Morandi 1890-1964

As a passionate geometry student since I was a kid, Morandi and De Chirico have always fascinated me, though I must admit they don’t always spark an emotional response in me. Palazzo Reale dedicates to the metaphysical Italian painter Giorgio Morandi a neat exhibition, curated by Maria Cristina Bandera. She’s Director of the Roberto Longhi […]

As a passionate geometry student since I was a kid, Morandi and De Chirico have always fascinated me, though I must admit they don’t always spark an emotional response in me. Palazzo Reale dedicates to the metaphysical Italian painter Giorgio Morandi a neat exhibition, curated by Maria Cristina Bandera. She’s Director of the Roberto Longhi Foundation for the Study of Art History in Florence, and if you don’t know her, I suggest you check out her books, such as her commentary on the book Roberto Longhi dedicated to Morandi himself.

The exhibition creates a connection between Bologna, where the artist lived and worked, and Milan as a centre of attraction where many of his collectors resided.

“We conceived this exhibition for Milan, the city that first, thanks to its enlightened collectors and its gallery of choice, understood the importance and originality of Morandi’s pictorial research”.
– M.C. Bandera

It’s a monumental selection: over 120 works running through the painter’s entire production, following a chronological order and running through 34 sections.
I won’t be talking about all of them (it would take me a lifetime, but here’s a selection of what I liked the most). From December, 2nd you can book a tour with the curator herself. The exhibition also has a wonderfully detailed website, with much more information than the official one.

“In Morandi’s paintings, so apparently simple, so rigorous, there is always a place, a point from which to spy the infinite, the infinite also of this poetry of his, so calm, so subdued.”
– B. Bertolucci

1. 1913-1918: Between Cezanne, cubism and futurism

Morandi was fascinated by the avant-garde, and painted a set of works that are very far from the metaphysical style he will be known for. He destroyed many of them, and only 34 survived. The exhibition displays seven of them.

Although Morandi could never travel to Paris, he managed to get hold of the artistic innovations through books and magazines, from Cézanne to Picasso’s analytical cubism.

2. 1918-1919: Metaphysical Influences

The avant-garde experience melts with suggestions from Medieval and Renaissance art, from Giotto to Piero della Francesca, and the result is one of the first masterpieces in the marriage between two-dimensional space and delicate tones of Renaissance memory: the 1916 Still Life.

The metaphysical season of 1918 sees the presence of objects such as mannequins, T-squares and rules, geometric solids that, unlike de Chirico and Carrà, remain anchored in everyday life without denying their metaphysical essence, embroidered in the contrasts of chiaroscuro, in the absolute compositional rigour, in the polished painting with few colours and by cold and artificial light, albeit softened in soft tonalism.

3. 1919-1920: Back to Reality

The shitty political atmosphere influences the artist, who abandons metaphysics and returns to order. Still, he remains connected to the values expressed in the Valori Plastici magazine, created to disseminate the aesthetic ideas of metaphysical painting and European avant-garde currents. Morandi starts representing common objects stripped of all their perceived magic, and he concentrates on rendering their perspective, their materials, their plastic presence in the illuminated space.

4. 1921-1929: Experimenting in the 20s

Landscape, still life and flowers dominate the paintings of this period and let me be plain with you: Morandi’s flowers kick some serious asses. Their abstract nature on a golden background is a direct quote from the flowers Giotto’s angels are holding in his Maestà di Ognissanti.

We’ll see more flowers, further on, and I love them all.

5. 1928-1929: Engravings

Morandi is considered the greatest engraver of the century, and not only on the Italian scene. This section showcases his etching technique and the way his artistic language evolved during this year of intense experimentation, and the influence these works had on painting: Morandi reduces colour to two fundamental tones, conquering tonal painting with unparalleled mastery.

This room is one of the most interesting in the whole exhibition, with a set of engravings side by side, the original copper plate and the source painting.

