Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"For me nothing is abstract. In fact, I believe there is nothing more abstract than reality." Giorgio Morandi

Giorgio Morandi is in the business of subverting the conventions of seeing. It makes perfect sense that he loved Cézanne, who had a related desire to strip things down, to see them again as if for the first time. Morandi shares Cézanne's acute attentiveness and desire to lift off the veil of convention from visual experience, but there is in Morandi something belated, something beyond the present moment that is not found in Cezanne. The very last paintings in this show are almost like afterimages: those blots of shape and color and light that remain even after you have closed your eyes to the things themselves. In these last works, the relations between objects and empty space, between solid form and air, between the edge of one thing and another are persistently questioned. (from Mysteries of the Rectangle, Siri Hustvedt, p. 131)

I've liked Morandi ever since my Franklyn Liegel, my teacher at Otis, brought a book with Morandi still lifes to class. But of course I've never been able to figure out why I liked them. Hustvedt does seem to devote the time to looking at art. (She talks about her 11 year-old daughter coming to the museum with drawing paper, knowing that they'll be hunkering down for hours in the gallery, in this case the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery in Venice.)

Anyway, Hustvedt overhears a bewildered man who enters yet another room ahead of his wife, and turns to call to her, "More bottles!" Then comes the wife's reply, "I told you. They're all the same." They're right, but Hustvedt is interested in figuring out what it is Morandi is seeing.

Above is Still Life with Yellow Cloth (1952). She does a much more complete job of untangling all the possibilities explored in Morandi's work, but for this short space, I'll mention what I found most compelling. What she is struck by is the relationship between the shapes, how a symmetrical object has become asymmetrical on the canvas. Other critics have wondered if his still lifes seem to resemble Italian cityscapes, with their earth tones, their architectural look, their horizon lines. She seems more intrgued by the soft lines of hard objects, the way the lips of some of his bowls wobble and bend like the cloth nearby. In this painting, she points out the black shadow area between the brown bowl and the white jar, and how the light illuminating this group of objects would not be strong enough to create such a black, black shadow. It's as though he's created another shape with that shadow that stands on its own - because he's interested not just in the things, but in the spaces between them. (p. 123)

As a painter who has been interesting in a reductive approach, I was struck by this comment as well: "He did not feel that by reducing the numbers of the objects he painted, he reduced the range of his vision. On the contrary, the very narrowness of the field became the vehicle of his liberation. This is a modernist position. As for Giacometti, as for Beckett. . . reduction opened up possibilities that inclusiveness did not have. From a few things, you get everything." p. 132

Is this making sense? What do you think?

(P.S. to Julie - what is the name of the novel on Morandi?)


  1. The book is called How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall. It's a quartet of intertwined stories, one of which is a fictionalized diary written by Morandi at the end of his life. According to the book, he was insistent to his critics that he "didn't paint bottles." I recommend the book with reservations; I found myself deeply absorbed in each of the stores and disappointed by the ending(s).

  2. I'm not surprised you love Morandi, and assume it's for many of the same reasons you love Milton Avery.

    Great post - thank you!