New York

Giorgio Morandi

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This exhibition of some 110 of Giorgio Morandi’s works—mostly paintings, but also a fair share of watercolors and etchings—is simply beautiful. But how such bliss was achieved is not quite so beautifully simple.

Morandi (1890–1964) lived quietly in Bologna, painting humble, seemingly generic still lifes and landscapes over the course of decades, despite the turbulent shifts taking place just beyond his calm purview. To be sure, such single-mindedness may reflect contempt for or ignorance of contemporaneous “avant-garde” developments, a willed insularity perhaps not unwarranted. Of course, avant-garde is a relative term. Apart from a few individuals—Lucio Fontana comes to mind—Italian modern art has never foregone the still life, the landscape, or the human figure, no matter which post-Renaissance century the series may happen to be.

But this survey of rarely seen works, co-organized by the Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna, puts to rest the canard of Morandi’s stylistic rigidity. His paintings, for all their deceptive simplicity, resulted from a complex synthesis. That Piero della Francesca and Cézanne were the font is obvious. But there are far more elusive threads: le morceau bien peint (“the well-painted bit”) of Thomas Couture’s anecdotal harlequinades, for example, that once-famous academician’s aligning of small passages of paint side by side in strokes so just and true that when examined closely they strike the eye as fractured and oddly abstract bits of pure materiality. This lesson led to the genial conclusions drawn by Édouard Manet, Couture’s most influential student.

While Morandi was an effective painter of landscapes, his are peculiarly unpeopled, with only a house or two, the foliage and grounds but cursorily indicated. The catalogue inevitably fusses about Cézanne, though the model to hand would be Carlo Carrà once this ex-Futurist began painting quasi-Siennese, “eternal” landscapes (around 1919). Other Italian predecessors were the nineteenth-century Macchiaioli—the Tuscan painters of “patches of color” of whom Giovanni Fattori, Silvestro Lega, and Telemaco Signorini are the finest exemplars. While perhaps underknown, they were superb painters whose touch and palette was deeply marked by le morceau bien peint.

Not that Morandi himself failed to have his own radical moment. Carrà and Giorgio de Chirico founded the Scuola Metafisica in the midst of the First World War. Morandi joined forces with them at war’s end, after a brief military service that left him shattered. His contribution to the Scuola was crisp still lifes set in illusionistic spaces, still lifes that derived from the arcane geometries typical of de Chirico and Carrà in the period between 1912 and 1917.

But his involvement with the Scuola was short-lived, and soon he ended his flirtation with the avanguardia altogether and withdrew to his Bolognese hermitage, his reticent life as a professor of etching, his daily domestic stint before the easel—even the Second World War went seemingly unregistered in his work. Morandi’s reclusion may also reflect the “inner exile” often opted for by artists working under politically inimical regimes.

Despite this seeming absence of engagement with the world about him, Morandi still became the painter’s painter, our reborn Chardin, greatest of the eighteenth-century petits maîtres (as they were then considered) of the still life. Chardin’s cockade of muguet des bois stuck in the brioche becomes Morandi’s posy of tight-budded roses placed in a milk glass vase.

In Morandi’s own evolution, the precursor shapes and shards of le morceau bien peint bloomed into the quasi rectangles of boxes abutting one another that flirt with an abstraction that recollects the Cubist grid as they prefigure the congruency of image and literal surface in contemporary painting. This was the lesson absorbed by the Philip Guston of the 1950s; his laterally linked “discovered” shapes, tinted color, even the nostalgic fragrance of his work at that time, speak to his complete absorption of the work of the ascetic Bolognese. Is that not avanguardia enough?

Robert Pincus-Witten