When an acquaintance of mine who had been raised in the countryside came to live in Bologna several years ago, the city seemed to him a dreary labyrinth. He arrived in the abbreviated days of winter when the Apennine chill and Po Valley fog press a steel lid on the town for weeks. The streets throughout the historical center are lined with porticoes, and to my friend the citizens coursing up and down the gloomy arcades were mysterious bolts of shadow scrambling for constant shelter. William Dean Howells detested Bologna for that same reason: the portici make the sidewalks “a continuous cellarway; your view of the street is constantly interrupted by the heavy brick pillars that support the arches.” The entire city, he says in Italian Journeys, is “dull, blind, and comfortless.” Howells, like many visitors to Italy, was intent on the picturesque, the ample and immediately self-revealing view of things, rather than the natural history of a town, which is always a more private, withheld matter. If you are content with the short view, with the chopped and interrupted picturesque, the porticoes of Bologna can be elegantly spectral. The pillars and arches are each palazzo’s structural signature. And you can track the seasons by the shifting blinds and ladders of light fanning out on the pavement like primitive time-telling devices, though the galleried view often bends out of sight in the near distance. Off the broader, fashionable main avenues, the dimensions change; the passageways become narrow square chutes, the pavement rolls and swells, the pillars are squat, the ceilings stooped, and the shops are mineral recesses with dusty illumination.

The shops on Via Fondazza, a narrow street connecting two main thoroughfares, are considerably smaller than the average American garage. There is a cobbler whose display space accommodates one small table with one shoe on it; there is a one-chair barbershop, and a water-heater retailer with brass elbow joints spread like jewels in the window. The houses are painted in familiar Bolognese reds, oranges, and yellows, powdery textures so finely distinct that they imitate the alarming minor changes of tint in dreams. Via Fondazza is where Giorgio Morandi had his famous dusty studio for most of his working life. The bunched columns and chopped towers of his still lifes, their “low ceiling,” and the fibrous granular textures of his palette may not be directly modeled on Bologna’s characteristics, but anyone who lives here long enough will surely recognize and perhaps better understand Morandi’s form language, seeing in it the larval shadows of this unique cityscape. The Bolognesi are justly famous for their cordiality and outgoingness, but the look of their city is recondite, rounded back on itself, reticent, self-returning.

There are many legends about Morandi.

There are many legends about Morandi, the chief one being that he was a studio hermit who, working for several decades in an historical vacuum, imitated his own forms endlessly but brilliantly. The recent large show mounted here by the Galleria Comu-nale d’Arte Moderna, “Morandi and his Time,” intends to destroy these assumptions and to position Morandi in the historical matrix of his time. His international reputation is certainly secure, but the historical criteria of that reputation have not yet been convincingly articulated. The praise that greeted the retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1981 was, in too large a part, the exuberance of belated discovery rather than analytical reappraisal.[1] Such reappraisal is the declared purpose of the Bologna show. The argument set forth in the arrangement of works (219 on display, 116 by Morandi) and developed in the catalogue is that Morandi’s career is neither a regional, isolated phenomenon nor an eccentric twentieth-century “case.” He was instead, the show argues, implicated at every stage of his development in the redefinition of formal values in painting that was taking place in Western Europe. To chronicle and document Morandi’s passage through the currents of his time the show includes work by other artists selected to illustrate and endorse the argument. The problem with this strategy is that some of those selections are live grenades that practically explode the argument they are meant to prove.

The show is arranged in sections, each an historical or stylistic designation. The early stages—“Predecessors,” “Formative Years: The International and Local Context,” “The Beginnings”—establish the formal matrix of what would become Morandi’s most frequent subject, the still life. The two Cézanne still lifes, Vase pasillée, sucrier, et pommes (1890-94) and La vase bleue (1883-87), announce the early modernist formal values by which Morandi’s practice might be better understood. Morandi took Cézanne as his first master, though he did not see much of the actual work until 1914, when he went to the Second Secession Exhibition in Rome, where some of Cézanne’s watercolors were being shown. (He had already seen some canvases by Renoir and Monet in 1910 and 1911; for the rest, most of his familiarity with early modern French painting came from books.) The manner of presentation in the Cézanne paintings is, as usual, that of an object-offering. The table, or platform, tilts toward us; the forms of fruit, dish, and vase are ritual presentations, self-disclosures. The objects are not in repose; they urge themselves forward, ingenuously disposed, at once defiant and inviting. Juxtaposed to the two Cézannes is a natura morta by Braque dated 1917 (Morandi was then twenty-seven). Even with its edited, reshuffled figures—pipe, glass, table cover—the canvas is a field of offering, and the Cubist self-consciousness of rearranged reality offers itself as part of the presentation. Likewise in Cézanne’s still lifes the canvas is a field that discloses the actual activity of the form-making imagination, not only the products of it. In neither artist is there any hint of monumentality (except, in Braque’s case, to mock it) or of the contrived statuesque.

