Flawed perfection

Giorgio Morandi - Ned Denny finds unprecedented grandeur in ordinary household objects

The curious liveliness of Giorgio Morandi's objects precludes the need for any kind of human presence in his pictures. Seeing a large number of his still lifes together - as at the comprehensive new show at Tate Modern - you are struck at first by the variety of groupings and arrangements that they encompass. In some, the cups, bowls and vases stand pointedly apart, as aloof and alone as the members of a dysfunctional family. In others, they huddle together as though for shelter or in intrigue. In some, they are grouped with the stiff formality of a picture of 19th-century colonialists. A number show objects standing perilously close to an unidentified edge, as though half-contemplating a collective leap into the void. A jug or teapot will point its spout or handle directly out of the picture, like some birdlike creature either scrutinising us or turning haughtily away.

Crucial to this "liveliness" - the way that the groupings seem somehow animated - is the cool neutrality of the objects depicted. Not for Morandi the opulent displays of meats, fruits and sparkling glass by which Dutch painters of the 17th century indicated the transience of earthly pleasures. Even the relatively austere 18th-century French painter Chardin, with whom Morandi is often compared, seems an inveterate sensualist in view of these arrangements of pale crockery. Yet by choosing objects that have such a meagre physical presence (even going so far, we are told, as to paint over the reflective surfaces of his bottles), Morandi allows himself the greatest scope to give them a strange new life of their own.

The means of this transfiguration is Morandi's use of paint. It frequently seems to have been applied in a single layer, with the result that objects and background are put on a curiously even footing. The critic Bernard Berenson commented that Cezanne gave tactile values to the sky as perfectly as Michelangelo had given them to the human figure. The same could be said of Morandi's still lifes, in which the spaces around the objects seem as carefully painted as the objects themselves. Morandi establishes no hierarchy between presence and absence, giving his uniformly bare backgrounds the same weight and density as his vases and jugs.

Much of the drama of the paintings is concentrated in the places where object and background meet. Each seems to push against and encroach on the other - the china striving to retain its stature with a kind of muted heroism; the surrounding air pressing in with a faint sense of menace (or, as the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski would have it: "Was I right, were the palaces' walls . . . absorbed in border disputes?"). Morandi seems fascinated with the elusiveness of this "border", and it is the tentativeness of his attempts to describe it that makes his forms seem somehow alive.

Morandi's methods could thus be seen as directly opposite to those of classical art. Rather than "perfecting" or "completing" the forms of nature, he takes man-made forms and renders them flawed. The perfect vacancy of a cup or bowl - an archetypal "ideal form", with all its dreams of recumbent gods and immortal life - is made to appear vulnerable and strangely human. The barely perceptible quiver of Morandi's line points to both the clay from which his objects were made and their eventual dissolution; it creates a resonance that fills each work.

Paradoxically, this "imperfecting" of ordinary household objects gives them an unprecedented grandeur. Just as there is something of the desert in the muscular emptiness of Morandi's backgrounds, so there is something of the fortified desert town in his groupings of vases, cups and bowls. One can almost imagine them shimmering on the horizon, whole cities dedicated to the quenching of thirst. The chipped outlines give an anonymous square packet the weight of a block of marble, make a lidded china box as mysteriously impregnable as one of Claude Lorrain's hilltop citadels.

Also on display - both at Tate Modern and at the smaller show at the Estorick Collection in north London - are a number of Morandi's landscapes. What is interesting about these is how very different they are from the still lifes. Where the indoor pictures are delicate and concentrated, the landscapes are sketchy and diffuse. It seems that, away from the ascetic orderliness of his studio (whether or not that meant simply looking out of the window), he could no longer be so obsessively precise. The outside world is wind-blown, distant, difficult. When Morandi paints a tree, he indicates the green outburst of some unknowable force. His houses look like bare cliff faces that have had tiny black windows carved into them. His landscapes are the perfect foil to his more famous work, resisting contemplation as surely as the still lifes welcome it.

Giorgio Morandi is at Tate Modern (020 7887 8008) until 12 August and at the Estorick Collection (020 7704 9522) until 26 August. A small selection of still lifes is at Sprovieri (020 7734 2066), London W1, until 4 August

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Best of young British