widely enough exhibited in Europe since his death in 1964, Giorgio Morandi’s work has been much less known in America, and it must be in no small part thanks to the dedication of the retiring director of the Metropolitan museum Philippe de Montebello, who over 30 years has ensured the artistic integrity of that institution, that New York was able to see the exhibition.

“Like his paintings, small in scale and intimate in content, Morandi never fitted into the declamatory, self-aggrandizing mode of the most prominent 20th century masters. He was a quiet, almost reclusive, and deeply thoughtful man, content to explore his own artistic preoccupations without concern for the expectations of the fast-paced world of artistic fashion,” de Montebello wrote in a catalogue essay. “The time is ripe for a vaster appreciation of Morandi’s rightful place in the canon of modern art.”

The Met show coincided with no less than three other New York exhibitions — a survey of works on paper at the Istituto Italiano de Cultura curated by Rinato Miracco, who was responsible with Maria Cristina Bandera for the Met exhibition; a show of his etchings at Pace Gallery; and a small monographic show at Lucas Schoormans Gallery. Another significant exhibition is planned for early 2009 at Washington’s Phillips Collection.

It is a remarkable, and much-deserved, exposure for an artist who famously spent almost all his life in and around his native Bologna; he only traveled abroad twice towards the end of his life, and never visited Paris, even though the work of French artists, especially Cezanne, was clearly highly influential for him, as were the traditions of the Italian Renaissance masters.

There is a remarkable tranquility, even introspection to much of the artist’s work. The best insight into the Met exhibition that I have found comes in the words of writer and critic Nancy Yousef. “Hung in a modern underground octagonal space, it was a tunnel-like circuit that was actually rather appropriate for appreciating both the variation and the obsessive iterations of the work. I was struck by the early paintings, which were very minimalist — early Picasso in form but unmistakably inflected with the style and spirit of the quotidian details found in Renaissance Italian fresco painting,” Yousef wrote. “Certainly the chromatic scheme — brown, beige, gray, occasional rust and orange — which he sticks to for decades is reminiscent of fresco. All the paintings are small scale and most belong to series — the same jars, pitchers, bottles figuring in different arrangements. The mid-late works were especially effective in the art of (non) repetition. I know that he is experimenting with light and volume and shadow in these series, but the effect of seeing them together for me was more of a hovering vision... how things appear if you turn away for a moment and turn back, blink, return in a different mood. And yet the consistency was astonishing in spite of the variation. I fell into a very peaceful meditative state looking at these paintings. They were utterly accessible, absolutely abstract, and poignantly tangible. There was no narrative, just a series of fully realized moments reduced to warm tonalities in two dimensional forms that one might, or might not, coax into three dimensionality. The paintings were so pure in a 20th century way, but also intimate. The intelligence of Picasso and Cezanne, the sensuality and reflectiveness of Rothko... impersonality, but no coldness.”

Morandi’s hometown of Bologna played a crucial role in his life, and the great majority of his works were created in the studio he had in the family house on Via Fondazza (he lived there with his three sisters for the greater part of his life), with views of a courtyard. Morandi found the city “more beautiful” than Florence, though admitting that Florence had more important works of art. He studied at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts from 1907, moving away from the academic traditions that still dominated there at the beginning of the 20th century; he returned to the Academy as a professor of etching in 1930, working there until retirement in 1956.

The artist’s studio, a distinctive and sparse space with the range of objects — bottles, pitchers, vases, shells and books — that feature in his still-lifes, has been reassembled at the museum dedicated to his art, which since 1993 has occupied space on Bologna’s Palazzo d’Accursio. (Just as the no less evocative studio of Russian artist Dmitry Krasnopevtsev, to whom reference is made at the end of his article, has been restored in Moscow’s Museum of Private Collections). A propos, the opening of the Metropolitan exhibition in Bologna in January will coincide with the opening of the Casa da Morandi, located in the Via Fondazza house, as a collection of books, documents and other research material devoted to the artist.

In summers and during the years of World War II he would retreat to the mountain village of Grizzana, where the majority of his landscapes were painted. But to depict Morandi — as has sometimes been done as a critical reaction — as an insular artist who remained firmly within his accustomed and insular space would be wrong. Although he travelled abroad only twice at the end of his life, his knowledge of contemporary artistic trends, particularly from France, was considerable, sometimes gleaned from black and white photographs printed in the leading Italian art magazines of his day.

