PRINT December 1987


IT SEEMS ALMOST PARADOXICAL to weave words around the silent art of Giorgio Morandi, the Italian painter known for his still lifes of bottles, jugs, bowls, and other table objects, as well as for his apprehensive Emilian landscapes. His is an art that amplifies rarefaction and concentration, analyzing not so much the object itself as the variations of light on the object-as-protagonist. It is a capturing of the sensation of the object, an esthetics of its quality; it is an art of silence and its double.

The writing about Morandi tends to gravitate around two poles. There’s either the “we know everything there is to know about Morandi by now,” closed-book approach that has pinpointed the importance of his art basically in the metaphysical dimension of his spare iconography and the tonal values of his painting, in conjunction with what his friends have said about his simple life and the places (two or three) where he worked. Or there’s the “we really know nothing about Morandi” school of thought, this one influenced by the idea that his friends have repressed the disjunctive bits of information that might embarrass, and that Morandi himself left little trace of his relations to the world, or, rather, to worldliness. He even—heresy—repudiated the market. A recollection of 1949, in the Saturday Review of November 4, 1958, by James Thrall Soby, the curator, art historian, and former director of the painting and sculpture section of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, is appropriate to this last point: “When I asked him the price of a painting he had agreed to sell me, he mentioned a figure so absurdly low that I told him it should be multiplied at least by ten. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘I set these prices twenty years ago, and it makes me nervous to think about changing them.’”

Neither of these views is foreign, but neither really place Morandi in his full depth. They are each picturesque in their own way, leaving the impression of a static facsimile of Morandi as a painter of bottles, a man detached from the world, a “pure” researcher. This picture is the one by which he is most recognizable in the history books. Yet if we scratch the surface of this removed image, we find that Morandi is in fact in many ways a model Italian artist of the new century, and dynamically so. I doubt that many moments exist in the development of the Italian art of Morandi’s time in which the artist has no place, whether as restless soul or as secure protagonist. A look at his various alliances and affiliations quickly dispels history’s image of him as an artist detached from his time. He is there in Futurism, in 1914, when the movement seems to get a new boost from Rome. He is among the first to sense the message about absence in Giorgio de Chirico’s Metaphysics. He is also active in the decisive moment of the return to tradition after World War I, a shift widespread in Europe, and in Italy labeled Valori Plastici, from the magazine and artist’s group of the same name. And he is a cantankerous actor in the early events of the Novecento, also involved in tradition, and in the “Strapaese-Stracittà” dispute over Italian art’s national identity. After World War II, he even ends up among the inspirations for a very different tendency in art, one involving spontaneity and improvisation, the informel. These involvements should suggest the sense of urgency, experimentation, and involvement in the role of art that lies beneath Morandi’s work.

Morandi spent his student years at the Accademia di Belle Arti, Bologna, in the last years before World War I. Here he met other young artists, such as Osvaldo Licini and Severo Pozzati, and, more important, was able to absorb the new ideas then blooming. “I listened with enthusiasm and interest to the ravaging words of the Futurists,” he wrote in an autobiographical statement from 1928, and, “I too, like so many other well-intentioned young people, felt the need for a total renewal in the atmosphere of Italian art.” Licini, in a later recollection, and long after launching himself into the skies of abstraction, remarked, “With Morandi, from the time we were boys, we drank deeply from early Cubism, and with Morandi we went to battle for Futurism, alongside Marinetti after the war.” In April 1914 Morandi submitted three still lifes and a drawing to the open Futurist exhibition organized in Rome by the young dealer Giuseppe Sprovieri. Yet the 24-year-old painter had already participated, in February of that year, in the “Seconda esposizione della Secessione” (Second exposition of the Secession); this avant-garde movement looked more toward the past than Futurism allowed, but Morandi’s work was such that he could still find a place in it.