The early Morandi oils on display, from 1905 to 1913, show the influence of Monet’s thick, analytical brushwork, the color pushed to dissolve the definitions of the subject—flowers, landscape, snowstorm. The youthful exuberance in these paintings argues against the confinements of the frame, but this enthusiasm will be replaced by rigor once the full influence of the predecessors has been absorbed. Along with Morandi’s early works are two small still lifes by his contemporary Giacomo Vespignani which have the same violent energy pushing against the frame that Morandi’s early landscapes possess. Vespignani is also the subject of a portrait by Osvaldo Licini that appears close by one of Morandi’s early portraits (Ritratto femminile, 1912). The pinched, mechanical, heavily painted surface of the Morandi looks unintentionally primitive and embarrassed next to the Licini portrait, in which the forms are carved from paint, coaxed into a figure which seems tentative and romantically dissolute next to the overdetermined classicism of Morandi’s portrait. Seen in the context of Cézanne’s energetic maturity, Braque’s witty experiments, and the nervous vitalism of his more conspicuous Italian contemporaries, Morandi’s early explorations seem shy. There is a deflective wariness in his work that at first glance seems like mere formal reserve.

The poster for the show reproduces a natura morta from 1918. It is both an unlikely and purposive choice, since that was the period of Morandi’s brief involvement with la pittura metafisica and his connection with Valori Plastici, the so-called “return to order” magazine. The poster image immediately establishes the cross-reference to de Chirico while also suggesting the formal schematic rigor that remained with Morandi throughout his career. The image’s colors are sand, buff, and dark brown; the standing objects are a bottle, a box, and a hat-dummy, disposed in an attitude of military alertness. Morandi’s.famous organization of standing objects is beginning to emerge, but within the historical definitions of his time. Another painting in this mode shows a big box with foldaway vertical planes that echo the box sides, forms gravely mocking forms. Thus far, the show’s argument is persuasive, but we can also read these earlier paintings as indications not of what Morandi was absorbing but of what he was choosing to exclude. The influence of metafisica—its hard shadows, depopulated spaces, interrupted dream narratives—passes quickly, as if Morandi was merely trying out a manner. For in less than two years Morandi begins painting the studio objects that would occupy him for the rest of his life, and the famous Morandi dust begins to settle on the view the canvas discloses. The hermeticism of subject that metafisica favored soon gives way to hermetic exploration of formal values. His early work, however, certainly suggests already that, for Morandi, the making of forms is a stay against some darkness, that all around the exposed platform are shadows held in check, barely, lest they consume and dissolve the articulation of objects that momentarily hold the light. I don’t mean to suggest that some kind of Manichean melodrama is being worked out in Morandi’s paintings. It is not a religious contest but an imaginative one in which the mind struggles to cope with, and measure, the forms it produces. Were it not for this contest, Morandi’s work would be imperturbably monumental (as it does, in fact, too often become). The monumentality is in part a hedgehog reflex, self-protective and self-declarative. After the brief encounter with metafisica and Valori Plastici Morandi commences the crucial and definitive formal adjustments: the ceiling in the paintings gets lower; the field of objects is purged of suggestive whimsy; the arrangement of objects ceases to imply proliferation or abundance; the frame becomes a hermetic seal.

The great style is arrived at early in 1920. In a natura morta of that year four equidistant objects—lime, cylinder, tubby narrow-neck bottle, small tipped-over bowl—are spread across the platform, which is colored a recognizable Bolognese reddish-brown. The platform’s rear edge, the horizon, is almost suffocatingly foreshortened. None of the objects, not even the bowl with its open white mouth, is presented as ritualized offering. The space between the objects is tenuous, something risked. Ash seems to have settled on the entire scene. The painting is both annunciatory and concealing. The subsequent years of Morandi’s long career—he died in 1964—dramatized the closing and calibrated measures of those spaces, an increasing huddled protectiveness, a diminishing faith in space as a field of disclosure, but also an abundant curiosity about the tense, rigorous modulations of restraint. From now on, much of his imagination will be devoted to the infinite redefinitions in tint and texture of the scrim that often veils the scene he paints, the “second screen” of his art.

