The Met Museum’s exhibition, Giorgio Morandi, 1890-1964, is like a primer on how to appreciate painting. It’s also the first comprehensive retrospective on the artist in this country, unbelievably.
Morandi has a reputation as an artist’s artist, lionized by art students and scholars, but in the shadow of household name artists. This most likely would have pleased a man who gave two interviews in his lifetime. Like a bottle in the back row of one of his still lifes – essential to the overall picture, but obscured.
He created relatively small-sized works, concentrating on unsensational subject matter, most often still lifes of bottles and geometric shapes. Similarly, he used a sedate palette, the mid-range colors of a desert’s four seasons.
But make no mistake, a tour of this unflashy but major artist’s work is not only pleasurable by the basic technical standards of art appreciation – color, composition, execution – it is an amazing chronicle of the development of artist finding his distinct voice and trusting it. This, even though the heart of his oeuvre, the still life, is an artworld trope.
Like many young artists, Morandi experimented with contemporary influences, notably surrealism, cubism, modernism. Some paintings have whiffs of di Chirico, Braque, and Cezanne (particularly – predictably, the landscapes). Early still lifes focus on the central objects and their interrelationships, but they also explore what surrounds them.
Through time, you can see Morandi shifting the horizon up and down. If (forgive me, Giorgio) you Photoshopped some of his still lifes and excised the containers from the picture, you might wind up with something that would give Rothko food for thought. And when he moves the horizon up to align with the tops of the central objects, the work takes on an oddly unsettling subterfuge associated with symbolism or surrealism.
Of course his palette is breathtaking. Pale avocados, peaches, roses, greiges; a spectrum of whites – cool winter tones, warmer milks, creams, butters. And when you get close enough to discern the textures of his brushstrokes, the colors become even more hypnotic. Also observe how the strokes stab at the edges of some bottles, or flow alongside, creating an emotional texture.
So sure was his compositional sensibility that the landscapes, with their masses of foliage, feel totally connected to the small still lifes. His tendency to use softer greens no doubt enhanced this. And several watercolors describe the essence of his vision before the supporting elements were filled in. A rectangular mass might become a vessel or a building in the final iteration; three daubs another still life, or perhaps a face.
The objects can be metaphors for society, humans relating to one another (or not), or stand-ins for cities, neighborhoods, countries. Some wear menacing shadows, others fade into the background, as in a painting said to be the last one he worked on prior to his death. Coincidental rather than prescient, perhaps, but such is the power of art that it is both.
Image: Natura morta, 1954. Oil on canvas. 26 x 70 cm. Mart, Museo d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Collezione Augusto e Francesca Giovanardi. © Giorgio Morandi by SIAE 2008.