Morandi found security in certain elements of what had come before him, for example the work of Ardengo Soffici: “When I was 19 or 20, a most important age for our formation, [as a ground] for our culture we young people found the terrain that had already been ploughed by Soffici,” he recalled fifty years later. (In 1932, in the magazine L’Italiano, Soffici would write, “Morandi is classical in the Italian style: that is, at the same time real and ideal, objective and subjective, and traditional. His style is modern, and at the same time legitimate and Italian.”) and in the Roman “Secessione” exhibition Morandi saw a selection of Cézanne watercolors and a room of paintings by Henri Matisse, the two poles of construction, in other words, of a new space of color and the liberation of form in light. Yet another pole of influence can be discerned in the painting of the Douanier Rousseau, to which, at Soffici’s instigation, a small volume published by La Voce was devoted in 1914. The same year, another such book was dedicated to Picasso, and both had a strong influence on Morandi. A work like Natura mortal con caffettiera (Still life with coffee pot, 1904, once owned, among other works, by Soffici) shows the mark of Rousseau, yet already has all the marks of a Morandi: objects as pure solids beneath the light, which, with the subtle magic of their juxtaposition, filters real things into something beyond reality, transforming them into close-to-animate presences.

The first meeting between de Chirico and Morandi took place in 1919 in Rome, in the rooms of the Galleria Borghese, where de Chirico was working on a copy of a Lorenzo Lotto. But this was only their first encounter in the flesh. During World War I, when de Chirico and his brother, Alberto Savinio, were stationed in Ferrara, in the same region as Morandi’s native Bologna, at least an awareness of Metaphysical painting must have reached via Fondazza 34, the house where Morandi lived until his death, through the painter Filippo de Pisis. De Pisis met de Chirico in Ferrara in 1917, and, that same year, could be found writing to the Dadaist Tristan Tzara about the “brave young painter Giorgio Morandi.” He was a man of wild enthusiasms and he surely told the Bolognese artist that Metaphysical painting, then fresh from Paris, had manifested itself in Ferrara. A large Morandi still life dated 1916, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, I believe was actually painted later, after Morandi became familiar with certain works by de Chirico. (The date looks like a subsequent addition.) It is beginning with this painting that there appears the idea, seminal for Morandi, of an object that, as if unique, takes on the quality of a character; and in the lower portion almost abstract signs give the composition a sense of absence, of something phantasmic (as Savinio would soon say of Valori Plastici).

In many ways Morandi’s iconographic repertory in his works from 1918 to 1919 or so recalls de Chirico: the mysterious head of a mannequin, the disturbing sphere and parallelepiped, the perspectival box (hollow with shadows), the loaf of bread painted in realer-than-real trompe l’oeil. But in a natura morta from 1920 these things take on another logic: on the round table, in foreshortened perspective, what might earlier have appeared as a cylinder becomes a bottle; the abstract solids become an urn and a vase; the sphere (or ball) rests like a movement made stable, and the fruit dish takes the place of the mannequin, in a Corbusian revelation of pure volumes of light. The work from 1922 onward is characterized by these forms; that year, de Chirico remarked upon them, observing that Morandi makes Italian art that is “hard, clean, and solid.” Morandi was beginning to paint with touches of light, using luminous impressions to reconstruct the object of desire.

In the period immediately after the war Morandi entered the Valori Plastici circle based around Mario Broglio. Other members were Carlo Carrà, de Chirico, and Arturo Martini. These and other artists were interested in a recovery of the past that Futurism had so wanted to cut off; Morandi, for example, in a letter to his friend Giuseppe Raimondi (who, in Rome, had become the editor of another authoritative magazine, La Ronda), asked to be sent reproductions of works by Giotto, Masaccio, Uccello, Raphael, Caravaggio, and Ingres. In 1922, Morandi exhibited in Florence alongside Carrà, Martini, and de Chirico, who composed an introductory text for Morandi’s work. De Chirico wrote,

He seeks to find and to create entirely on his own: he patiently grinds his colors and prepares his canvases and looks about at the objects that surround him, from the sacred loaf of bread, dark and streaked with shadows like an age-old rock, to the clear form of glasses and bottles. He looks at a group of objects on a table with the emotion that shook the heart of the ancient Greek traveler when he looked at woods and valleys and mountains thought to be the abodes of beautiful and amazing divinities.

He looks with the eye of the man who believes, and the intimate skeleton of things that for us are dead, because they are immobile, appears to him in its most comforting aspect: in its eternal aspect.

