The Stillness of Morandi’s Still-lifes

cover of giorgio morandi lines of poetryGiorgio Morandi (1890-1964) was an Italian painter, draughtsman and printmaker of Bolognese origin. In what is billed as ‘one of the most comprehensive overviews of his graphic art ever mounted outside Italy,’ the Estorick Collection is in the final week of its exhibition, Giorgio Morandi: Lines of Poetry. I only managed to get over to it the week before last and I must confess upfront that I am not a big fan of still-lifes, however, to my surprise, Morandi’s work changed completely my understanding and impressions.

This exhibition was organised in collaboration with the Galleria d’Arte Maggiore (Bologna) and includes around 80 works on paper consisting of etchings and a handful of watercolours (the latter of which have rarely been seen in the U.K.)

As a primary school teacher of drawing (from 1914-30) he emphasised classics of the Italian Renaissance especially the proportionality and structure found in the works of Giotto and Piero della Francesca. From 1930-56 he was appointed as Professor of Engraving and Etching at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Bologna marking a return to the same institution that awarded him his diploma. What makes the story all the more remarkable is that he was entirely self-taught in the technique of printmaking and became so facile and adept that he received the appointment.

Who cares about Modernism?

In a time where other avant-garde artists were addressing the changing urban landscape, the rise of modern motorised life, the horrors of war and fascism, Morandi turned inward in the search for metaphysical enlightenment.  Despite contact with F. T. Marinetti and his Futurist entourage, the Pittura Metafisica of Carlo Carrà and Giorgio de Chirico, Morandi was beholden to none of these movements and although he exhibited with the Novecento group, he forged his own path.

Morandi was influenced by the Renaissance artists he had taught for many years as well as Paul Cézanne who had his own penchant for still-lifes.  Although I find Cézanne interesting, I must say that Morandi takes the concept of still-lifes to another level. One of their criticisms is that they are quite limited in that they may seem repetitive, but like musical variations on a theme, they are able to explore the spatial and internal essence of the various objects.  You begin to understand the space the objects occupy (and the space they don’t), and their interrelationships brought out by his use of shading. Morandi’s output reflects this approach with limited subject treatments confined to the landscapes of the surrounding Bolognese countryside and still-lifes of objects in his studio: bottles, flowers, cups, boxes.  As if to reinforce the lessons taught to his students, his works emphasise the importance of structure and balance of form, the embodiment of perfectly constructed and placed objects.

I like dust.

Morandi marked meticulously the placement of objects when working on a given work in his studio should they be accidently moved.  A documentary video called, La polvere di Morandi or Morandi’s Dust, plays in the exhibition. It is about 60 minutes long and features interviews with Morandi scholars and his home and studio. The spartan and clean home in which he lived contrasts with the intentional layers of dust in his studio which he used to help add dimension and colour to the still-lifes he was depicting.

Morandi lived in or around Bologna for his entire life. If you’ve never been to it, the city is famed for its covered sidewalks allowing its pedestrians a respite from the hot summer sun or the need for an umbrella when brief showers pass by. The city itself provides the inspiration of interplay of light and dark, the chiaroscuro found in those historical and classic Italian Renaissance paintings Morandi knew so well.

These shadings helped define the formal space around his objects which share an intimacy with their interplay of light and line and move us beyond both the positive and negative into the metaphysical.  We are fortunate that although Morandi never physically ventured outside his homeland, these drawings and etchings have made that trip for us.

Learn more about Morandi  snapshot link to the Estorick Collection exhibition page

If you are unable to make it to the Estorick before the exhibition closes on Sunday, the exhibition catalogue is available for viewing. Whilst the catalogue captures the image, I cannot emphasise enough that the physical presence just can’t fully reproduce the sensation of getting up and close to the actual watercolours and etchings.

The Art Library has several other books on his works. These two are probably the best to get a sense of his work:

Giorgio Morandi : the art of silence / Janet Abramowicz

Morandi’s legacy : influences on British art / Paul Coldwell

You can also learn more about Morandi and the other painters mentioned in this article like Giotto, Piero della Francesca, De Chirico, Carrà, Cézanne in the database Oxford Art Online.

Another version of this article was posted here.

Pictures from the Exhibition

Here are some shots from Giorgio Morandi — Lines of Poetry:

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