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The Contrarian

Giorgio Morandi

The art of Giorgio Morandi has a disciplined lyricism, at oncesupercharged and compressed, unabashedly romantic and fiercelyascetic, luxuriantly nostalgic and vehemently modern. Working witha relatively limited range of still-life and landscape motifs forhalf a century, Morandi, who died in 1964 at the age ofseventy-three, produced hundreds of paintings, etchings, anddrawings that

are among the treasures of twentiethcentury art. In the UnitedStates, this formidable accomplishment remains only imperfectlyunderstood, a shadowy achievement that is infrequently seen inmuseums and galleries and is mentioned glancingly, if at all, inart-historical surveys. To his admirers, and there are many ofthem, the situation has always been disturbing, and it hascertainly been encouraging to witness, in the last three or soyears, a small increase in public awareness of Morandi. At a timesuch as ours, when tradition and innovation are widely regarded astake-it-or-leave-it gambits, there is a great deal to learn fromthis powerfully paradoxical modernist.

Morandi knew how to take the exact measure of his time without inany way feeling constrained by the preconceptions of hiscontemporaries. The question that we need to ask is how he broughtoff this singular feat. And any answer must begin by acknowledgingthat his achievement is riskier, more unruly, and more tumultuousthan many of his ardent admirers would have us believe. Morandi wasnot the modest, pious craftsman that he is sometimes imagined tohave been; not a brilliant but cautious innovator withintraditional genres; not a conservative who accepted modernprinciples only to the extent that they were necessary to savepainting from irrelevancy. There was something more than a littlecrazy, even willful, even megalomaniacal, in his insistence onsqueezing so much meaning from the tiny assortment of bottles andboxes that are the essential elements in his still lifes, and fromthe little stucco houses and modest trees and shrubs that tend todominate his landscapes.

Morandi's desire to make the quotidian do a double take began early,before 1920, when he was associated with Carlo Carra and Giorgio deChirico under the somewhat airy rubric of Metaphysical Painting,and dreamed up a few chillingly hard-edged still lifes in whichnaturalism segues into supernaturalism as two or three forms hoverin thin air, weighty yet apparently weightless. Later on, in the1930s and 1940s, when his boxes and his bottles sometimes took onan almost ponderous density, there could still be somethinghyperbolic, psychologically fraught, about the inky chiaroscuro.And there was always another current in his work, sporadically inthe 1930s and 1940s and often dominant in the 1950s and 1960s, aninterest in treating objects as flat shapes rather than asthree-dimensional volumes, so that the atmosphere in a particularstill life or landscape became claustrophobic, puzzle-like, as ifspace itself were a riddle.

These paintings, so many of which are no more than a foot and a halfhigh or wide, can feel uncanny, because ordinary appearances havebeen denaturalized beneath the painter's insistent gaze. What yousee in the magnifying glass that is Morandi's art is, obviously,all those boxes and bottles and buildings, but you also notice thecharacter of his brushstrokes, the variety of his close- tonedcolors, the various decisions he has made as to how to representnear and far, light and dark, volume and void. Morandi has a way ofturning the familiar troublingly unfamiliar, of upsetting normalexpectations about the nature of the world--something like thescientist's interest in taking things apart in order to see howthey work. His paintings do not present a fully accomplishedillusion so much as they suggest inquiries into the nature ofillusionism. His hues--those grays and pinks and muted earth tones,frequently infused with a good deal of white--are tight-knitcommunities of color, orchestrations that have more to do with asearch for ideal harmonies than with naturalistic description. Insome of the later drawings and watercolors, the ones that containonly a very few lines or areas of color, Morandi is asking exactlyhow little it takes to create an illusion. These works on paperhave the elegance of mathematical speculations.

It is the achievement of Morandi's later years, including a few ofhis most austere paintings and drawings, that has tended topredominate in the couple of exhibitions recently seen in New York,at the Lucas Schoormans Gallery late in 2004 and this past fall atthe Paul Thiebaud Gallery. I don't think it is an exaggeration tosay that even while these two shows were up they were acquiring alegendary status, attracting a fiercely enthusiastic audience thatincluded many painters. (And such is the prestige of the painter'sname in certain circles that Keith McNally, who gave New York'sbeautiful people Balthazar and Pastis, has just opened a restaurantin Greenwich Village called Morandi.)

