The Magazine

Morandi at the Met

An artist, 'with much faith in Fascism,' gets a second look.

Dec 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 13 • By MAUREEN MULLARKEY
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Italy was a new country and a largely poor one at the beginning of the 20th century; it would not have been uncommon for unmarried siblings to share a household. Besides, Morandi's sisters were sophisticated professionals, not the old maids of popular imagination. Fluent in French, two of them taught in Egypt and Tunisia before returning to Bologna in 1935. Rooms were hung with original works, among them drawings by Seurat and Rousseau, a Rembrandt etching and one by Ingres, a Baroque painting by Giuseppe Crespi and small pieces from the 14th-century Bolognese school.

Morandi was hardly cloistered on the via Fondazza. A frequent visitor to the Uffizi, he traveled to nearly every art exhibition, contemporary or historical, held in Italy in his lifetime. Gallery and museum catalogs kept him abreast of modernist activity abroad; foreign visitors were always welcome. Janet Abramowicz's groundbreaking 2004 monograph, meticulously documented and based on Morandi's personal record book, demolished his politically neutral, reclusive pose. It revealed his expedient use of the fascist unions and laws to obtain better teaching positions and opportunities to exhibit and sell his work. A beneficiary of the new cultural policies, he negotiated the hubris of a lethal regime with the same quiet finesse he brought to painting. He continued to describe himself as "a simple provincial professor of etching who sought no recognition."

At the Met, curatorial piety omitted any hint that Morandi's success was decisively linked to the rise of fascism. The exhibition was an impressive package that succeeded in presenting Morandi as he wanted himself presented. Abramowicz's catalogue entry is restricted to discussion of his etching technique. In life, Morandi kept a firm grip on what was written about him, demanding editorial control and thwarting publication of his extensive network of well-placed contacts. If he were still censoring from the grave, he could not improve the entries--elegant spirals of fumy erudition--the Met provided for him. The fascist tag-along disappears behind smoke.

The artist's political allegiances do not bear on the loveliness of his formal achievement; yet his sympathies remain deeply relevant to the way in which we understand art's place in the larger culture. At a time when art itself has become the lectio divina of a secular culture, it matters greatly how much authority society cedes to the deficient, flexible spirituality accessible through art. Sensitivity to tone and contour has no moral weight comparable to sensitivity to evil.

Umberto Eco was 13 when the partisan resistance wrested control of Milan in 1945. A decade ago, he commented on that moment: "It was a point of pride to know that we Europeans did not wait passively for liberation. And for the young Americans who were paying with their blood for our restored freedom it meant something to know that behind the firing lines there were Europeans paying their own debt in advance."

That Morandi was not one of them is nothing against his art. But it points to the gulf between our proliferating machinery of art appreciation and the springs of a humane culture.

Maureen Mullarkey writes about art for the New Criterion and other publications.