In the Twenties and Thirties Morandi began the long methodical testing of boundaries, and trying out of his vocabulary of forms, conducted in the famous processional style. Nearly everything in the many still lifes produced in these years is upright. The background darkens. The tense, becalmed composition suggests enthusiasm forcefully held in check. The drama of color and brushstroke is sober, reserved, paid out in small sums. Even when the familiar bottles and lamps are pink, hazy blue, or sky-green, the formal discipline infuses a weightedness into those buoyant colors. And there is now that constant Morandi scrim, la seconda tela. A filter or mute has been locked on the light source, so that every work is a kind of double canvas: the field of objects on their platform, and the screen that chafes or powders or scorches the light before it arrives to illuminate the field.

Looking at the two dozen paintings from this period included in the show, one becomes more aware not only of the increasing density of color and variety of form in Morandi’s art, but also, more importantly, of the fact that these have been allowed into the painting. The drama of still-life presentation thus becomes in large part the assertion of denial, or exclusiveness, encoded into formal curiosity. The paint is still thick, even a little raw, and its energy strains against a subtle diffidence that would thin out or repress that energy. In Fiori (1924), orange blooms rise tall out of a blue-gray vase against a violent yellow background. The figures are rather tentative, as if Morandi has not quite decided just how vital they ought to appear. That tentativeness, and the general reserve characteristic of his mature style, are exaggerated by contrast with another Licini piece, a natura morta from 1926, in which a plate of verdura is a mass of frenzied yellow-black scribbles and an orange is so tensely drawn that it seems about to explode. Set alongside Morandi’s measured deliberations, Licini’s vitalism seems an hysteria of forms.

The great painting of those years is a 1929 natura morta with cans, funnels, and coffeepots spread on a wide platform. The objects are almost devoured by their background, a creamy mud-vermillion that rhymes closely with the objects’ colors. Even the platform, tilted slightly forward, seems fused to the background. The figure outlines in this alluvial landscape (or studioscape) measure and mark the frontier that prevents form from resolving into the oblivion of its ground. It is a terrifyingly beautiful painting in which Morandi’s struggles with imaginative form are played out with impassioned, almost self-destructive, energy. In the same gallery, however, are four pictures from 1935 to 1941, all with the same oil lamp and bottles, obviously the curators’ attempt to demonstrate the variety of Morandi’s form vocabulary even when using identical objects in practically identical arrangements. But in the presence of that other work, these four are unhappy reminders of the rather mannered stateliness which, by the mid-Forties, had become too familiar a signature of Morandi’s work. Too constant a return to familiar models familiarly expressed can soak up an artist’s curiosity about the very forms which presumably ought to vex him into new assertions, new variations.

This, I believe, was the profound inhibition in a good deal of Morandi’s work, and it becomes more evident as the style becomes more masterful. In the 1929 “mud painting,” Morandi was more obviously caught up in a problem which throughout his career would make good trouble and be a counterforce to “masterly” executions. The frontier or membrane that defines each object in that painting against its primogenitive ground is clearly under stress. The stability of forms (which is to say, reality differentiated) is a condition won, arrived at after trouble; it is not a predetermined value or formal assumption. And the claims exerted by the ground, the original mass out of which the forms have been worked and stilled, are yet powerful enough to suck those forms back into the molten, undifferentiated state which stifles and contests emergence of any sort. For decades Morandi painted the same figures, and he held perhaps too strictly to the studio conventions he had developed in those secluded years on Via Fondazza, but the real matter of his career was the struggle with differentiation and emergence.

By the early Fifties Morandi’s palette had lightened.

By the early Fifties Morandi’s palette had lightened, but the ceiling is even lower, and it becomes more difficult than before to read a history of sensibility in his paintings as we can in figurative artists like Francis Bacon and Zoran Music, both of whom have very specialized form-vocabularies but whose work, to use one of Bacon’s favorite phrases, comes more immediately off their nervous system. With the brighter, hazier tones of the late Forties and early Fifties also comes a deeper reticence and hiddenness, as if Morandi were becoming a prisoner of his own highly developed studio values. Such a judgment gets easily confused with the legend of Via Fondazza: the silent, solitary recluse who pursued his own way, undistracted by trends and “isms.” The catalogue corrects part of this and documents Morandi’s frequent contact with local colleagues, his attendance at shows of his own and others’ work, and his acquaintances among Bologna’s literary personalities. The larger question, and really the only one that finally matters, is that of the hermetic quality of his art.