Morandi’s involvement in Valori Plastici was such that in April 1919 a special issue of the magazine was devoted to him, reproducing what had come to be a bold body of work, from a self-portrait, now destroyed, to the solemn still lifes. And on December 26, 1919, Broglio and Morandi entered a contractual agreement by which Broglio would undertake the dissemination of the artist’s work through shows abroad. (In expanding on what was already known about Morandi’s place in the Valori Plastici group, documents such as this contract have recently made a new contribution to the historical understanding of his work.) One result was that nearly 200 works brought together in 1921 for a traveling show in Germany, under the title “Das Junge Italien,” included watercolors, drawings, and 19 paintings by Morandi. (Later, in the last years of the ’20s and in the ’30s, his work would appear regularly in large international shows such as the Venice Biennale [notably in 1930], the Rome Quadriennale, the Carnegie Institute show in Pittsburgh, and elsewhere—in Buenos Aires, New York, Paris, Berlin, Berne, San Francisco.) His painting was beginning to win a public following, and a comment about it in the Frankfurter Zeitung picked up on its “awareness, clarity, simplicity in the configuration, form rather than deformation, [and] severe construction of plastic corporeality.” The culmination of this part of Morandi’s story is perhaps the publication of Franz Roh’s book Nach Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus (After Expressionism: Magic Realism, 1925). The book, which quotes Morandi, sanctions the passage from an avant-garde of destruction and provocation, from an esthetics of ugliness, to a new vision, a “magic realism,” which resembles Metaphysical art but also anticipates Surrealism in the desire it reflects to paint a different “reality.”

Between 1927 and 1928 the Bologna newspaper L’Assalto, a weekly publication of the regional Fascist federation, asked each of a group of intellectuals to contribute a brief biography. Morandi’s essay, long forgotten and only recently unearthed, is particularly precious, given the rarity of his public statements. (Morandi’s claim of allegiance to fascism here, incidentally, may be misleading today; in 1928, Italian fascism was not yet at the stage we cannot forgive. It was in significant ways still the socialist government as which it was elected, and Mussolini’s was a popular administration. Moreover, though Morandi ends his piece with a note to the federation that had invited his contribution to the paper, he was a man rather detached from politics. In addition, Mussolini had bought a Morandi painting in 1926, when the artist was included in the first show of Margherita Sarfatti’s Novecento group. Whatever debates we find Morandi in, his interests were more esthetic than political. And he was certainly not a subscriber to the reactionary fascism that crystallized in the ’30s).

I was born in Bologna in 1890. From the time I was a young boy I showed a great passion for painting, a passion that continually grew stronger as I grew older, making me realize that I needed to dedicate myself to it entirely.

These ideas of mine, however, were not shared by my father, who was dedicated to business and would have preferred that I follow in his footsteps. I left no stone unturned in my attempt to do his bidding: a good father, he saw the path of art as uncertain and difficult, and he was worried about my future. But when all his attempts to dissuade me from my ideas were in vain, and feeling a great deal of pressure from my mother, he ended up allowing me to enroll in the Bologna Accademia di Belle Arti.

This was a great joy for me, but one that was unfortunately soon darkened by my father’s untimely death. At the age of 18 I was left with my mother and three small sisters younger than I. In this dark time of my life, it was thanks to the wisdom of my mother, who has always had great faith in my vocation, that I found it possible to continue my studies.

About my stay at the fine-arts academy, I must say in all truth that the only effect of the assignments given me was to set my spirit in a state of profound unease. Precious little of what I now use in my art I learned there.

While I was enrolled in courses, I listened with enthusiasm and interest to the ravaging words of the Futurists: at the time, the direction of painting in Italy seemed dreary and cumbersome. I too, like so many other well-intentioned young people, felt the need for a total renewal in the atmosphere of Italian art. This initial support of mine did not go beyond my participation in the first show of the “young Futurists” at the Sprovieri gallery in Rome. I realized that the new esthetic ideas responded to the needs of my spirit even less than the old ones had. I felt that only an understanding of the most vital production in the painting of past centuries could be my guide as I found my way.

I don’t deny that my studies also caused me to make new mistakes, but they were above all beneficial, for they led me to understand the sincerity and simplicity that characterized the old masters. They were constantly inspired by reality, which is precisely why their works are so deeply fascinating. When this principle is adhered to, from the most ancient artist to the moderns, it has resulted in works that are alive and dense with poetry. This made me understand the necessity of giving myself up entirely to instinct, entrusting myself to my own powers and forgetting all preformed stylistic concepts as I worked. With all the suffering of my adolescence and youth, this has been the greatest and the surest teaching that I have drawn upon.

