16 April 2020

Giorgio Morandi & Jean Simeon Chardin: The Modest Sublime

"Even at night, the objects kept vigil,
even as he slept with African dreams,
a porcelain jug, two watering cans,
empty green wine bottles, a knife.
Even as he slept, deeply, as only creators
can sleep, dead-tired,
the objects were laughing, revolution was near.

The nosy watering can with its beak
feverishly incited the others;
blood pulsed wildly in the cup,
which had never known the thirst of the mouth,
only eyes, gazes, vision.

By day, they grew humble, and even took pride:
the whole coarse existence of the world
found refuge in them,
abandoning for  time the blossoming cherry,
the sorrowful hearts of the dyin."
  - "Morandi" by Charles Wright, 2013, BOZAR, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels

My personal introduction to Giorgio Morandi came in 2008  at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I was surprised that I had not seen his work before; only later did I learn how little the artist had been concerned with exhibitions.  All he wanted to do was to paint.  And now a museum in his home city of Bologna is devoted to his art and bears his name.

Still Life (above) looks like nothing so much as a meeting-slash-power-struggle as lucent bowls and bottles jostle each other for position like people lining up for a group photo.  There are no labels on the boxes; squarish and matte, they almost give the impression of being two dimensional,  rendered  flatly, with minimal modeling and  shading.  There is a strangeness in their want of verisimilitude.

Several critics have professed to see in Morandi's still lifes a palimpsest of ghostly cities and I can envision an urban skyline when I look at them. Siri Hustvedt has written that Morandi's colors " are colors you see when you walk the streets of almost any Italian town, hues baked and lightened by the sun - green and blue shutters, yellow walls, old terracotta turned pink..."    

Morandi believed that studying art "offer(s) us an answer to our questions - but only if we formulate  them properly.  As a beginner, he digested the influences of Cezanne, Cubism, Futurism, and pittrua metafisica  of Giorgio de Chirico.  Looking back at his, Morandi told an interviewer in 1957, "For me nothing is abstract. In fact I believe there is nothing more surreal, nothing more abstract than reality." At first glance, contradictory, or perhaps more accurately, metaphysical. 

Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) was born in Bologna, a university town.  He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts of Bologna from 1907 to 1913. There his studies were based on Renaissance art; he taught himself  to etch from books on Rembrandt. There he developed a deep intimacy with the works of Piero della Francesca.  One of his favorite paintings was The House of Cards by Jean-Simeon Chardin, specifically the house of cards itself, which looks eerily similar to a Morandi arrangement

He seemed to live only for art; we have no traces of any romantic attachments.  When he ventured from Bologna to Florence it was to visit Piero della Francesca, Massacio, Giotto, and Ucello.  Ucello, the artist whose name means 'bird' in Italian but whose paintings, as Italo Calvino pointed out, contain no birds at all.  According to his biographer Janet Abramowicz writes, Morandi was so sensitive that he "was unwilling even to squash an insect in his garden."

For further reading: Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence by Janet Abramowicz, New London, Yale Uniiversity Press: 2004.

1. Giorgio Morandi - Still Life, 1954, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art of Trento & Rovereto.
2. Jean-Simeon Chardin - The House of Cards, circa 1737, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.


Tania said...

I saw a beautiful exhibition Morandi in Brussels in 2013. "The art of silence" is a perfect title.
I hope the situation in New York improves, dear Jane.

Jane said...

Yes, Tania, I think if we are silent then we can hear Morandi's paintings speak.
Thank you for you kind thoughts.