Morandi’s real solitude lay in his strait, intense dedication to perfecting a narrow range of forms in constant variations of arrangement, tone, and texture. Early in his career, after the experiments with metafisica, he limited and sealed off the view—whether still life or landscape—and concentrated on the elected forms. He effectively cut down to nearly marginal dimensions the fields of forms within which his curiosity could passionately engage itself. An artist like Zoran Music, whose big retrospective in Venice in the fall was more revealing and suggestive in its argument, also worked countless variations of his Dalmatian scenes. Within those, however, were various subjects and manifold forms: landscapes, horses, peasants, gypsies, pastures, ferryboats. And he had other subjects which allowed obsessive, serial treatment: the Venice paintings; the extermination camp series, “Non siamo gli ultimi”; the extraordinary atelier paintings in which the artist is portrayed as a minuscule figure before an enormous empty canvas, staring, at his model across an oceanic stone-gray waste. One sees Music’s vocabulary developing, expanding, pounding at its own limits, his curiosity exercising itself in such a formalized way that the very exploration becomes a kind of subliminal subject. Morandi chose a much less inclusive (though, some would argue, more exacting) course, and over the years was able to perfect that modest, remote, always vaguely self-replicating majesty of forms. The scholarly quibbles in the catalogue—did Morandi derive his light from Monet? did he take over formal arrangements from Cézanne?—are beside the point. What makes Morandi a difficult and troubling artist is that decisiveness. In the work of the Fifties, the ordinary pleasures of an artist practicing all his powers are there in abundance. Morandi was a colorist of extraordinary nuance: the phasing of the scrim, the refined densities of tint, the subtly graduated pressures exerted by ceiling and platform—all are achieved with remarkable precision. But if one intensifier of pleasure is difficulty—that is, the uneasy and vexed delight we feel before some of Cézanne’s late watercolors with their empty white patches, or Bacon’s smeared figures, where the life of forms is challenged just when it is most confidently resolved—that is not one of the primary pleasures Morandi offers, though the tension is not entirely absent.

His rapturously self-enclosing career is most aggressively displayed in a group of smallish canvases constellated on one wall—still lifes and one landscape, all dating from the Fifties—which comprise an imagination’s universe of forms. It is, however, a planetarium view. The paintings are so coherent that they harmonize too availably one with another; their conversation is subdued and well mannered. Within this voluptuously sober vision, however, is that troubling element I mentioned earlier (and visible only close up, and hardly at all in reproductions, since it is so much in the life of the paint) which suggests an earnest dissonance: the figures—all those familiar cans, vases, and turreted pots—oscillate, their metal skins quivering slightly, rubbery, almost liquefied. The limits of solidity are being tested. In previous decades, the drawing in Morandi’s canvases was generally more definitive, a stronger, less supple harness on the energy of forms. In the paintings of the Fifties, the containment of matter’s chaos in those figures is more fragile and uncertain. Also, the figures are not planted on the platform as in the earlier work; they balance, afloat on the nearly molten stuff of the table, in a state of imminent dissolution.

The figures are not planted on the platform as in the earlier work.

This is not to say that Morandi returned to the drama of the mud painting, but rather that within the cloister of his studio the very mastery of the familiar generated an uneasiness and discontent. The real interest of the late work lies in that provocative, tensed delay in pushing familiar forms back to their undifferentiated beginnings. Morandi’s art was never as self-interrogating as that of some of the artists whom I’ve mentioned or who are included in the show. There is one Giacometti on display, an undated still life: slate ground, slate foreground, brushstrokes like scar tissue, a vase of yellow radiants spearing from a vase already half-engulfed by the whirling movement of the tabletop. One of the curators suggested to me that Giacometti had learned lessons in still-life composition from Morandi. I should say instead that Giacometti, the greater artist, was more skillful and tenacious in expressing, in the execution of his subject matter, the energy of the act of rendering. There is in all of Giacometti’s post-Surrealist work the active presence of an intelligence passionately engaged in formal explorations. Positioned as it is among Morandi’s straining, polite images of the late period, Giacometti’s one picture is a rude but memorable guest who might, in a moment of inattentiveness, spit on the rug.

But out of his elected scheme, out of that system of resistance and enforced calm, came the masterpiece of Morandi’s last years, a natura morta of 1963. The small (30 x 35 cm.) canvas shows white vases on a snowy, spectral, gray-green ground. Behind the vases looms a vermilion mass, more garish and light-infested than in the early mud painting. The image is not, as I have heard suggested, a death song. An allegorical reading can only reduce the power of the image. What makes the painting sublime, in the terms I’ve been trying to set down here, is that the figures, the containers of substance and restrainers of matter’s chaos, are disappearing into their ground, into that now redder and bloodier alluvial muck which Morandi tested so many years before. He is turning the life of form back toward dissolution, conducting his own finest imaginings toward oblivion. No dust has settled on the image. No scrim protects it. There is only the open, enthusiastic, liquid textures of the figured paint. It is as if Morandi were reviewing and summing up the history of his form language, while turning the act of a self-review into a renewed contest with chaos.

  1. “Giorgio Morandi: A Retrospective Exhibition” was organized by James T. Demetrion of the Des Moines Art Center. The show was on view in Des Moines and San Francisco, as well as New York. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 4 Number 9, on page 39
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