These small truths were overshadowed by esthetic disorder and by ignorance, which were not necessary to us young people, but were less tiring than the means by which we were finally able to find ourselves. I know that the goal I have chosen to pursue is far off and difficult to achieve, but I am sustained by the certainty that the way I am following is the true one.

I repudiate nothing from my past, because I have nothing lazy to hide; my conscience has always guided me in my work, and I am supported by the recognition that in all my attempts, including the moments of greatest hesitation, my personality has always succeeded in coming to the surface.

I have always lived in Italy. Of the cities I visited for my studies, the one I am most drawn to is Florence, where I am happiest, and where I have friends with whom I share a certain spiritual affinity. Among the painters from the past, I find the Tuscans most interesting, Giotto and Masaccio above all. Among the Moderns I find Corot, Courbet, Fattori, and Cézanne the most legitimate heirs to the glorious Italian tradition. Among the painters of our time who were useful to my formation, I keep in mind Carlo Carrà and Ardengo Soffici; it seems to me that their work and their writing have exercised a beneficial influence on the direction of Italian art today.

I have rarely participated in shows. I will mention the 1914 “Secessione” show in Rome, the repeated shows in the main art centers, the show of German artists organized by Mario Broglio, the “Primaverile Fiorentina” show, the “Prima mostra del 900 italiano” show in Milan, and the recent “Selvaggio” show and the “Internazionale dell’incisione moderna,” both in Florence in 1927. Among the people who have bought my paintings, I am pleased to mention the most honorable Benito Mussolini.

I have collaborated on art magazines during this past decade. I gave the most attention to Valori Plastici and to Selvaggio. Articles and critical studies on my work have been written by Riccardo Bacchelli, Carlo Carrà, Achille Lega, Giuseppe Raimondi, and others.

This year I received an invitation to work as an etcher at the Venice Biennale. In addition to art, I dedicate myself to teaching drawing in the schools of this city.

I have had great faith in fascism from its beginnings, a faith that has never diminished, not even in the grayest and most tempestuous of days. For reasons to do with both art and my temperament, I am inclined to solitude; this is not out of vain pride, or out of a lack of solidarity with all those who share my faith.

In 1930 Morandi obtained the post of engraver at the Accademia in Bologna. He fit the very definition of the “painter-engraver,” in the ancient mold: an artist who attempts to express, with the most traditional and tested techniques, his obsession with “the world about his room.” Oil on canvas, watercolor on drawing paper, engraver on copper sheet: throughout his life Morandi, like de Chirico, probed the values but also the polemics of traditional technique. In 1920, he writes to Carrà, “Some time ago in a paint shop I came across the last pieces of a red earth that was once found around Assisi and that hasn’t been available for a long time. Mixed with white it gives a very beautiful pink, the kind one sees in ancient frescoes. Let me know if you grind your own colors as I do and I’ll send you some pieces.” A year before, he has written to Raimondi, asking him to remind Broglio to send “the poppy-seed oil that is not available here.” He discusses the difference between “the very dark pigment of burnt Siena and that of umber.” Clearly, he thought a great deal about his media.

Morandi used the museum, and other repositories of the art of the past, to enable him to examine and confront the skin of art thus far. Here he split with some of his earlier colleagues, for example his old friend Licini, who once said, “I have never doubted Morandi’s talent, however . . . much I suffered over his backward journey from Cézanne toward Chardin, and further back to Pompeii.” In 1919, again to Raimondi, Morandi writes that in Florence he has stopped to look at the Uccello and Masaccio frescoes, and also at an Ingres self-portrait; later he takes an interest in Gentileschi and Borgianni, and also in Caravaggio (the Bacchus, ca. 1596–97, in the Uffizi, then only recently rediscovered). He was not a purist, then, about simplicity of means or models.

Morandi’s drawings and watercolors focus on the play of light and shadow, a play that supremely interested him and that gave birth to the idea of the phantasm aspect of the object. In the watercolors—there are some from his early years, then, more systematically, a body produced toward the end of his life—he was influenced by Cézanne at first; later, he seems to have made them as syntheses of his own paintings. The eloquent emptiness of the paper support, the value taken on by the ephemeral, the creation of an image pushed to the farthest point of fragility at which it can still happen, the space-become-protagonist that lets the shadow of the object represented (itself already a shadow of reality) take on the value of the subject: this is what Morandi’s ineffable watercolors signify.

