Stoic, obsessive, philosophical – such are the varied descriptions of Giorgio Morandi's search for beauty and harmony in the many still-lifes which dominate his oeuvre. Renowned for his eloquent, disciplined compositions of commonplace objects, Morandi was preoccupied with the interior reality that resides behind familiar appearances. His paintings are quietly arresting, rich in the atmospheric effects created by subtle nuances of colour, tone and scale. By pursuing an aesthetic which is essential – lying beyond the limitations of place and time – Morandi became heir to a 'classical' purist tradition of Italian painting which can be traced back to the Renaissance as far as the work of Giotto.
From an early stage, Morandi was inspired by the great Quattrocento masters: Masaccio, Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca. The simple, coherent structure of their fresco paintings, together with the almost sculptural rendering of volume, exerted a significant influence on his painterly style. Morandi fused these influences with lessons learned from the father of modern 'Classicism', Cézanne, whose works exhibit the same compositional rigour and highly considered nature. Perhaps the most immediate characteristic of Morandi's work is his limited subject matter. The bottles, bowls and pitchers which populate his paintings hold little personal significance; rather, they are objects of meditation through which Morandi sought to resolve the composition, giving form to the artist's conception. These simple domestic items were to Morandi what Mont Sainte-Victoire was to Cézanne.
Natura morta, painted in 1956, demonstrates Morandi's tirelessly inventive approach. The ceramics which comprise the still-life have been chosen and arranged with great precision to achieve spatial equilibrium, whilst the vertical and horizontal axes are balanced harmoniously. As in Cézanne's paintings, volume is created through the interplay of colour and light, rather than the precise delineation of contours or tonal modelling. As a result, the objects are imbued with a dramatic material quality – their presence on the canvas is almost spectral, at once palpable and fugitive. Morandi has employed a warm yet muted palette of complementary tones which unify the canvas surface. Most remarkable, though, is the fragile tension created between tranquillity and solitude on the one hand, and a pervasive sense of emotional disquiet and isolation on the other.
The present painting goes far beyond the objective recording of reality. Inanimate objects become enigmatic, like metaphysical portents of unexpected feelings or events. In an article written in 1922, the painter Giorgio de Chirico referred explicitly to this poetic aspect of Morandi's still-lifes: 'These objects are dead for us because they are immobile. But he looks at them with belief. He finds comfort in their inner structure – their eternal aspect. In this way he has contributed to the lyricism of the last important movement in European art: the metaphysics of the common object. However much we may be aware that appearances deceive, we often look at familiar things with the eyes of one who sees and does not know' (G. de Chirico quoted in Giorgio Morandi (exhibition catalogue), Arts Council of Great Britain, 1970, p. 6). In this light the bottles and other objects in Natura morta become anthropomorphic, like small figures with heads, necks and torsos (fig. 1) – reminiscent of the mannequins that proliferated in Italian Metaphysical painting.
Morandi's powerful compositions blend a traditional genre of painting with a thoroughly modern aesthetic. His miraculous ability to transform humble objects into something almost transcendental warrants his reputation as one of the greatest Italian artists of the twentieth century. The full scope of Morandi's work will be the subject of a major retrospective to be held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from September to December of this year.
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