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Giorgio Morandi (Italian, 1890–1964)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Italian painter, draughtsman and printmaker. At the age of 17 he enrolled at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Bologna and discovered contemporary art in books on Impressionism, Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat and Henri Rousseau. He read with interest the articles by Ardengo Soffici in La voce and saw the Venice Biennale of 1910, where he first came across the painting of Auguste Renoir. During this period he often went to Florence to study the works of Giotto, Masaccio and Paolo Uccello. Between 1911 and 1914, when he was in Rome, he was impressed by the work of Claude Monet and, especially, Paul Cézanne. At the Futurist exhibition Lacerba, held in the Libreria Gonnelli, Florence, in 1913–14, he met Umberto Boccioni. Shortly afterwards he showed his first paintings at the Albergo Baglioni in Bologna and the Galleria Sprovieri in Rome. When he was not painting, he taught drawing in primary schools. As an adolescent he associated with those most receptive to new ideas in Bologna, including the painter Osvaldo Licini and the writer Mario Bacchelli. In 1918–19 he worked with Bacchelli and Giuseppe Raimondi (1898–1976) on the Bologna magazine La raccolta and came into contact with Mario Broglio, editor of the Rome review Valori plastici. Morandi lived in Bologna throughout his life, except for a number of short stays during World War II in the neighbouring village of Grizzana, where he painted some landscapes.

Morandi worked in a figurative and increasingly symbolic mode and had a cautious and disciplined approach to his work. He tirelessly repainted the same subjects (mainly still-lifes in the studio) with an intellectually rigorous approach like that of Cézanne, in order to convey a personal sense of time and of the reach of memory and to bring out the unique qualities of the object, which he imbued with a sense of vulnerability and which he approached with awe. Morandi was neither isolated nor ascetic, but an artist conscious of the results of the figurative avant-garde movements and of the events of his time. The classical nature of his style is apparent in his craftsmanlike compositional rigour.

The few early landscapes by Morandi that have survived are constructed in units in the manner of Cézanne and show a considered understanding of tonal values, as in, for example, Landscape (1913; Rome, priv. col., see Vitali, 1970, pl. 4). While Italian art was shaken by Futurism, Morandi developed his pictorial researches in a highly personal direction, seeking to reconcile visual and cognitive experience. At this time he painted objects in thin colours, for example Still-life (1914; New York, MOMA), which depicts traditional Cubist subject-matter. Although, like those of Georges Braque and Picasso, these objects create a rhythmic context, they are suffused with a lyricism not found in the work of the Cubists. In his progressive development of the theories of Cézanne, whose work he admired at the Rome Secession in 1914, Morandi captured forms in the fleeting essence of profile and imbued them with a transient quality. He produced refined compositions of flowers (e.g. Flowers, 1916; Rome, priv. col., see Vitali, 1970, pl. 25) in which the objects become central figures in an enchanted silent life and mirror the artist’s aspirations to harmony and clarity in perception.

Around 1918 Morandi produced his own interpretation of Pittura Metafisica, not by exploring the allusive, as Carlo Carrà and Giorgio de Chirico did, but by concentrating on the more tangible: his compositions of objects and outlines as, for example, in the Still-life (1918; St Petersburg, Hermitage), with its dummy torso in a box-like construction, already have a vitality of their own in their calibrated and rigorous formal arrangements. Closely related to the formal strictness of these paintings, which were more metaphysical in atmosphere than in subject-matter, were the innovations in perspective of the 1920s, when Morandi rediscovered Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca. Rather than resurrecting their use of space or their luminosity, he was inspired by them in his use of spatial intervals, the interrelations of forms and the use of light brushing against the object to articulate the object and its essential nature. In his contact with his fellow contributors to the magazine Valori plastici in 1920–21, Morandi reflected on the increasing trend for the ‘rappel à l’ordre’ (a return to classical values) and also on the alternatives that the leading artists of the day were proposing in opposition to the fragmented figurative avant-garde. During these years Morandi’s attitude to the work of Jean-Siméon Chardin and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot seems to have changed: what Morandi wanted from them was the possibility of giving immediacy to the mundane objects that fascinated him, which he wished to place in an unlimited space that was free from the chance element of impressionistic phenomena.

Even though Morandi exhibited with de Chirico and Carrà in Berlin and Florence in 1921 and in the first two Novecento italiano exhibitions (1926 and 1929), he did not ally himself with any group but continued to pursue his own idea of natural truth. He was given no official recognition at the time, but the most aware critics, including Ardengo Soffici, Roberto Longhi and Cesare Brandi, realised the great value of the intimacy of his objects and the emotional content of his work. Morandi’s still-life subject-matter became increasingly elaborate. The result of this, together with his extreme sensitivity in the use of light, was that the most ordinary shapes (such as pots, bottles and boxes) took on a further meaning: they became impressive either because of their potential monumentality, which gave them the mysterious and elusive aura of a cathedral, or because their allusions took the viewer by surprise or gradually became apparent, as can be seen in Still-life (1946; London, Tate). Sometimes reality was as if spellbound, and the objects conveyed a sense of timelessness.

When Morandi took up landscape painting again at Grizzana after 1940 he eschewed any sort of descriptiveness and chose a more sustained substance in colour, based above all on sunlit or rotting shades of green, calcareous blues and a wide range of ochres as in, for example, Landscape (1943; Rome, priv. col., see Vitali, 1970, pl. 156). Here, the more fluid brushwork immobilizes the disquieting force of the material and gives the spectator a sense of the silent vibrations of the natural world.

Morandi achieved remarkable results in his drawings and prints. His use in his etchings of opposed and intersecting lines, cut at various levels and thicknesses, is further evidence of the dedicated manner in which he developed his compositions, for example in Large Still-life with Fourteen Objects (1934; see Basile, p. 143). As in his painting, the light impregnates the objects and radiates out from them in a series of pulsations, reflecting Morandi’s personal emotional response; the chiaroscuros, graduated by line, evoke the quality of the materials, characterize the objects and suggest their aura. Even in the plainest drawings, which are never repetitive but intended to investigate the essence of the object, for example the late Still-life (1962; untraced, see E. Tavoni, ed., Morandi: Disegni, ii, no. 493), depicting only one object, it is possible to find the basis of Morandi’s restrained and intense approach and his combination of intellect and emotion.

Piero Pacini
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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