Less Is More: the idiosyncratic genius of Giorgio Morandi

A confession: I wasn’t familiar with the work of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) until around a decade ago, when a friend also attending the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna suggested we take a break from movies and visit the Morandi museum. So I missed a film – who knows how good it would have been? – but I discovered a genius. Not only did I return to the museum during a subsequent festival trip, but this week, by way of a birthday treat to myself, I made my way to the Estorick Collection in Islington, which is currently devoting three rooms to around 50 paintings, prints and drawings by the Italian master. 

Morandi is best known for his many still lifes, most of them of bottles, bowls, boxes, jugs, vases and other vessels grouped together on what may be a table (the piece of furniture in question is never depicted, if at all, as more than a flat surface). That may sound limited, not to say repetitive, but don’t let it put you off. For one thing, as the Islington exhibition demonstrates, Morandi did venture beyond oils and watercolours of the crockery collection in the Bologna studio that was also his bedroom (see the view from his window below); he also made etchings and pencil drawings, and his subjects extended to flowers, landscapes and buildings. What he showed scant interest in as an artist was humanity, though he did paint several self-portraits, one of which (pictured top) is in the current show. A very fine work it is, too, suggesting that he didn’t avoid portraiture because he felt he wasn’t sufficiently skilled at portraying people; he just seems not to have been interested.

The Courtyard on Via Fondazza, 1954

So what did interest him, given the prevalence of still lifes and landscapes? More of that later, except to say that the landscapes becomes still lifes and the still lives become landscapes. First, a little more description. The oils, especially, are notable for their apparent simplicity and muted colours: beige, grey, off-white, pale ochres and yellows, subdued blues, greens and reds. You’d think the repetition and reserve might make for tedium, but the effect is precisely the opposite. For one thing, the paintings exude a contemplative calm, not to mention a subtle, austere but very real formal beauty; for another, as with certain other artists who repeatedly turn to the same material, working endless variations on a theme, the repetition requires and encourages one to look more closely, paying attention to any differences rather than the similarities. And the discrepancies are fascinating.

Landscape (Chiesanuova), 1924

That’s also the case when one encounters the etchings, watercolours and drawings. Again, not only does one inspect the pictures for how they differ from one another, but one is struck by how each of these genres brings out different aspects of Morandi’s artistry. Denser in texture than the oils, the etchings are miraculous in their minute detail, the expert cross-hatching of countless lines brilliantly evoking contour, light and shadow; the watercolours and drawings, meanwhile, are at the other end of the spectrum, still ‘simpler’ and less clearly defined than the oils, implying rather than actually depicting three-dimensional objects. Nevertheless, whether oils, watercolours, pencil drawings or prints, whether still life or landscape, each and every image is very evidently by Giorgio Morandi.

Still Life with Five Objects, 1956

Which brings us back to what interested Morandi. Shape, for one thing, and its relationship to identity and individuality. How do bottles, jugs, vases and boxes – three-dimensional objects – relate to one another in space, especially in/on a two-dimensional space such as a canvas? In the same way, how do buildings, trees and other features of a three-dimensional landscape relate to one another in a two-dimensional space? Morandi’s pictures are at once figurative and near-abstract in their representation and consideration of material entities. The various receptacles – be it a box, bottle or building – and the environment they inhabit feel somehow like archetypes; they are at the same time very insistently representations, since Morandi never tries to pretend they are photographically accurate depictions of his chosen objects. 

Still Life, 1960

Indeed, there is an abiding mystery and a quiet playfulness to some of the pictures, which appear to depict an ‘impossible’ reality. The drawings often leave shapes ‘open’, with incomplete outlines, so that if we are to make sense of those shapes as jugs, bottles, vases or whatever, we need to fill in various gaps by using our imagination. The titles of a couple of the etchings claim to feature, respectively, ten and four objects, yet if you bother to count the shapes in the pictures, you’ll probably come up with eleven and five. Even when a picture’s title doesn’t say what is represented, one can still get confused in many of the images as to where one object begins and another ends. Look at Still Life, 1942, below, and you’ll see that the sometimes implied lines separating objects from one another may be obscured or omitted. Is this merely mischievous wit, or something more philosophical about form and essence, community and identity?

Still Life, 1942

I’ve no idea. Morandi seems to have been a slightly retiring fellow, modestly but deeply devoted to his own somewhat singular art. In discussions of his work, allusions have been made to Vermeer, Chardin, Cézanne, De Chirico and Rothko, among others, but to me he is both idiosyncratic and very special. His pictures’ play with similarity and difference, individuality and commonality, presence and absence, depth and transparency, is consistently engrossing. Rather than providing definitive delineations, they constantly seem to ask us a question: what, exactly, are we seeing here? In this quiet questioning, I think, lie both the becalmed sense of mystery in Morandi’s art, and its discreet and delicate beauty.

Still Life, 1962

Pictures courtesy of the Estorick Collection. ‘Giorgio Morandi: Masterpieces from the Magnani-Rocca Foundation’ continues at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London N1 2AN until 28 May 2023.

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