Can you see the differences? Morandi himself helps us in writing to Lamberto Vitali, a photographer his friend:

In the 2nd state, there are some horizontal lines between the two bottles in the bottom, in the long box and in the lower inner part of the jug on the right. In the 3rd state, additional vertical lines are between the bottles, and horizontal lines are in the thickness of the plane on which the objects rest. In the 4th some vertical lines in the bottom between the two bottles. In the 5th some lines in the light of the triangular bottle on the left. In the 6th state […] I erased some lines in the upper inner part of the jug, added some and deepened others.

6. The 30s: The Crucial Years

In the 1930s, the compositional solutions intuited in the previous decade veer into a new monumentality and an intense research into colour, with sometimes contrasting results: a rich chromatic paste or, on the contrary, a less consistent and thinner one.
Landscapes, present since the beginning of his production and still relevant after 20 years of career, alternates with still life in a sort of counterbalance.

“I am constantly working from real life… It’s true, I have done more still lifes than landscapes – and to say that I loved landscapes more but one had to travel and linger in one place or another and return to complete the work.”

The painter used to isolate the motifs of his “villages”, as he preferred to call them – Grizzana and Roffeno, in the Bolognese Apennines – using a telescope or a ‘little window’ made out of a piece of cardboard. From the window of his room-studio in Bologna, he framed the courtyard of Via Fondazza, which was both a vegetable garden and a decorative one.

“The most beautiful landscape in the world is here. It’s going up towards Grizzana. At a certain point there is a curve and there, when you come out of the curve, is the most beautiful landscape in the world. But what can you see? All badlands.”

We have landscapes dilated in a marked optical zoom that abolishes the sky and deprives the subject of focus, also filtered by a diaphanous light standing between Seurat and Piero della Francesca, which flattens the forms into inlays of geometric joints.

The still lives of these years are more crowded, with objects dilating in the background, frozen in a rigid frontal view. Colours saturate the canvas and absorb the shapes, the space and the shadows, undermining the recognisability of the objects themselves.

7. The 40s: A New Simplification

Five central sections of the exhibition showcase more than thirty works, representing a turning point in Morandi’s career: a new impulse of simplification leads him towards the style that will be typical of his more mature production.
The progressive transfiguration of what is real and what is perceived reaches its peak in the landscape he paints during the Second World War: more than eighty works.

The Apennine houses become solitary cubes, essential geometries in the grazing light and deep cones of shadow, almost as if they were simple parallelepipeds, in a clear assonance with what the painter used to do when arranging the objects in his still lifes. The painting maintains decisive thicknesses of material in broken and segmented outlines and in colours reduced to a few tones. His landscapes are willingly “unpicturesque”.

Alternatives to this drama are a couple of works from 1941 and 1942: the image is back into focus, accentuating a timeless dimension. This Landscape in Grizzana is definitely one of my favourites.

We also have still lives, in this period, and they’re an astonishing assortment of spiral and twisted objects, ceramics that seem to be vibrating with everyday usage, and those flowers I’m so fond of.

Shadows and their absence are also subjects of experimentation during this year: we span from paintings of absolute, diffused light to dramatic sceneries in which a spotlight seems to be aimed at the object and stark shadows are pained on a defined surface.

8. A twist with… shells

The theme of shells, inspired by Rembrandt’s etching Conus marmoreus, has been present since 1921 and is taken up again with intensity during the war: images of a fossilised world represent the most tormented side of painting in these years. The artist devoted himself to these still lives mostly on small canvases in monochrome colours.

I love each and every one of them, so you’re getting them all.

In this still life 1943, the expanded tips of the large fossil on the right contrast with the closed, leathery fist of the other shell. The painting follows a wandering line: the shell’s wispy white colour gives off a mysterious glow, the painting’s only apparent source of light, and a sharp line separates the resting plane from the background.

In another still life from the same year, the same fossil is reversed and magnified: we get more detail, this time, the chiaroscuro excavations emphasise its alien coils and protuberances, amplified by the juxtaposition with a familiar object such as the sugar bowl.

