Pause the film, please. I want to see the painting. Oh, it is a Morandi still life from 1941.
Go on, play the movie.
- “Listen, I see that you have a wonderful [magnifico] Morandi.”
- “Oh, yes, he’s my favorite painter. The objects are flooded with a wistful light and yet painted with such a detachment, precision, rigor that makes them almost tangible. You can say that it’s an art where nothing is coincidental.”
We are in the 1950s. In Rome. At a party at Steiner’s. Morandi’s painting brings Marcello (Mastroianni) and Steiner (Alan Cluny) closer together in a respite from glamour, glitz and triviality. The scene is from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Morandi was 70 when the film came out in 1960. He never saw it. He did not go to the movies or concerts because he was hard of hearing.
A Morandi show at David Zwirner in New York last year. Twenty two works. Fifteen paintings from late 1940s to early 1960s. Average size between thirteen and seventeen inches. I stood entranced. The small paintings filled the room with restrained glow. I was no longer a viewer, but a partaker brought to a halt, my eyes lulled to focus on modest paintings of ordinary bottles and bowls. The world retreated. The space in the room merged with the space within the paintings’ frames. Aware of my body, of my breath, I became one of the objects, alive and stilled.
Whenever I see Morandi’s works, I find my own sauntering from painting to painting distracting; the rustle of the catalogue pages disruptive. I wish I could find a way to take in everything at once in the stillness of my being. I want to be at rest, in my body, clinging with my eyes to his works, witnessing how his painted objects gently, barely noticeably, yet incessantly change, as do I. What is it about these unassuming, seemingly monochrome paintings of outwardly mundane objects looking at which gives me an instant of such peace and lets me perceive a piece of an instant?
Morandi found his objects in second-hand stores and flea markets. Occasionally he “prepared” his finds - he painted his bottles, sometimes from inside filling them with paint, sometimes brushing them on the outside. He made his own objects from tin. And he collected dust, letting it accumulate and shroud his containers.
Born in 1890 in Bologna, the oldest of five children, Morandi spent his 74 years in his native town. He lived on via Fondazza since 1909 with his three unmarried sisters and their mother until her death. The family moved from a second floor apartment to the ground floor in the 1930s. Morandi’s room was small (eleven square yards), chosen for quality of light, rather than size or convenience of access. He painted and slept in the same room. He had to pass through one of his sisters’ bedrooms to get to his space. Knock, pause, wait. John Rewald, an American scholar of Impressionism, visited Morandi in 1964, shortly before the artist’s death:
No skylight, no vast expanses, an ordinary room in a middle class apartment lit by two ordinary windows. But the rest was extraordinary; on the floor, on shelves, on a table, everywhere, boxes, bottles, vases. All kinds of containers in all kinds of shapes. They cluttered all available space, except for two simple easels…They must have been there for a long time; on the surfaces of the shelves or tables, as well as on the flat tops of boxes, cans or similar receptacles, there was a thick layer of dust. It was a dense, gray, velvety dust, like a soft coat of felt, its color and texture seemingly providing the unifying element for these tall boxes and deep bowls, old pitchers and coffee pots, quaint vases and tin boxes. It was a dust that was not the result of negligence and untidiness but of patience, a witness to complete peace. In the stillness of his humble retreat from the excitement of an agitated world, these everyday objects led their own, still life. Here, in this small room….nothing was ever changed, nothing moved, except when the master carefully lifted a few of these unassuming objects to reassemble them in yet another order.
Janet Abramovicz, a painter and a scholar who visited Morandi in the 1950s, saw only one window overlooking the back garden and a single light source.
Morandi spent his summers in Grizzana, a small village about 24 miles southeast of Bologna, painting landscapes. He was usually accompanied by at least one of his sisters. Morandi refrained from interviews for most of his life, wanting peace and quiet. In 1962 he kindly declined an exhibition invitation from Siegen saying
I am obliged to renounce this honor for a number of reasons, the main one being the fact that I have rejected other invitations that have been so insistently sent to me from various other parts of Europe, including Germany, asking me to organise exhibitions of my work. You will understand, dear Dottore, what an embarrassing situation I would find myself in were I to accept the invitation of the city of Siegen, having turned down all others…
In a rare interview, Morandi mentioned he was afraid of words and that was why he painted. Once he became internationally famous, he complained of the distraction caused by visitors he had to receive and correspondence he had to answer.