Morandi's reputation is a very curious thing. Although he remains insignificant respects a marginalized figure, he is not one of thoseunderappreciated moderns who sets off heated debates. Othertwentieth-century painters--Raoul Dufy, for example, or AndreDerain, or de Chirico in the later phases of his career--remainextremely controversial even among the small circles of artists andhistorians who take them altogether seriously, in part because thecomplexity that they embraced can be dismissed as anti-modern, oras conflating traditionalism with kitsch. Morandi's reputationremains almost shockingly pristine, probably because he neverstrayed far from an essentially modern taste for asceticism andseverity. If there is a downside to the reputation of thisextraordinary artist, it is that his admirers may find what theyregard as his richly appointed minimalism all too easy on the eyes,and make do with a sincere but glib reverence. Morandi did not workfrom formulas, but the hushed admiration for the results, all thepious talk of the silence of the work (as if a painting were everanything but silent), can sometimes feel like formulaicadmiration.

To appreciate Morandi fully, we must dispel the myth of Morandi.Like many legends, of course, this one is not altogether untrue.Morandi did spend his entire life in Bologna. He did teach etchingat a provincial art school. He did not travel that much, at leastnot outside Italy; he was never in Paris. And he did share anapartment with his mother and his spinster sisters, for much of hislife painting in a corner of his bedroom. The virtue of JanetAbramowicz's recent book on the artist--Giorgio Morandi: The Art ofSilence, published by Yale University Press--is that it situatesMorandi more fully in his time and his place without in any waydetracting from the genuinely, touchingly modest aspects of hislife. Abramowicz studied etching with Morandi in Bologna; shebecame his teaching assistant and eventually a close friend of theartist and his sisters, who were, as it turns out, well-educated,highly sophisticated women. More than anything else ever publishedin English, her book helps us to situate Morandi in the Italiancontext. Abramowicz sets his art and his teaching career within thebroader movements of modernism and fascism. She suggests that thebrief period around 1920 when Morandi was seen as closelyassociated with the avant-garde, far from being anomalous, wasperfectly consistent with a life that always involved an active,albeit at-an-angle, relationship with Italian cultural experience.

A generation ago, Americans tended to have only a vague grasp of thedevelopment of modern art outside Paris, especially in the chaoticyears of the 1920s and 1930s. Abramowicz's book is part of abroader effort, which has gained force in the universities and themuseums since the 1960s, to see modern art as evolvingsimultaneously in centers all over Europe, and to see thosedevelopments as set in a complex counterpoint with social andpolitical movements. She makes it clear that the image of Morandias a singularly unworldly artist was largely an invention of theimmediate period following World War II--a calculated effort on thepart of the artist and some of his supporters to draw attentionfrom his not exactly unfriendly relations with fascistofficialdom.

Fascism, in the 1920s, had a flirtation with modernism in the arts,and Morandi, in an autobiographical essay written in 1928, went sofar as to say that he "had much faith in Fascism from itsbeginnings--faith that never wavered even during its most sad andtempestuous days." During the 1920s and 1930s, his opportunities toexhibit and to sell his work grew as friends sympathetic to themovement or directly involved in it gained influence in variousgovernment agencies that controlled cultural life. It was only in1930, through the intervention of fascist associates, that Morandifinally fulfilled his dream of obtaining a permanent position inBologna's Accademia di Belle Arti. While the situation would becomemore ambiguous for Morandi by the end of the 1930s, when theanti-modernist viewpoint was finally fully embraced by thefascists, there can be no doubt that Morandi's career was given manya boost during those years, and that he was perfectly happy withthe situation. Mussolini himself owned two of Morandi's paintings,a fact that the artist proudly cited in a job application.

In Abramowicz's portrait, Morandi emerges as a troublinglycompromised figure, although it is also well to remember that weare speaking about a time and a place when pitifully few people'sactions could be characterized as admirable, and there were manywho did far worse than Morandi. I suppose you could say that hebehaved like all too many Europeans, less concerned withfundamental decency than with protecting his own skin. What iscertain is that we are once and for all done with the almostsaccharinely saintly image of Morandi, the one that was circulatingin the United States when I first got to know his work, around1970, and which still persists. The demythologization is all forthe good. If Abramowicz has, in her gentle way, knocked Morandi offhis pedestal, the most interesting result has less to do withsocial and political history than with art history, for we begin tosee that the inwardness of his art is a dynamic principle ratherthan a static one, a progressive enriching of his own craft inresponse to the ideas about art and its relationship with culturethat were in the very air that he breathed.

After reading Abramowicz's book, nobody can doubt that Morandi wasfully aware of the power that his paintings had to provoke avariety of responses. We gain a renewed sense of the resonancesthat can be unleashed by these little compositions. Between the1920s and the 1960s, Morandi's still lifes and landscapes were saidto convey, through their earthiness and their simplicity, someessentially Italian spirit. But the modesty of these works was alsointerpreted as a rejection of the great Italian tradition of figurecomposition, and thus of Italy itself. Others saw Morandi as thelast disciple of Cezanne, not an Italian artist so much as aEuropean modernist, whose work some even interpreted as essentiallyabstract, comparable to Mondrian in its exploration of formal andemotional extremes through a limited vocabulary. And then therewere those who viewed his paintings as "completely autonomous," thework of an artist who was "'the most out of step' in the world."