As for the engravings, which Morandi produced throughout his life, they are first a means of experiment, but also a kind of Liber Veritatis, in the manner of Claude Lorraine. Some of Morandi’s engravings are copies of earlier paintings, as Claude’s book is a collection of drawings of his own work. Positive and negative: this is the problem of the print. And there is no end to the problem, of course, otherwise Morandi would not have dealt with it, hundreds of times, in precise variations on the theme, for sixty years. The engraving offers both a day and a night of the image, both of them objectively there, both to be confronted by the subject, the artist. Furthermore, in many of Morandi’s engravings we find the possibility of a multiplying of these sensations: two plates from 1931, for example, show the same setup yet two quite different results. In one there is the effect of an overlong exposure, in the other that of solarization.

The engraving seems to be not only Morandi’s means of devising images but also a correlative of the impression light makes upon a plate in photography. In the engraving, a subjective image is rendered objective by the acids that print the image on the copper, inverted, as a camera obscura inverts the objective scene it portrays. Morandi understands that in the printing plate he has a technical tool for the distribution of the image. Thus he ends up using the medium as the message. But in engravings from 1912 to 1961 he also makes clear that he is engaged in a meticulous investigation of an analytic language. His obsessive thematic images—bottles, landscapes—are in a sense placed in parentheses, are shown to be a text, or a pre-text, for pure research on the image and the object.

Most of the Morandi still lifes are simply titled Natura morta (“Dead nature,” the Italian for still life). Another form of the modern practice of titling works “untitled,” this simplicity, with so many works linguistically undifferentiated from each other, makes written or spoken discussion of them difficult. Does the bare title confirm that the viewer is looking at the essence of the nuda veritas, the naked truth, or need we wonder whether behind the neutral title there might hide a new enigma? The Italian Novecento painters, and above all de Chirico, seemed to use this bare-bones designation to indicate that the subject of a still life was not simply the flowers, furnishings, or other objects it depicted, but that the objects in a painting could represent a petrified image of nature itself. For Morandi recognizes that the “still life” (or the frozen appearance) is modified by outside agents (dust), pictorial interpretation (tone), and above all by the thoughts of the artist. In these images we see enacted the representation of an idea of the formation of the world. Many of the still lifes soften the boundaries between the sign and the background, so much so that one cannot tell whether the artist has tried to achieve an effect of slow disappearance, of nature’s fading away in the light shone upon it by art. “What matters is to touch the background, the essence of things,” Morandi said in one of his rare pronouncements. In Morandi, the artist seeks a relationship not only with context, with history (with the museum), but also with the ineffable mechanisms of creation.

Unlikely as it may seem, one of the most sensitive descriptions of Morandi’s world comes from Salvador Dali, discussing Morandi and de Chirico. “All the calm, all the stillness, all the motionlessness of Giorgio Morandi and of Giorgio de Chirico are a dramatic motionlessness and stillness because they are threatened every moment.” The objects in these paintings may look simple and modest, “apparently inoffensive,” as Dali says of the objects in de Chirico’s paintings, but they are set in small theaters of menace. In many of these still lifes the sense of order is like a luminous mirror image of an earlier disorder. These presences have meaning as symbols: the empty wine bottle, the extinguished lamp; the pink shell, suggesting a remote natural world; the bunches of flowers suggesting death. Without ever putting on airs, Morandi has painted the mortality of all things earthly, the vanitas vanitatum, as few others have. Yet if a Morandi still life offers the sibylline appearance of death, it is also a coded allusion to the ephemeral, to life. Vitality wanders through these things, which were once useful and are now only models, or, better, mannequins, as de Chirico would say. The objects are not ends in and of themselves; the issue is a recomposition of their provisional existence through light.

The idea of tangibly representing dust is like showing a fish scream. It is realizable only through showing that silence too has its specific sound. One thinks of this when, in some ancient and isolated part of Italy, one finds a Morandi canvas, which, as the rustling veronica plant reveals the wind, reveals a gesture as calm as a “discourse on method” yet as passionately modern as “reasons of the heart.”

Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco, who lives in Rome, is an art historian specializing in the Baroque, Futurism, and Metaphysical painting. He curated the exhibition “The Dioscuri: Giorgio de Chirico and Alberto Savinio. Paris, 1924–31,” at the Philippe Daverio Gallery, New York, until January 15.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.

The photographs accompanying this article are reproduced courtesy of the Bologna Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna/Archivio e centro studi Giorgio Morandi.

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