After finishing his training in 1913 Morandi taught drawing at the Bologna public schools until 1930 and then, until 1956, etching at the Bologna Academy of Fine Arts, a traditional institution established in the 16th century by the Carracci brothers, where Morandi studied in his youth. The quiet artist was quite involved in the Bolognese and Italian art scenes, widely exhibiting and participating in all Venice Biennale planning committees from 1947 to 1962. While in his twenties, Morandi travelled extensively throughout Italy to see art. Yet he left his native country only three times, after he retired in 1956, visiting Switzerland on all three occasions.
Looking at his work I forget that his seemingly serene and uneventful life unfurled as the First World War gave way to Mussolini and the Second World War. Morandi was drafted into the army during WWI, but was dismissed because of his health. He was ill for the next few years. In the 1930s Morandi, as many Italian artists, was a member of the Fascists’ printmakers union. Even though his art was not in line with Fascist aesthetics, he participated in more than 30 exhibitions, in Italy and abroad. Morandi claimed to not have read news or followed politics. In the late 1930s as the anti-Semitic laws were introduced, a few of Morandi’s Jewish friends lost their jobs overnight or could no longer publish or exhibit. He was briefly imprisoned by Fascists in 1943 because of his connections with friends involved in the Resistance. In 1943 Bologna, a city with the oldest university in Europe and the heart of Italian rail connections, was heavily bombed. Almost half of the city buildings were destroyed. Bologna was under Nazi control until the end of the 1944, and it was not possible to travel in and out of the city. In Grizzana, a home to local Partisans, the civilian population suffered cruel executions.
Morandi concentrated on his work during the war. In the years between 1940 and 1943 he painted 78 landscapes and 122 still lifes. And only three landscapes and seven still lives in 1944, and just twelve paintings the following year. He wrote from Grizzana in 1944:
I am working very little….Every day the airplanes are overhead, and when they are not bombing us, they shoot at each other. You can understand that with that going on it’s impossible to think about painting. I no longer have that quiet that is so indispensable for my work.
Morandi’s 1941 landscape at the Zwirner is a little out of focus. I am not sure where I am looking from – straight across the distance, down from above, or up from below. The harder I stare the blurrier it gets. It escapes me. I am no longer confident in my vision. I turn to Natalia Ginzburg to envision Morandi’s world:
Some things are incurable, and though years go by, we never recover… Anyone who has seen houses collapse knows all too well how fragile vases of flowers, paintings and white walls really are. He knows all too well what a house is made of. A house is made of bricks and mortar and it can crumble. A house is nothing very solid. It can crumble one moment to the next. Behind the serene vases of flowers, behind the teapots, the rugs and the waxed floors, is the other, the true face of the house, the horrible face of the crumpled house…
Looking at Morandi’s paintings, I sense fragility, vulnerability, uncertainty, transience, and also peace. And I wonder how much I am not seeing, so removed from Morandi’s time, his world and his experiences. How do I accept the fallibility of my vision, of human vision? And the limits of language. I feel the anguish of my inability to see fully. I question my ability to express what I am seeing. I suffer Morandi’s fear of words in this instant. And I experience what I think might be an artist’s fear of seeing and not-seeing, and of looking at what one has managed to see.
Morandi worked almost every day, in the afternoon as he needed natural light for painting. He drew into the night. In the 1950s Morandi estimated that he produced around 600 paintings, and guessed he was creating about four or five paintings a year as he was having trouble with his eyesight. In fact, the artist completed around 600 paintings in the 37 years between 1910 and 1947, and over 772 in 16 years between 1948 and 1964, the year he died, which was around 48 paintings a year. Only 30 paintings were of the human figure, seven of which were self-portraits, the rest were mostly still lifes and some landscapes that the artist painted during his summers in Grizzana. Morandi also produced over 100 etchings and around 250 watercolors. Imagine arranging all those bottles and containers into still lifes and painting them hundreds of times. What such intensity of looking is like? The unremitting gaze. The concentration. As if Morandi re-created those objects with and through his look.
There were over 40 Morandis on view at the Center for Italian Modern Art earlier this year. Most works were from the 1930s. The layers of paint in his paintings from this decade create almost a shield, a cartilaginous shell. Layers of doubt? Of effort? Forms intrude into space, and space pushes back. The brushstroke is on the heavier side, tentative. The painted objects are in a state of timid collision, as if stumbling in the dark into walls and each other. The edges are wounded.
I ponder how Morandi worked. Observing the bottles and bowls day after day; painting them day after day – contemplating their physical properties and relationships to and with each other. I am re-thinking the intensity of looking as I think of his unremarkable routine practice of painting small still lifes. Intensity suddenly sounds too dramatic. Perhaps, tenacity is more fitting. Leo Steinberg, a great art historian, said that “you can, as an artist, try to say something big about life, or be content to make the stuff in your hands come to life. And this humbler task is greater, for all else merely follows.” What can an artist hope for? Mastery of the profession? Insight? Acceptance of never being able to fully express one’s vision? Or having a simple practice of looking, of making unseen visible in faith and in doubt that it will then be seen by another?