Lastly, three bare spindle-shaped shells are tightly packed together within an almond arrangement and seem to be unhatching, like from a cocoon, emerge from an enveloping chiaroscuro that accentuates their sense of isolation and loneliness.
It was 1940.
Everyone was lonely.

9. The 50s: Playful years

The painter abandons realism and goes back to those imperceptible geometric and perspectival deviations that recall youthful abstractions and a more playful style, before the 20s, before the war and before the fucking fascists destroyed the Country.

He works and reworks on variations of the same themes, and declares:

“I think I managed to avoid the danger of repeating myself because I devoted more time and attention to the conception of each of my paintings as a variation on one or another of a few themes.”

You’ll let me know how that makes sense.

He varied by changing the way objects are arranged, framed on different table tops, fighting the laws of gravity or floating without support lined with paper. The light source came in from the courtyard of his study, and was guarded by a system of veils affixed to the window. The canvases became smaller in format and the objects, grouped together in compact geometric structures, lost their verisimilitude.

The main characters of these paintings are a crumpled yellow cloth, the spiral-shaped bottle, the famous long-necked bottles, and an inverted funnel placed on top of a cylinder specially made by Morandi, which is none other than the oil container and would fascinate Aldo Rossi. The colours veer towards unreal timbres, with an everpresent contrast between soft-warm and cold tones.

These flowers in their vertically-striped vase have lost all realism: only the substance of their petals remain, and the cramped group isn’t impervious to a light that penetrates all, almost coming from within.

Also, can we talk about these frames?

Another example of flowers from the same period isn’t shy of shadows, and give us a long, thin stroke on the table with sharp brush strokes that help us identify peonies, roses, and a fucking tulip.
The geometry of the vase is less rigorous, almost distorted by the light washing from the left.

The same goes for another composition that seems to be merging the two: the vase geometry is distorted and the shadows are licking its body, whereas the previous one seemed to be immune, but the flowers are almost falling into its mouth like preys to a hungry mother, cramming together petals and leaves.

During the 50s, Morandi also comes back to landscape painting and in particular we see a new approach in representing the Courtyard of Via Fondazza: the layout is defined by a wall and a slope of roofs now reduced to pure essence in the accentuated discordance between the flat wall that acts as an apparent backdrop on the left side and the more articulated and perspective scenery of the volumes. Aside from the fact that I love his flowers, they’re probably among the finest things he painted.

The exhibition showcases them at the sides of an audio-video installation that’s supposed to be immersive and maybe taking us into the studio of the painter but, as far as I’m concerned, it failed to evoke any emotion.

10. 1956-1963: Watercolours

Nine charming watercolours take us on a particularly dreamy journey, an intense period that sees over 250 sheets of watercolour being produced in the span of seven years.

“For me there is nothing more surreal and nothing more abstract than the real.”

Central to these still lives is another geometrical composition, an inverted funnel on a cylindrical box, in some cases coupled with a smaller version.
Watercolours are unusually illuminated from the right and bathed in an unreal violet palette that covers the objects with a ghostly appearance. The shadows are sharp and dark, the shapes are so dense with colours that they reach the threshold of abstraction. Compare for instance a painting…

…and its corresponding watercolour.
You cannot distinguish the objects anymore.

11. 1960-1963: The Last Years

Morandi’s last season sees the untiring variation of motifs implemented through iterations of increasingly complex intuitions.

The progressive formal despoliation reaches a total simplification of the composition, based on just a few objects, sometimes compressed and superimposed to the point of becoming a single superobject.

We will never see sharp tones again: these are clearer and more varied, lacking in texture, soft and almost impalpable. The colour sublimates in a refined range, with combinations and detachments of layers that come to dematerialise in the light, bringing the canvases closer to watercolours.

“What is important is to touch the bottom, the essence of things”.


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