The Venice Biennale also proved a crucial point of reference: Morandi’s first visit there in 1910 allowed him to see rooms devoted to Renoir and Courbet, while ten years later he saw the work of Cezanne, arguably the most important (loose) influence on the artist, with whose work he was well acquainted well before 1920. Morandi himself exhibited at the Biennale from 1928 onwards, winning the first prize there in 1948.

Rome was another destination, and he participated in group shows from 1914 onwards, first in the Esposizione Libera Futurista in that year, when he was associated with that movement; he met Umberto Boccioni and Carlo Carra in1913, and later trips to Rome, as well as to Milan which was then the major gallery centre in Italy, brought him contact with Giorgio de Chirico. In his work of the late 1910s, the style of Futurism influenced Morandi, although in a highly individual style that is distinctly his own, and later moved on to what has been termed his “metaphysical painting”.

The question of influence seems an important one, for an artist whose works seem simultaneously timeless and clearly in the European artistic tradition (the Metropolitan exhibition also draws attention to lesser-appreciated references to classical Oriental art). Its curators term Morandi as the last representative of figurative painting but also “the poet of its crisis”.

He studied the Italian renaissance tradition in great depth. In an autobiographical essay of 1928 (published in the Fascist magazine “L’Assolto”, and because of that background somewhat avoided by scholars), he wrote: “Among the ancient painters, the Tuscans are those that most interest me — Giotto and Masaccio above all. As for their modern contemporaries, I regard Corot, Courbet, Fattori, and Cezanne as the most legitimate heirs to the glorious Italian tradition.” He also cited on other occasions the influence of Ucello, but strangely did not acknowledge Piero della Francesca directly in that essay — a point that the scholar Neville Rowley in a catalogue essay attributes to the fact that Morandi was so intricately involved with Piero’s work that reference became almost unnecessary.

Nevertheless Piero appears in the “lista preferenziale”, compiled by the renowned art critic Roberto Longhi, a longterm friend and critical supporter of Morandi, collecting the artists with whom Morandi, and Longhi himself, felt affinity: “in chronological order: Giotto, Masaccio, Piero, Bellini, Titian, Chardin, Corot, Renoir, and Cezanne.”

Chardin is certainly a prototype for Morandi’s still-lifes (the artist had for many years illustrations from an album of Chardin’s works on his studio walls); Cezanne’s influence dominates in his landscape work (look, for example, at the spatial resemblances between Cezanne’s 1892-1894 “La Maison Lezardee” and two landscapes by Morandi from 1927-1928). Nevertheless Morandi’s range goes far beyond these two categories, including figurative paintings and self-portraits (two notable examples date from the early 1920s). His later watercolour work approaches “white on white”, exquisitely playing off the faintest hints of colour against the texture of the paper itself (itself, arguably another allusion to classical Oriental art).

The first decade after his graduation from the Academy were particularly productive for the artist, despite the fact he had taken up a job as a primary school drawing teacher to earn a regular living (he remained in the post until his appointment as professor of etching 15 years later); he was drafted into the army in 1917, but discharged after some months for medical reasons.

He was associated with various groups — like the “Valori Plastici” from 1918 to 1921, which sent some of his works in a major group exhibition to Germany in 1921; the next year de Chirico, who described his painting as “the metaphysics of the most common objects”, introduced him to the “Fiorentina Primaverile”.

However, from after the mid-1920s he largely moved away from such group contacts, though that’s not to say that he lived a solitary life in Bologna — instead he had a close circle of friends, including artists and academics. Increasingly, and especially in the last decade of his life, his acclaim meant that he was regularly visited by artists and curators. A sign of his greater renown in Italy is the appearance of his paintings in a number of feature films of the post-War era, most notably in Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”.

The final form in which Morandi will be celebrated as a master of his century, if not indeed of the entire European tradition, is his etching work. Essentially he taught himself the form during his last year at the Academy. Working strictly in black and white, he used the demanding hard ground etching technique, involving the direct use of acid and ground (which he prepared himself), as distinct from engraving. The first catalogue of his graphic works was prefaced by a phrase from Odilon Redon, “Il faut respecter le noir”, which perfectly catches the later artist’s achievement. Resemblances to Rembrandt, in subject and technique, are certainly apposite. In both rural, as well as his urban landscapes, among them his very first etching, “The Bridge on the Savena River in Bologna” from 1912, and still-lifes catch Morandi showing his masterful use of the cross-hatching technique which gave him as many as 12 possible gradations between black and white.

