Painted in 1949, the present work exemplifies Morandi’s elegant and measured exploration of the world around him. Natura Morta is one of four paintings from this year in which Morandi explored a similar grouping of objects, characterised by the inclusion of the distinctive fluted vase and the orange-red painted coffeepot. Painted in the lighter palette that the artist returned to following the Second World War, these works offer an important insight into Morandi’s working practice. In each painting the arrangement of the objects is deftly modulated to emphasise different formal and spatial concerns. Morandi shifts not only the disposition of the objects, but also his own viewpoint, sometimes painting from a distance with the outline of the table visible and at other times focusing closely on his subject. This is the case in the present work where the tight framing of the objects serves to emphasise their materiality.
This carefully reiterated choreography of objects was central to Morandi’s work. Vases and pots appear and re-appear throughout the years – the coffee-tin with the painted oval, for example, features in various configurations throughout his work of the late 1940s and early 1950s (figs. 2 & 3). The objects themselves were often covered with a layer of dust that shifted and altered, blurring the edges of the objects and offering a hushed sense of passing time. Morandi also painted the objects, removing any labels or distinguishing features that would have attached them to a specific period or distracted from the resoluteness of their forms. As Matthew Gale writes: ‘It had the effect of muting the excesses of transparency and reflection, reducing the glitter typical of academic still lifes to the austere formalism of modernist compositions with their reference to the standardisation of mass production’ (M. Gale, ‘white bottle – red earth’, in Giorgio Morandi (exhibition catalogue), Tate Modern, London, 2001, p. 87). Rendered with beautiful simplicity, these ever-changing configurations allowed Morandi to remove the objects from their domestic origins and translate them into examples of pure form.
James Thrall Soby – who visited the artist in 1949 prior to organising the seminal exhibition Twentieth-Century Italian Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – described the importance of this in relation to the artist’s working process: ‘He lived in a comfortable, bourgeois apartment […]. There was no sign anywhere that it was an artist’s home until one walked into the small room Morandi used as a studio. These bottles and containers of every kind and substance were lined up on shelves or placed on tables. The surfaces of these objects had often been repainted by Morandi with simple geometric forms – squares, circles, and rectangles, always in soft colours. One sensed the intense meditative and philosophical process through which these objects were arranged in Morandi’s paintings. One knew the slightest shifts in scale, light, colour, balance, and counter-balance were of the utmost importance to him’ (J. T. Soby, quoted in Morandi 1890-1964 (exhibition catalogue), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2008, p. 230).
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