New York

Giorgio Morandi

The Giorgio Morandi retrospective comes billed as a first—as the initial survey in the United States of one who himself never traveled far, leaving his native Italy only once to cross the border into Switzerland. Going to three museums, it was organized with enormous efforts in coordination and financing, including special aid by five Italian banks. But in an era of blockbusters, this is an anomaly—a show of 123 works by a provincial “minor master” residing far outside the mainstream and beyond the movements of vanguard art; by a devotee of boxes, bottles, and beakers painted in the kind of modest intimisme that belongs more to the turn of the century (if not to the 18th century) than to our own tumultuous times. It’s no wonder, looking at all those quiet compositions with their tawny and opalescent hues, that people speak of Morandi’s “reticence,” “restraint,” and, above all, moralistic “reserve.”

The show is an exemplary survey, chronicling Morandi’s career from the first extant painting (1910) through the landscapes that precede his death in 1964. It shows the entrance of the bottle under the aegis of Cubism (1914), Morandi’s brief flirtation with pittura metafisica (1918–19), and his attention to masters of tone, volume, and cadence—to Giotto and Piero, Cézanne and Chardin, Masaccio and the impressionistic Italian Macchiaioli. It contains masterworks from Morandi’s most assured period—the late ’40s and ’50s—as well as a suite of etchings and the watercolors notable for their inversions of shadow and light, space and form. It shows us all the things we know well about Morandi—his compositional “mastery,” poetic “resonance,” and the “harmonious” emanations of his palette.

Luckily, though, the exhibition also shows or suggests something more, raising questions as to the nature of Morandi’s own willfully determined limitations. For if, in his work, there’s always much to croon and swoon over; if we can marvel at his subtleties of mass and form, or wonder at the way he invents new vocabularies of pale and luminous hues, expanding the range of tonal values, his work still demands an answer as to why he chose to make seemingly infinite permutations of the same prosaic objects. Scanning the range of production, we can note that Morandi seemed unconcerned with the specific content of his objects; his are unnamed or neutral things, which lose their functions and known shapes to be reborn in distinct and equivocal configurations, becoming abstract arrangements of shape and tone. But neither was he involved in form in its conventional, structural sense: form in these paintings seems to work solely at the service of representation, as Morandi makes endless speculations on the relations between what “is,” what he sees, and what he makes in picturing those ever altering terms. The point seems to lie in the infinity of representations; while Morandi may have reduced the “real” to certain pictorial forms and stable volumes, he was more inclined to play with the terms that underlie the transaction. Like Cézanne, he often appears involved in complex number games, playing with the different qualities and quantities of objects, and speculating on how intervals of distance and increments of color might yield a thousand different views. We are saved from the tedium of yet another bottle by the amazing ambiguities inserted between this and that, hither and yon, or in the narrow interstice between one anonymous box and its seemingly indifferent mate. (Still Life, 1954, at the Smith College Museum of Art, is a prime example of this internal play.) In other works the shelf behind the objects curves into a horizon, dividing the canvas as if into earth and sky so as to suggest that the form-world might be the analogue of another, larger world, implying the possibility of infinite metaphoric relations among objects. Morandi, it seems, saw no end to the play between reality and its represented forms.

The neutrality of Morandi’s objects also raises questions as to his own political neutrality; this is a man, after all, who participated in the Futurists’ activities, lived through two wars, and witnessed all those horrific events we know (again) too well. Yet Morandi’s art appears less as a message of oblivion than as an affirmation of the impotence of any artist to affect history: there’s a sense here that the collective weight of art is negligible before the enormity of carnage, disaster, war. And so the minor mode of his endeavors allowed Morandi to lay claim to his own activity—that of pure mind, pure matter, and the endlessness of the pictorial process. An attitude indefensible in our time, it produced some stunningly engaging works.

Kate Linker