I imagine Morandi handling his objects. Did he leave fingerprints on their dusty shrouds? Each object had a story. Each connected to a memory or to something forgotten. His putting together of a still life, staging his objects, was a creative act in itself. Why did he need his collection of bottles and bowls to think, to observe, to express? Morandi said:
I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. We know that all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meanings that we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.
Why did he need objects then? What took place when Morandi kept his eyes on his objects, moving his eyes from one to another, perhaps pausing, looking at his canvas, and looking back at his objects? How does taking simple objects, placing them together, touching them, observing them, and painting them facilitate one’s understanding of painting? of life? of passage of time?
Have these objects functioned as our own body does in meditation? Just as our breath is an anchor for us in our bodies, Morandi’s objects operated as anchors for his gaze through which he explored vision. The daily practice of observing one’s own looking, of paying attention to constant permutation, and of studying the nature of seeing. “Nothing is more alien to me than an art which sets out to serve other purposes than those implied in the work of art in itself,” he said. Morandi did not paint objects arranged in space – he painted the ever changing relationships between form and space as observed within the provisional and tentative environment of both his studio and his still lifes. Matter let him touch the intangible.
Umberto Eco appreciated Morandi’s method of variation:
What is the elementary mechanism of innovation and development? Variation. Musical variation works on infinitesimal and allows the melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic discourse to unfold by feigning repetition, the marking of time.”
And variation can go on forever. The number of possible combinations of his simple, destructible, and fragile objects was infinite. The two smalls still lifes from 1952 in Zwirner show look very similar. I wondered if they were done from the same setting of objects. The longer I looked, the clearer I saw how different their worlds were. The light was sharper in the square one, while the objects in the horizontal painting were enveloped in a subdued haze. The postures of objects were different, as if they were the same people in two photographs; they have adjusted their poses, and something took place in the time in between the two shots. The group is little further in the square painting. Suddenly, I glimpsed the painted objects alive; previously unnoticed ongoing change has become visible. My instant of peace and a piece of an instant. Are those bottles and bowls full of time, holding it in a way they hold emptiness? Morandi found a way to touch eternity through the ephemeral.
Perhaps, Morandi felt as Cezanne did, one of his favorite painters, that “expressing what exists is an endless task.” Might looking be an endless task as well? I have time then. To return, to revisit, and to reexamine. To observe the change in myself by retracing my gaze. I wonder if Morandi’s paintings function for me the way his objects might have functioned for him. Familiar, yet never the same. Deflecting the gaze so the artist, and now beholder, could also observe the change in their own vision.
I think of dusk, the dimness of Morandi’s earlier paintings, and the lightness, luminosity of his later work. In the earlier works the frame does not embrace the objects; some “leave” the canvas. In his later work – they are a center of gravity, holding the frame in place. The shadows are often no less solid than objects. The form and space wash over each other in a caress. The brushstroke is alive, flowing. The canvas surface is visible underneath the thin, translucent layer of paint.
But it is the late watercolors that put me out of breath. As if at high altitude. The air is thinner. There are no layers of paint in watercolors. I feel my heart beat. I am slightly disoriented. What am I seeing? What is form and what is space? Where’s an object and where’s a shadow? If earlier works bare the piercing observation, these watercolors are like glances. Apparitions. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. I wonder if this is looking transformed into seeing. Morandi’s gesture is neither confident nor tentative; rather, I feel, it is final in its careful awareness of revealing something important, something precious about the way we see. I wonder if what I take as a restraint is actually a maximum that can be shown and seen. Looking at his paintings I followed the edges of Morandi’s objects and his brushstroke with my eyes. In front of these watercolors I feel my eyes stop moving. I absorb these works in the stillness of my vision. Are those watercolors the artist’s last glimpses of this world? Last breaths?
“We know that all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it.” I contemplate the ultimately un-seeable and unknowable world. I wonder about the nature of painting, the limits of my sight mirrored in picture frames. And through this shortcoming in vision I encounter Morandi’s art works not as static inanimate objects, but as possibilities to follow another’s eye, to see the previously unseen, and to change one’s own vision. Several years before he died Morandi wrote that“…since each time we begin, we always think we’ve understood, that we have all the answers, but we’re always starting over again from the beginning.” And I wonder if I can learn to see so each of my acts of looking functions as a blank canvas.