? ? ?

As Abramowicz struggles to set Morandi, a man generally careful withwords, in the context of this cacophony of interpretations, hebegins to look less like an isolated figure and more like aheadstrong contrarian. I suspect that his insistent focus on stilllife and landscape spelled not only a retreat from the idealizationof human actions that had been the central focus of art in theRenaissance, but more specifically a utopian alternative to theterrors of his own century, which had already had more than itsfair share of human calamities. Of course still life and landscapehad been among the modern artist's essential themes long beforeMorandi came onto the scene, providing Corot and Courbet andCezanne with a naturalistic materiality ripe for painterlydematerialization. Morandi, however, was in certain respects lessengaged with the quotidian than Cezanne, or for that matter thanPicasso or Braque. These artists, even in their most formal andabstract works, remained interested in still life as a naturalisticdrama, as an arrangement of objects associated with the domesticityof the kitchen or the social and intellectual life of the cafe.Morandi was so determined to detach his objects from what had beentheir normative roles in the world that he adopted the curioushabit of literally altering them with a coat of paint, inscribingstripes on a bottle or ovals on a box, as if it were necessary todenaturalize the real before it could become part of the fictionthat is a painting.

Morandi's work does relate to a strain of emblematic still-lifepainting that dates back to the Renaissance and the Baroque, andhis early association with the Metaphysical painters underscoresthis tendency to present "an imagery intensified by philosophicalreverie," as James Thrall Soby put it in 1949 in Twentieth-CenturyItalian Art, a pioneering Museum of Modern Art catalogue. Thisphilosophical reverie is associative rather than systematic, with astill- life painting suggesting a nightmarish labyrinth, asun-splashed Elysium, a hesitant intimacy, a destabilizing anxiety,and even (as people who know Bologna have frequently observed) theexperience of the flaneur wandering through the city's shadowyarcades. Morandi confounds ordinary expectations. If his stilllifes often suggest landscapes or cityscapes, his landscapes,although exquisitely evocative of a certain kind of northern Italianterrain, rarely invite the viewer to become an imaginativewanderer, as Cezanne does in even some of his most enigmaticcanvases. As for Morandi's flower paintings, they are works of abeautiful perversity, with the flowers more mineral than vegetal,hewn of a strong substance, sometimes as dense as stone.

Abramowicz quotes a character in Giorgio Bassani's The Garden of theFinzi- Continis who observes of Morandi's work that he "has tofight against the hostility of Nature and Death," arguing thatthese still lifes and flower studies are grounded in "the fear ofreality." Far from beginning with a view of still life or landscapeas a traditional genre with a stable meaning, Morandi backs his wayinto the high-art traditions, beginning with the belief thatnothing can be taken for granted. There is something essentiallyrebellious in his attitude toward all artistic genres, an attitudethat goes back to his days as a student at the Accademia inBologna, when he was so fed up with the conservatism of histeachers that he nearly failed to graduate. Abramowicz's discussionof these early pedagogical conflicts is a fascinating element inher book, suggesting as it does that if Morandi would eventually berevered as one of the century's great exemplars of classical values,he found his way to that position only after first rejecting hisclassical training in favor of the attractions of the avant-garde.

I do not know if Morandi saw any irony in the fact that he himselfbecame a teacher at the Accademia, guiding young artists throughthe intricacies of intaglio printmaking. His own etchings,frequently black-and-white variations on the motifs in thestill-life and landscape paintings, are a freestanding achievement,one of the twentieth century's most persuasive reaffirmations of atechnique that had its first heyday in the seventeenth century.Initially, Morandi's approach can look almost sweetlyold-fashioned. He loves to fill the surface with the hatched andcross-hatched lines that artists had for centuries marshaled tolocate objects in a three-dimensional space, with the angling ofthe lines functioning as a perspectival indicator. Sometimes Morandicovers the surface with a light lacework of angled marks, but moreoften he thickens the hatched areas to create velvety blacks. Hismost magical effects involve a ripe chiaroscuro that turns eachprecious glimpse of a tabletop or a rural road into anever-darkening drama, a drama in which the succession of hatchedscrims or screens, rather than settling into fictive space,suggests a third dimension collapsed into two-dimensional space.Only one printmaker before Morandi had dared to re-imagine theblackness of cross-hatching as a way of foregrounding the abyss,and that was Rembrandt. It is as if oblivion has been rendered inthe present tense.

