Giorgio Morandi, 1890-1964 The Metropolitan Museum of Art September 16 – December 14, 2008
Giorgio Morandi: Paintings and Works on Paper Lucas Schoormans Gallery September 9 – October 18, 2008
Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) is best known as a painter of modest-sized still lifes, depicting earthen-hued bottles, boxes, vases, jugs, and cups. The first large-scale Morandi retrospective in the United States, currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, consists of nearly a hundred still lifes and a dozen landscapes (out of the 1,700 paintings he made over his lifetime).
Despite the welcome attention the show brings to the artist’s early influences and to some of his more anomalous works, the installation is a disappointment. Tucked away in the underground galleries of the Robert Lehman wing, the space’s circular layout confuses the exhibition’s chronology, and its variously colored walls present Morandi’s palette inaccurately. In contrast, the Lucas Schoormans Gallery in Chelsea opened a Morandi exhibition concurrent to the Metropolitan’s retrospective, consisting of six characteristic still life paintings from 1945 to 1958. Schoormans gives you the Morandi you would expect. Sparely installed on slightly tinted, cool gray walls, these paintings glow in a way that the works in the Met’s lower level do not. With more room to breathe, they also remind one of the time and immersion required to absorb the paintings’ subtle undulations of value, chroma, and touch, and they leave you wanting to return to the Metropolitan, with its sheer volume and relative variety, for more.
This is all to say that to fully experience Morandi’s paintings requires constant investigation and revisitation. Shifting contexts continually connect and disconnect great art with current social issues and historical events. These exhibitions, installed in a contemporary gallery and the museum wing that previously featured Fra Angelico, demonstrate the diverse contexts and levels of meaning applicable to his work.
Morandi took refuge in an intense inner world. In painting, he found the animate spark in inanimate objects. Perhaps his reclusiveness echoed a desire to retreat from an Italy ravaged by two successive world wars. Whether conjuring the corporeal process of aging or the deterioration of architecture under the elements, Morandi’s extremely personal vision of painting is noticeably contemporary, with his bleak hues and worn forms suggesting desolation and decay. His crumbly still lifes quietly evoke our twin fears of economic collapse and environmental destruction.
From his contemporaries to the present, Morandi has been a major influence and inspiration for painters and painting. While viewing the exhibition, I thought about how the fissured forms and subdued light of a 1925 self-portrait, as well as his later landscapes, recall Fairfield Porter, who perceptively wrote that Morandi’s still lifes “differ from one another like the cases in the declension of a Latin noun.” In the late 1940s, as Morandi’s brushstroke became washier, freer, and more pronounced, I thought about the sense of touch in Philip Guston’s late figurative work. Interestingly, Guston’s blunt cartoon shapes depicted surreal images of isolation and alienation—forlorn shoes, bricks, and bottles, sometimes gazed upon by giant, one-eyed figures—that replaced the post-war abstractions that made his career. Guston’s late figuration chronicles a more direct response to the unstable world around him, while he paradoxically retreated from the New York art scene.
“Demolition,” a 2005 canvas by Luc Tuymans, repeatedly comes to mind when thinking of Morandi’s legacy for contemporary painting. Unlike many young painters who are fixated only on the perceived cultural currency and sufficient (often mechanical) reproducibility of an image, Tuymans gives equal weight to painting as both image and materially–engaged object. At once an amorphous smoke cloud and cerebral gray matter, the luminous assortment of pale purplish grays of “Demolition” flicker in unison with Tuymans’ thin and diverse sense of touch; the movement of Tuymans’ hand as he drags the brush across the canvas is vividly recorded by the materiality of paint. Nearly abstracted beyond recognition, the painting has only one detail identifying its imagery as a cloud of smoke and not cranial tissue—a small segment of a streetlamp.
In our current climate, “Demolition” inevitably evokes the dust, debris, and devastation of September 11th. Whether the actual scene is simply a construction site doesn’t matter, for it’s the contemporary consciousness we bring to these images that makes their meaning. It’s our internal projection of a cultural context onto the external reality of painting. For Tuymans, the way it’s painted is just as important as what it says. He transforms common imagery into abstractions, often without losing the original source (and when he does, he slyly uses titles to reestablish its relationship to external elements).
The transformative quality in Morandi’s painting is decisively the result of his wavering, almost trembling brushwork. His bottles and boxes become anthropomorphic, surrogates for human presence. They lose a tangible solidity and form, suggesting an immaterial buoyancy. Morandi was rarely interested in a measurable verisimilitude or faithful observation. These articles of inspiration become little more than springboards for painting; what is most important in viewing his work is attuning one’s eye to the intricacies, nuances, and inventiveness of his painterly delivery.
Chuck Close once said, “I personally couldn’t care less about a bunch of bottles—but I am sure glad Morandi could.” Close’s statement is curious and provoking. He seems to be saying either that Morandi’s passion for his subject is the reason his paintings work, or that his passion for painting evoked a mesmerizing wonder over his subject’s physical structure.
Still, it’s never clear whether Morandi fetishized bottles or was simply using what was at hand. As the retrospective demonstrates, he experimented in his early years with metaphysical painting in a style more akin to de Chirico’s. Although he ultimately detached himself from any defined movements associated with his peers, it is worth noting the philosophical importance that metaphysical art endowed upon common objects. In light of this, the bottles in Morandi’s later still lifes could be viewed as obtuse signifiers of the two world wars, with seashells as stand-ins for artillery casings. I find it fascinating that we cannot avoid these associations, which serve to connect his historical context to ours. But the apparent lack of conceptual or semantic intentions in Morandi’s paintings not only distinguishes him from a contemporary painter such as Tuymans, but is also what makes him often so inaccessible and misunderstood.
An epiphany about Morandi’s work occurred when I was in the Museo Morandi in Bologna, where I was astonished to see the actual still life objects on display alongside his paintings. The items themselves, made of glass, cardboard, or clay, sometimes coated with gesso or oils by the artist, had little significance beyond artifacts. What really riveted me, though, was how the sight of these nondescript objects intensified my appreciation of how Morandi’s oftentimes awkward, uncontrolled movements of a brush crafted these paintings. Their sense of touch, invention, and originality conveyed by nothing but a brush and a distinctive, subtly grayed palette filled them with undeniable breath and life.
This quality is above all what keeps Morandi’s work essential to our times. Decay is always with us: the tumbledown architecture implied by Morandi’s bottles suggest the ancient ruins of Rome just as easily as the city’s bombing during World War II. The timelessness of these paintings derives from their material engagement, which outlives the decay and collapse of their creator’s times and escapes their often narrowly categorized imagery.
GREG LINDQUIST is an artist, writer and editor of the Art Books in Review section of the Brooklyn Rail. He is currently a resident at the Marie Walsh Sharpe artist residency.