Giorgio Morandi knew Fascism with a capital F. The story of Italian art is intertwined with its often ruthless politics, never more so than in the bloody history of the past hundred years. The clarion call of the 20th century was sounded by the proto-Fascist futurists, who erupted on the scene during Morandi’s student days at Bologna’s Accademia di Belle Arti. Italy had been unified barely 20 years when Morandi was born in 1890, and the futurists embodied the motor of modernity, kicking a vital new nation out of a slumbering, ancient civilization.
It’s hard to imagine what Morandi might have made of futurism’s glorification of danger, war, industrialization, and speed. He was a man, after all, who never moved from his childhood home or the doting affections of his mother and sisters, and who suffered a breakdown after a single month in the military. But he was also insatiably curious, and despite his reputation as an ascetic, celibate hermit (“St. Morandi,” as a 1971 ARTnews review called him), he was in the thick of contemporary culture throughout his life and enjoyed the friendship and support of a wide circle of artists and intellectuals.
The superbly curated exhibition at Lucas Schoormans Gallery represents the apotheosis of Morandi’s nearly five decades of single-minded exploration and introspection. The six paintings on display, all still lifes, date from 1954, the same year as Jasper Johns’s “Flag,” through 1963, when Andy Warhol was producing his Death and Disaster series. Against the backdrop of mid-20th century American art, you might expect these pictures to appear staid, quaint, maybe a tad treacly. They don’t. Quite to the contrary, they seethe with abstract intensity to a degree unmatched by the work of younger but contemporaneous representational artists like Fairfield Porter and Richard Diebenkorn. Morandi’s forms aggressively thrust against the picture plane or float in diaphanous clouds across it. Their sheer painterly and metaphorical density resist casual engagement, and despite their diminutive scale, they take over the room.
Hung one or two to a wall, the installation at Schoormans leaves plenty of breathing space for both you and the pictures. There are three from the Museo Morandi in Bologna, one from a private collection, one from the Smith College Museum in Northampton, and one from the Morat Institut fuer Kunst und Kunstwissenschaft in Freiburg, Germany. The gallery’s lighting, jacked up by daylight filters, reveals a chromatic depth, clarity, and complexity that approach the quality of light Morandi must have seen in his Bolognese studio. The habitual notion of Morandi as a structural master but an indifferent colorist, gleaned from inadequate, flat reproductions and dimly lit museum corners, is wiped away. Breathless shifts of tonality seduce the eye and hold it transfixed. Creamy whites and sherbet peaches illuminate the paintings from within, animating the mars gray brushstrokes swooshing across the negative spaces.
Morandi created magic, but it didn’t come easily or quickly. The earliest piece in the show, a 1954 still life from Smith College, shows evidence of struggle—the paint is dry and sunken, and the brushstrokes describe the forms rather than, as in the later work, become them. Still, the composition is extremely advanced in its explicit geometry: The bottles and tins create a tight, overt rectangle situated slightly lower than dead center within the picture frame.
Within two years Morandi retired from his teaching position at the Accademia di Belle Arti, where he himself was a student, and consequently devoted much more time to his art. As the works in this show progress, we see the paint become juicier, the compositions more extreme, the brushstrokes more ineffable. A 1955 piece, like the one from the previous year, is almost aggressive in its symmetry and centrality. A year later, the rows of bottles and tins are thrown off by a terre verte ellipse jutting off to the right, smack up against the painting’s edge. In another oil from 1956, the same cast of characters returns in the same arrangement, except that a blue bottle is replaced by a white bowl, and wide negative space encloses the entire ensemble. The only thing that prevents this loopy group from toppling into chaos is the artist’s signature, very large and directly centered on the bottom edge.
In the works from the last few years of Morandi’s life, one thinks of the final works of Titian, whose trembling flames of paint evoke timeless, inexpressible tragedy. The last pictures in this show, one from 1960, the other from 1963, are something else again. The 1960 still life is more flatly abstract than the others, but the paint is more viscous. The most conspicuous object, a vase the color of blood-soaked earth, has no base—it’s hidden by that ubiquitous white bottle that appears in innumerable pictures—so the whole composition feels on the verge of collapse, dragged downward by the edge of a rounded tabletop sinking at the far ends of the picture frame. All is fragile, unstable, executed with a structural audacity that Morandi’s idol, Cézanne, only hinted at. Yet the emotion it yields, with its sensuous, shivering, licking strokes of paint, is one of shuddering, erotic surrender. So much for Morandi the ascetic.
The last work in the show, set on its own wall and bathed in natural light, is an abstract choreography of pure form painted with a freedom unlike anything that preceded it. As with late Degas, its radicalism may be partially due to diminished physical powers, but that remains in the realm of perpetual conjecture. What we see in front of us is a set of shapes, once so palpably dense, now dissolving into shifting planes of light and shadow. Staring at this painting, we intuit the struggle of an artist fighting his mortality with incomparable insights into the nature of his craft.