A painter's painter and one of Italy's most admired,
Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), took his time.
"It takes me weeks to make up my mind which group of bottles will go well with a particular colored tablecloth," he said. "Then it takes me weeks of thinking about the bottles themselves, and yet often I still go wrong with the spaces. Perhaps I work too fast?"
That rhetorical tease hints at the self-possession of an artist who also took time to cultivate the image of himself as a solitary genius, isolated from modernist movements and fascist career networks. A wide circle of influential friends, many of them writers and intellectuals, facilitated the posture. They hastened to gloss his crafted--and aggressively guarded--persona as an apolitical outsider. A 1945 catalogue essay by the art historian and collector Roberto Longhi set this tone of approach by referring to "the monastic Morandi in his cell." It was an edifying characterization but a pious fable.
Despite critical and financial success in his lifetime, Morandi has remained, since his death, a sidebar to the 20th century canon, and the first full survey of his work in the United States, the recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is part of an effort --begun in 2001 at London's Tate Modern--to widen his audience and establish his place on the art historical time line. And, it follows, on the auction block.
At the Met, with some 110 paintings, etchings and watercolors on view, every phase of his work was represented. Here were the iconic still lifes, noiseless and austere in their muted color scale and spatial ambiguities. Rare self-portraits, several handsome landscapes, flower paintings, and a commanding group of etchings are included. It was a select gathering from collections originally assembled in collaboration with Morandi himself, who steered sales of his work to those scholars, critics, and wealthy connoisseurs who could advance his career. His patrons, including major and minor players in Mussolini's regime, were men of taste.
The formal structure and spatial organization of Morandi's paintings place him at the heart of the modernist undertaking. Lessons learned from Cézanne appear in the linear evasions of homely items compressed on a tabletop, like distilled architecture. His subdued palette echoes the ochres, browns, pinks, and brick reds of Bologna's old colonnaded buildings. The same household objects repeat like mantras throughout his work, each adjustment between them finely calibrated to break the silence--some would say monotony--of the whole.
The narrowness of his range, its compositional encores and refrains, can be misleading. His distinctions are penetrating but so discreet you have to work at observing them. No middle ground exists for the audience: These subtle shifts of tone and perspective either captivate (as they do me) or bore. To seek infinity in an arrangement of bottles is an acquired taste.
From the standpoint of pure painting, this was a welcome show; but it stumbled as a cultural event. More than an invitation to the felicities of paint, an exhibition is also a social fact, a material prompt to historical understanding. The Met's obligation is to cultural memory, not to marketing myths; accordingly, it drained culture of meaning by introducing Morandi in near-devotional terms. Or as Umberto Eco trills in the last commissioned line of the catalogue: "Morandi spent his entire life addressing the problem of the redemption of matter."
Less messianic--and more to the point of his rise to prominence in a nasty time--are Morandi's own words: "I have had much faith in fascism since its first inklings, faith that has never ebbed, not even in the darkest and most tumultuous moments."
Born into a prosperous Bolognese family, Morandi was raised in a villa on the outskirts of the city. He was 19 when his father died and the family moved, with a live-in housekeeper, to an apartment on the via Fondazza. Morandi stayed there with his sisters until he died. He worked and slept in the same room surrounded by the bottles, boxes, vases, and canisters of his still life repertory. The man never left Italy until, at age 66, he went twice to exhibitions in Switzerland. Such is the skeleton of "the Morandi myth."
Put flesh on the bones, however, and the story turns labyrinthine, even devious, and unreconcilable with the received image of the artist as the lonely embodiment of some lost ideal.
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.