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The quiet landscape of Giorgio Morandi

The Italian painter reduced his world and his subjects to a series of careful arrangements – the stillest of still lives.

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The Italian painter Giorgio Morandi was the quietest of quiet men. Although he lived through an era that thoroughly remade art, for Morandi (1890-1964) the fuss was always elsewhere – in Paris with the cubists and surrealists or, later, in New York with the abstract expressionists – and he was happy to leave the painterly revolutions to others. His own aims were seemingly modest, his horizons narrow, and he didn’t feel the lack of more: “I have been fortunate enough to lead… an uneventful life,” he said in all sincerity in 1960.

Uneventful was a deadpan way of putting it; Morandi led a life almost entirely without incident. There were though two brief moments of high drama that intruded themselves: in 1915 he joined the army but almost immediately suffered a breakdown and was discharged, and in 1943 he was arrested as part of a sweep of anti-fascists – even though he may have held mild Fascist  Party sympathies – before being released after just a week. Otherwise, his world was vanishingly small.

He was born in Bologna and never left it, sharing an apartment with his mother and three sisters and looking after them when his father died in 1909. He kept a studio there so didn’t even need to leave it to work. He trained in Bologna, at the Academy of Fine Arts, and he worked in Bologna too, first from 1914 as instructor of drawing in the city’s elementary schools, and from 1930 to 1956 back at the academy as head of printmaking. He never married, claimed in later life that he had never left Italy, and travelled very little in his own country. “I speak only my native language… and read only Italian periodicals,” he told an interviewer.

The limit of his immediate horizons was the hill village of Grizzana, 40 kilometres south of Bologna, where he would go to escape the summer heat, where he sat out the rest of the war after his arrest, and where he built a holiday home. Even as a teacher, his knowledge of foreign art came from books and the black and white postcards he collected. Cézanne and Corot were inspirational figures for him but he knew their paintings only from reproductions. “One can travel this world and see nothing,” he said. “To achieve understanding it is ­necessary not to see many things, but to look hard at what you do see.”

[See also: Gaston Fébus and the thrills of the chase]

The world of his own paintings was restricted too. Apart from a couple of figurative works from his student years and a cluster of later self-portraits, he painted just three subjects: still-lifes of bottles and vases, some flower studies and a smattering of landscapes. He was the poet of bottles, making painting after painting of them in which he searched for the perfect balance of tone, rhythm and form. He worked in pale, bleached shades, sometimes covering a vase with paper to make it more generic, then staring again, composing again. The art historian John Rewald visited Morandi in his studio and remembered that on every-thing there was a layer of “dense, grey, velvety dust, like a soft coat of felt”, and you can sense it in his pictures. Reach in and touch one of his bottles and your finger would come away smudged. It suited him: “There is nothing more surreal, nothing more abstract than reality.”

If his obsessive still lifes have meaning it is far from clear what it might be. As a young artist he tried his hand at futurism, an Italian-born modernist style that emphasised the machine age and movement, and then metaphysical painting inspired by Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà. In 1910, Carrà wrote that “artistic creation demands a vigilant, diligent, attentive willpower and requires a constant effort not to lose the apparitions, which are nothing more than lightning bolts of ordinary things”. Morandi played down the influence of the metaphysical school but Carrà’s definition is a pretty fair summation of the bottle compositions.

Morandi’s pictures are meditations or aids to meditation: they are silent, simplified, undemonstrative, and with a sense of calm redolent of the monasticism of the Far East – indeed he was known as Il Monaco (“The Monk”). “I am essentially a painter of the kind of still life composition that communicates a sense of tranquillity and privacy,” he said, “moods which I have always valued above all else.” A friend thought his pictures were an unconscious reaction to the grandiosity inspired by Mussolini but since his style and subjects barely changed for some 40 years that seems unlikely.

[See also: A prisoner’s perspective]

Morandi hinted at his motivation in 1939 when he said that “before I die I should like to bring two paintings to completion. What matters is to touch the limit, the essence of things.” That essence was elusive: as a result he became a rigorous self-editor, destroying more pictures than he completed. “Here are most of my paintings,” he once told a visitor, pointing to a layer of crusty paint that had built up on his easel when he scraped unsuccessful canvases clean.

He looked for that essence in the land- scape too. The countryside for him was not an immersive place but somewhere to be kept at one remove. From his studio he would look at it through a telescope, which compressed space and picked out elements in a way the eye could not.

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This painting of farm buildings and fields, made at Grizzana in 1941, shows how he scrutinised nature as a pictorial composer, seeing not the whole sweep of the scene, enlivened by details and fading into nothing, but the comprising elements – block-like houses, pallid skies, powdery foliage, all rinsed of colour. In this there was the echo of another of his exemplars, Piero della Francesca, except that there are no people here and the view is held in suspended animation; not even a cicada chirrup interrupts.

Those buildings – roofed cubes – could be the bottles on the table back in his studio: this is another still life. It doesn’t matter how many miles distant is that far horizon, or what is growing in the fields, what matters are the shadows and shapes and the harmony of their placement – indeed the far hills and near fields are painted the same shade of grey. This painting is another in his quest to penetrate to the nature of things: “The feelings and images aroused by the visible world are very difficult to express or are perhaps inexpressible with words,” he said, “because they are determined by forms, colours, space and light.” It was only by getting those absolutely right that a painting could work.

Morandi died from lung cancer in 1964. He was a heavy smoker throughout his life and even in this vice Il Monaco was thoroughgoing, manifesting the same intense concentration that he brought to his paintings. He would smoke each cigarette down to the tip, one puff short of burning his fingers. As he pared back the Grizanna scene before his eyes, he would have done so with smoke in the air.

The art critic John Berger thought that “such quiet, parochial humility as Morandi’s is rare and dignified” but the painter’s aim was far from humble: in 1922 Giorgio de Chirico claimed that Morandi was trying nothing less than “to rediscover and create everything by himself”. So while his pictures may seem passive and small-scale, the urge behind them was anything but. 

[See also: The cameraless images of Anna Atkins]

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die