View of “Giorgio Morandi: Retrospective,” 2013, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels. From left: Fiori (Flowers), 1957; Fiori (Flowers), 1947; Fiori (Flowers), 1947; Fiori (Flowers), 1950. Photo: Philippe De Gobert.

View of “Giorgio Morandi: Retrospective,” 2013, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels. From left: Fiori (Flowers), 1957; Fiori (Flowers), 1947; Fiori (Flowers), 1947; Fiori (Flowers), 1950. Photo: Philippe De Gobert.

Giorgio Morandi

View of “Giorgio Morandi: Retrospective,” 2013, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels. From left: Fiori (Flowers), 1957; Fiori (Flowers), 1947; Fiori (Flowers), 1947; Fiori (Flowers), 1950. Photo: Philippe De Gobert.

GIORGIO MORANDI was a legendary homebody, sticking close to his studio in Bologna most of the time and summering less than an hour’s drive away in the rustic village of Grizzana (renamed Grizzana Morandi some twenty years after his death in 1964). But somehow it was a surprise to learn that, even late in life when he’d become internationally renowned, exhibiting in New York and São Paulo as well as across Europe, Morandi only once set foot outside Italy’s borders, going just as far as Switzerland. I couldn’t help but reflect on what this might imply about his centrality in last year’s Documenta 13, one of those giant exhibitions that seem to be in part a great excuse for some extreme junketing: Kabul, here we come!

We undoubtedly live in an era in which just staying still has become harder than ever, and harder to justify, too. It may or may not be true that the flap of a butterfly’s wings on one continent can result in a hurricane on another, but we do know that in our almost totally networked world a telephone conversation in Pakistan may lead to an attack in the US, and vice versa. One can thus understand why the Documenta team wanted to head for Afghanistan, among other satellite venues, and try to get a whiff of the future there. So how can we still be interested in a man who spent his days moving some bottles and bowls around on a studio table in order to paint them over and over again, and who often made his landscape paintings by observing the view from an open window rather than venturing outside to taste the air whose very movements he could so ably evoke with his ruminative little flickers of paint?

In fact, according to Maria Cristina Bandera, the curator of this retrospective, Morandi continues to attract the attention of contemporary artists because he “reflects a modern restlessness.” “It is to him they look,” she writes, “to whom they compare themselves, with whom they stand in dialogue.” Certainly his role in the most recent Documenta encourages us to take this assertion seriously. To underline it, Bandera invited Luc Tuymans to hang a few of his own paintings as a kind of coda to the hundred works by Morandi—paintings, etchings, and those stupendously abbreviated drawings and watercolors—on view. And the connection instantly became clear. Tuymans’s blanched, tonal palette, his searching, undeclarative brushwork, his sense of intense concentration: All these would have pointed us back to Morandi, even if one of the paintings chosen, Intolerance, 1993—a salmon-colored still life of candlesticks—did not seem an overt response to the Italian artist at the level of imagery alone. Yet Tuymans, characteristically pugnacious, plays devil’s advocate in his catalogue text: “The blatant apolitical stance of Morandi’s paintings, their non-positioned disposition . . . induces the element of the coward. The painter, pondering away in some sort of escapism, which he would then call his own, truthfully experienced perception.” It seems that the tremendous formal resolution of Morandi’s paintings, or the exquisite touch that makes their surfaces food and drink for the eye, may no longer be enough to justify them.

But Tuymans leaves himself an out from the seemingly damning verdict he’s passed on Morandi. Without claiming to put his finger on just what is going on beneath the surface of these paintings, he notes—as a positive quality, of course—that “the stillness of these objects, and their blaring silence, irritates the hell out of me.” Maybe his frustration has something to do with what Yves Bonnefoy, in an essay from 1968 reprinted in the catalogue, comes within a hair’s breadth of characterizing as a form of nihilism: the impression these paintings leave of being “out on the periphery and . . . dejected and forlorn in [the] abyss.” The studio, in this reading, would not be a haven from the catastrophe of the world but its focal point. It is here, perhaps, that the question of Morandi’s ambiguous relation to Fascism should be raised. Although he lived and taught under Mussolini’s rule for much of his life, the exhibition catalogue doesn’t breathe a word of it.

