Out of Reach

John Haber
in New York City

Giorgio Morandi

For a long time, a popular line boiled modern art down to a simple, stark alternative—between Picasso's line and Matisse's color. What, though, if an artist had learned about Modernism through reproductions in black and white? In the case of Giorgio Morandi, it made him a colorist, but of a curiously exacting kind. The artist lived with his family and worked for a lifetime in the same room. Does his still life set him apart from Modernism or play out its psychic tensions?

His still-life painting was like a life devoted to portraiture of a single, ever-patient sitter. The person does not care to dress, to pose, or to show off his possessions. One can try to read his moods from the shift in light and tone from hot to cold, and the small chamber behind him fades into insignificance. In the end, one may wonder if one knows him at all. Giorgio Morandi's Still Life (Natura morta) (photo by Artists Rights Society, Yale University Art Gallery, 1956)

Shades of gray

When the Museum of Modern Art presented Matisse and Picasso together, it seemed less an epic confrontation than a friendly rivalry or even at times a collaboration. And they left a shared legacy, one still visible in movements that neither artist quite accepted—in everything from Surrealism to abstraction. They show something strange and unfamiliar, a world of fragments, masks, and cubes, of blue nudes and red rooms. At the same time, they give painting a startling immediacy that threatens to overwhelm the senses. It can tumble forward, where painting before receded to infinity. Marks on canvas can represent color, texture, text, art, and even sound on an equal footing and unmoored from one another.

Morandi presents almost the opposite. He paints the same objects and indeed the same room over and over. Tins and jars rest on a tabletop, perfectly legible and generally aligned with the picture plane. He knew them well. He really did live in the same room almost his whole life, in a house with his mother and three sisters. He tended his props carefully, filling transparent vessels as needed with oil or other agents.

At the same time, his scenes feel forever out of reach, like an interior by Pierre Bonnard. One might recognize a box of Ovaltine from its shape or, more likely, from photographs and other records of his studio. Nothing here, however, bears a label or a history. The props may line up neatly with the table's front or back edge, or they may overlap and disguise it. Either way, it no longer serves as a stage set or a marker of distance in space. Morandi's creamy paints submerge everything in shades of gray.

But what shades of gray! While mostly pink, even pink here can run from warm to cool. That still allows other tones as well, mostly clear primary or secondary tones, such as blue and green. For the most part, objects and the wall behind them come in shades of white, while their shadows and the table come in shades of black. Still, the paintings treat all of them alike as masses unto themselves.

It can pass for formalism, and his later, best work, from the 1950s, comes closest to abstraction. However, he is again at an opposite pole from the mainstream of Modernism. He is not exploring and dismantling space, and he is not insisting on "objecthood" as a property of the artwork. He paints mass, and the mass is a property of real things. He paints his studio, but he does not incorporate his own completed work. He marks alignments, but not puns on art and nature.

The muted colors and horizontals resemble another realist struggling with what to make of modern art. They have much in common with Mark Rothko in just that critical year or two, approaching 1949, when he was still working his way from subway platforms to floating rectangles of pure color. However, Morandi deliberately stops right there. In a sense, where others were painting sublimity or fear, he was painting reserve. The whole point is approaching—along with the viewer's eye—and drawing back.

Solidity in transience

Morandi, then, has a well-earned reputation on the edge of modern art, just as his personal life kept him among artists and writers but within so narrow a sphere. A particularly close friend, Robert Longhi, had a deserved reputation, too, as a scholar of the Renaissance, an ambivalence about Modernism, and a soft spot for works in Italian collections when it comes to attributions. While I do not respond myself all that well to Morandi, his brilliance on the margins makes his retrospective at the Met a fascinating discovery. Much of the work comes from Italian regional museums and private collections. As if to keep him both within tradition and to the side, the retrospective occupies the Lehman wing. One descends its stairs as if setting both European painting and modern art aside.

As part of his navigating between past and present, he has a particular fascination with others who have done so as well. In fact, I lied—or withheld some of the truth. While about a decade younger than Picasso and a generation younger than Henri Matisse, Morandi did not encounter either one between the covers of a book. Rather, he looked hard in reproduction at both their inspiration, Paul Cézanne, while drawing very different lessons.