Morandi, Abramowicz tells us, had acquired several drawings bySeurat after World War II. Their scrupulous orchestrations of darksand their emphasis on the importance of the silhouette are surelyone key to Morandi's art, obviously in the prints but also in thepaintings and the watercolors. The constant reference to theimportance of Cezanne in writings on Morandi is not overstated, butthe idea that Morandi ought to be identified with a single directionin modern art does not really do justice to the complexities of hisachievement. Morandi's interest in the psychological power of anidiosyncratic form may owe more to Seurat than to Cezanne. And inmany of his paintings, still lifes and landscapes alike, there areatmospheric effects, an interest in glimmerings and glintings oflight and soft layers of airy atmosphere that bring to mind notCezanne and Post-Impressionism so much as Monet's Impressionism andeven, in certain landscapes, the watercolor-like stroke of Renoir.One can imagine Morandi learning a great deal from Courbet andCorot and even Redon, and of course he embraced the modernistinterest in overlooked aspects of earlier Italian art--not only theplay of geometry in Uccello and Piero, but also the heightenedrealism of Caravaggio. Then again, it is unimaginable to think ofwhat Morandi would have done with any of this if he had not felt theimpact of Picasso and Cubism, which registered overtly on his workonly briefly, but is there all the way through, in his constantrecognition that the modern artist must operate at the edge ofabstraction.

In Morandi's work, all these influences exist uneasily, refusing anyfinal resolution, an embarrassment of riches that can barely becontained by the preternatural elegance of his compositions.Morandi, whose subtlety never masks his avidity, exults in thevariegated literalism of the visual arts. There is the literalismof his reverence for tradition, for the hatched lines of the OldMasters, or the architectonic flowers that hark back to Cezanne andChardin, or the dramatic foreboding expressed by a Caravaggesquechiaroscuro. Then there is the literalism of nature, of the qualityof light at a particular moment, the overlapping shadows on atable, the flickering highlight on a ceramic vase. And then thereis the literalism of paint itself, of the shimmering brushwork, thenot-quite-straight contours, the close orchestrations of browns andgrays. It is this cacophony of literalisms, sitting uneasily withone another, that guards the work against the dangers ofacademicism. The coherence of Morandi's paintings is always an adhoc coherence, the coherence of forces that have converged in aparticular way in a particular painting, a structural coherencegrounded in psychological experience, a triumph not of formalanalysis but of feeling--and of the will.

To imagine Morandi teaching at the Accademia in Bologna is toimagine a man who somehow accepted the paradoxical nature of themodern artistic vocation, who knew that in spite of his academicposition he was a critic of all academic assumptions. This isperhaps his greatest significance right now, when we live in an artworld that is dominated by a variety of academicisms. There is theacademy of the market, which is an academy of cheap thrills, itspractices codified in any number of MFA programs. But there is alsothe academy of those who oppose the market, and who desperatelylook for some form of assurance in what they regard as canonicalvalues, whether traditionalist or modernist; it hardly matters. Thetrouble is that any form of groupthink, whether traditional oranti-traditional, can become a form of irresponsibility, a refusalto make your own judgments not only about the present but alsoabout the past. There may have been a time when T.S. Eliot'sbracing vision of the impersonality of tradition offered a key tothe future, but by now the only view of the past that seems to beof any help to the working artist is a radically personalized viewof the high-art traditions.

Morandi lived his whole life in a country where the classical pastwas a part of daily life, and the proximity of those augusttraditions somehow served as a reminder that an artist'srelationship with the past is by its very nature equivocal,uncertain. Morandi could be a classicist, at least after his ownfashion, in the austere lucidity of some of the Metaphysicalpaintings, in the after-images of columns and arches that haunt thestill lifes, and in the fascination with variations on fundamentalforms that, as Fairfield Porter once wrote, "differ from oneanother like the cases in the declension of a Latin noun."Compared, however, with the full-out embrace of classicalexperience that you find in the work of de Chirico or Picasso,Morandi's work suggests an interest in keeping those ancienttraditions at bay, as indeed he kept his distance from everytradition. Morandi's relationship with Chardin, or Corot, orCezanne, was partial, vexatious, elusive. His traditionalism alwaysinvolved some variety of contrarianism, a refusal to go with anyflow.

Morandi's paintings and etchings, improbable in their veryperfection, are the products of a man who lived in a period thatwas dominated, much as ours is, by ideologies and agitprop,artistic and otherwise. And nobody knew better than Morandi thattradition itself could become an ideology, a form of agitprop. Amida culture drunk on its own stupidities, he succeeded, by someextraordinary act of will, in sustaining the curious convictions ofa solitary imagination.