In any case, I want to move away from the idea of Morandi as the painter of stillness and silence, which is not only Tuymans’s take but a well-nigh universal reading. The more I get to know his work, the less convinced I am by this notion. Consider, for a moment, those endless still lifes of bottles and jars for which he is best known and which, indeed, constitute the largest part of his oeuvre. They all have the same title, which is, simply, Natura morta (Still Life). One might almost say that—not unlike the paintings of the late Roman Opalka, who devoted his life to what was essentially a single work, the project of representing the whole numbers from one to infinity—Morandi’s still lifes constitute a single painting. The things he paints are always the same but forever shifting from one canvas to the next. And then when you start to concentrate on any one of those canvases, you realize that you are perceiving the traces of a brush that was in always in motion, dynamic and mercurial—however unobtrusively so. Nothing about the making of these paintings was ever a given, and Morandi’s way of painting them, his very touch, was subject to continuous revision. From this point of view, in stark contrast to the paintings being variations on a single theme, no two of them are really alike. Morandi thus unites two extremes within his work: constancy and transformation, but always under the aegis of the latter. His project was to observe continuous change, without the alibi of meaning.

Given Morandi’s devotion to change as the true constant even within what seems constantly the same, we should perhaps rethink the roots of his art. That he was influenced early on by the “metaphysical painting” of Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà has always been evident, and is strikingly attested to here by a 1918 still life from the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, showing a mannequin head, among other objects. But the fact that before his encounter with pittura metafisica Morandi had exhibited with the Futurists is often either ignored or written off as a youthful indiscretion. For what could be further from this supposed poet of interiority than the hectic clamor of the Futurist city, with its riots in the Galleria and its soccer players in motion, its charging horses and speeding cars? And yet the greatest of the Futurist artists, Umberto Boccioni, also made a work titled Development of a Bottle in Space, 1912—the most profound point reached by any of the artists of that movement precisely because it adumbrates not the path of an object in motion but the perceptual motion involved in the comprehension of an object that is to all appearances entirely still. Why not admit that Morandi’s art was decanted from Boccioni’s bottle? The discovery of change within stasis was a Futurist accomplishment—though arguably marking a culmination after which Futurism itself would have to change into something completely different. Morandi was that something.

Bandera quotes the painter Lawrence Carroll, who learned from Morandi that “one does not need to look far for what is important.”But is that really the right lesson to take from an artist who was, as she says, so restless? Morandi managed to look far without moving far. It is fascinating to me that he spoke of having “developed a great interest” in Vermeer in the 1920s given that he only got to see a painting by the Dutch master in 1954 in Rome. In general, what Morandi knew of non-Italian art, including some by artists to whom he was most deeply indebted—Chardin, Corot, Cézanne—must have been primarily from black-and-white photographs; the mystery is how he nonetheless plumbed them so deeply. But I also wonder what influence this kind of source might have had on his tropism toward a monochromatic or indeed achromatic palette.

Looking forward, on the other hand, an illuminating catalogue essay by Francesco Galluzzi traces Morandi’s work as a reference in Italian cinema, for instance in works by Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Carmelo Bene, as well as Pier Paolo Pasolini (a former student of Morandi’s great friend and advocate Roberto Longhi), who cites him obliquely in Accattone (1961). It’s not surprising that a director like Antonioni could see better than anyone the presence of motion in the putative stillness of Morandi’s arrangements. In Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), a Morandi still life hangs in the home of Steiner, the wise, troubled, and sensitive intellectual who ends up killing himself and his children. Had he seen his anguish reflected in the painting? Perhaps the cowardice with which Tuymans charges Morandi is after all bound up with the very thing that keeps him contemporary, his hopeless abandonment in a world that is, as Bonnefoy says, “less empty than impenetrable.”

Barry Schwabsky is a New York–based critic and the author of Words For Art: Criticism, History, Theory, Practice (Sternberg Press, 2013).