For starters, it made him fall in love with still life. Born in 1890, he began in his early twenties with compositions built from competing, overlapping, roughly vertical planes like Cézanne's or like Picasso's Guitar. The older artist also inspired his parallel cross-hatching, in slight impasto. The tonal range really does approach black and white. Like Cézanne, he will take as a life's work capturing the moment while competing with art of the museums. It leads him to an interest in others, too, who looked for solidity in transience, from Piero della Francesca to J.-S. Chardin.

Like Cézanne, too, he distrusts systems, as opposed to finding his way object by object and stroke by stroke. Cézanne broke with Pissarro over just that, and Morandi would have not have sided with Camille Pissarro. Quite aside from his indifference to unmixed colors, he pretty much ignores Impressionism and Pointillism. He does not, however, share Cézanne's sense of art of vision as a paradox or a puzzle. His tablecloths do not fold into mountaintops like Cézanne's. His subject matter does not shade into painting or sculpture.

He almost skips right past an encounter with Picasso and Matisse. Instead, change comes through Italian Futurism and especially Giorgio de Chirico's magic realism. Yet there, too, he drew back from the machine age and the magic. Rather, they prompted him to simplify, with the outlines of just one object at a time, like a de Chirico head. He tries his hand at self-portraits and spends more time with landscape, which he never gives up, at least until around 1950. Mostly, though, it produces the first characteristic arrangement of bottles on a horizontal ground.

At first the objects do their best to hide the line where the table meets the wall. They can sit side by side, at a slight distance, or overlapping, as if the masses themselves are shifting before one's eye. While the impasto is gone, the rough texture of paint remains. He spends more time with landscape, introducing the mass-like shadows that will invade his still life as well. It is a time away from his studio and a time of one last transformation. When he returns to the modern still life, he brings the smoother surfaces, even alignments, flat geometries, and subtle colors one remembers best, right up until his death in 1964.

Placidity on the edge

His life appears as placid as his art. He appears worlds away from the irony of artists today who combine abstraction and realism, such as Laurel Farrin and Ethel Lebenkoff. With his attachment to home, one expects a mad recluse. With his life among three sisters, one expects something like Chekov's play. His self-portraits appear amazingly normal. He looks slightly unkempt but not at all the Romantic rebel. Unlike Gustave Courbet in his endless self-presentations, Morandi almost cannot bother to pose.

He stays abreast of culture without exactly joining in. He serves in World War I, although without getting gassed like Fernand Léger, and he has some sympathy for Fascism but little interest in politics. Only the bombs of World War II displace him for a while from home. For someone else, life in one room would mean suffocation and a time away a fresh encounter with the outside world. Instead, he acts as if in exile, even among friends in Italy. He paints so many landscapes in wartime because he seems unable to complete still life apart from his familiar confines.

Despite that or because of that, one can hardly help seeing his still life as an obsession and looking to it for signs of repression. Does the edge of the table, with its proximity to the eye, mime his position on the edge of things? Is the exquisite range of color or the very identity of ordinary things held behind a mask? Perhaps still life served something of what actual masks served for Picasso, creating a world of surfaces and artifice with nothing beneath. In place of Picasso's hard edges concealing only shadow, however, Morandi has only soft edges defining mass.

He has something of the same heirs as another modernist who insistently returned to realism within a shallow but well-defined space, Francis Picabia. His proximity to abstraction but refusal simultaneously of formalism and expressionism also have something in common with Milton Resnick—the postwar American modernist for critics, like Hilton Kramer, who hate postwar American Modernism. Morandi can seem the alternative to modern art tailor-made for those who blame the state of art today on Postmodernism. If the esthetics of the connoisseur apply anywhere, they surely apply to someone so able to unite mass and color.

Perhaps one should see him instead as an alternative history of Modernism that never came to exist. What if modern art did have to invent itself apart from the action? What if it had to invent a role for color from scratch? It might have put aside the struggle with space as a holdover from academic training. It might have put aside the visionary as a holdover from Romanticism. Postmodernism has criticized the twentieth century at times along very much those lines.

One should be wary of turning Morandi's lack of rebellion into a kind of a rebellion. One should not turn his lack of emotions into a kind of camp. To complicate matters, his one obvious period of alienation, the landscapes in time of war, recharged him. They also show no overt sign of place—or of war. Or perhaps that lack is a choice of place, "swerving east, from rich industrial shadows" to where "silence stands like heat," as Philip Larkin wrote in another country. "Here is unfenced existence: / Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach."

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"Giorgio Morandi: 1890–1964" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through December 14, 2008.


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