Morandi’s involvement with and influence on Soviet art of later generations is documented, and dates from the late 1920s. In a catalogue essay for the exhibition “Morandi. An Artist of Europe” held in Brussels in 1992, the writer Giovanni Schweiller recalls the story in an essay “Morandi, Schweiller et Ternovets: une rencontre europeenne”:

“An interesting episode of collaboration between Giorgio Morandi and my father dates back to 1927-1930 and concerns cultural relations between Italy and Russia, which started over 60 years ago in 1926 and which only experts are aware of. The two characters in question are my father Giovanni Schweiller (1889-1965), publisher, editor and art critic, and Boris Nikolaevich Ternovets, the director of the Museum of New Western Art in Moscow in the 1920s and 1930s. The museum was closed after the war and its collection was divided between the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and Hermitage in Leningrad.

“In 1924, Ternovets was in charge of the Soviet pavilions at the Venice Biennale and in 1927, at the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Monza. He started professional contacts with the representatives of Italian culture, and in particular with Giovanni Schweiller, with whom he exchanged letters with from 1926 to 1936.

“It took several months to decide which works should be exchanged between Russian and Italian artists (the latter would enrich the Moscow museum). In 1927, Schweiller suggested an exchange to Morandi, who accepted the proposal and contacted the Russian critic. In his letter dated 1930, Ternovets praised Morandi’s print and sent him the details of the Russian artists suggested to participate in the exchange. Their correspondence, which totals 17 letters and five postcards, includes the following notice from Morandi to Schweiller dated 12 April 1930:

“Dear Schweiller, Thank you very much for your letter and the interest you show in my work. It is with great pleasure that I have read the letter from the director of the Moscow gallery. His proposal exceeds my request. Be sure that I will send you a dozen photographs as soon as possible. As for the painting for the Moscow gallery, I will be very glad to provide you with one. I must add that for the time being, only old works are available, as my few recent paintings are being exhibited in Venice and Pittsburg at the moment. But I would like to send you a new work of high-quality. Two paintings should soon be back from America where they have not been sold and certainly will not be. They will be exhibited in New York from 13 May to 1 June and then brought back to Italy at the end of the month. One of those two paintings, “Natura Morta” 1929, is reproduced in Madame Sarfatti’s book. That’s the one I would like to give. Thank you and please pass my thanks to the director of the Moscow gallery. My greetings to Vitaly. Yours, Morandi.”

The painting referred to in this correspondence must be one of the two in the collection of the Hermitage (both were transferred there from the Moscow Museum of New Western Art, after the closure of that institution in 1948). And Morandi’s work was certainly seen in group exhibitions of Italian art in the 1960s, as well as a solo show at both the Hermitage and Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow in 1973.

It was certainly seen there by Dmitry Krasnopevtsev, whose stylistic similarities with the Italian artist attest to a common current in European art of the preceding generations (like Morandi, Krasnopevtsev was also an accomplished etcher). Both are commonly termed artists who worked, in different ways, in the “metaphysical school”, concentrating as they both did on the constant fluctuations of familiar everyday studio objects — the bottles, jars and other vessels for which Morandi has on occasions been dismissed critically as “the bottle painter”. Both show varying degrees of attachment to the European tradition of colourism, best known in the similarly chamber style works of Soviet artist Vladimir Weisberg — for whom, along with Morandi the influence of Cezanne was crucial.

All three artists largely avoided for the most part any involvement in “public” artistic life, prefering the space of their characteristic studio environments and repeated, detailed examination of their chosen objects (and in Morandi’s case the landscapes of his native region). It is the nuance of such examination that becomes almost meditative. In a way that speaks, Krasnopevtsev in his diaries wrote: “ Having tried all available means of getting to know the object, looking at it from all angles, every available point of view, staring at the interior and inspecting, although mentally, the form of the object from within, as if it were hollow, weighing everything up... Having done this, I know that I only have a superficial knowledge of the object.”

It is arguably presumptuous to link the words of one artist to the work of another, but Krasnopevtsev’s words speak profoundly. Just of those of a critic Roberto Longhi, writing on Morandi as able to “touch the core, the essence of things” might be applied to the Russian artist.

But let us leave the final word to Morandi himself, who wrote: “Even in as simple a subject, a great painter can achieve a majesty of vision and an intensity of feeling to which we immediately respond.”


The author and the Tretyakov Gallery Magazine express gratitude to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and to the Museo Morandi, Bologna for help in the preparation of this article.





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