Monday, September 1st, 2008

Giorgio Morandi: Resistence and Persistence

GIORGIO MORANDI: Resistence and Persistence

On the occasion of Giorgio Morandi 1890-1964 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 16 to December 14, 2008, we post abstract painter Sean Scully’s 2005 essay on his Italian forebear. This essay was first published in Sean ScullyResistance and Persistence: Selected Writings Edited by Florence Ingleby, (Merrell, London/New York, 2006) and is reproduced here, for the first time in an art magazine and on the internet, with kind permission of the publishers

Giorgio Morandi, Giorgio Morandi, Still Life (Natural Morta) 1953. Oil on canvas, 8 x 15-3/4 inches, Washington DC, The Phillips Collection © Giorgio Morandi by SIAE 2008
Giorgio Morandi, Giorgio Morandi, Still Life (Natural Morta) 1953. Oil on canvas, 8 x 15-3/4 inches, Washington DC, The Phillips Collection © Giorgio Morandi by SIAE 2008

Giorgio Morandi was born in Bologna in 1890.  He studied art at the Accademia di Belle Arti from 1907-15.

He lived all his life with his three sisters, Anna, Dina and Maria Teresa.  From the age of 20 until his death he lived in a flat at Via Fordazza 36, and in the family country house in Grizzana in the mountains 35 km from Bologna.  He traveled to Venice where he saw Monet and Cézanne, but largely throughout his life he moved very little, being content to live and work in his simple rooms in Bologna, and his home in Grizzana.  And it was only in 1956, at the age of 66, that Morandi made his one and only trip abroad, which was to attend an opening of an exhibition he had in Winterthur. Morandi died in Bologna in 1964.

Crucially, Morandi never visited Paris, the center of Art in the first half of the 20th century, which is like not visiting New York or London now.  When I was a student passing through the halls of the Tate Gallery in London, looking for role models, I would consistently pass a typically small painting by Morandi.  It seemed to upset and disturb everything else that was going on. It was as if it was participating in the Modernist dialogue, since its spirit was 20th century, and clearly painted after the discovery of abstraction, but then again, stubbornly refusing to participate with appropriate enthusiasm.  It seemed to be permanently hung on a short wall.  So you saw it between seeing other paintings that were of course always bigger. Everything, it seemed, was bigger than the Morandi.  Nothing else was as self-effacing.  And nothing else was so awkwardly sealed. So you’d see Morandi after you’d looked at one painting and you turned your body and your head to look at the next, and as you were leaving one room to go into another room you’d see the Morandi again.  Not fitting in.  NOT playing the game.  Being a part of it and not being a part of it, so therefore in the margin of the communal conversation, the common consensus built by the surrounding works.   Imagine one sees, for example, a short wall, between big walls that occupy major spaces, as the margin of the architecture, or the transition between one major event and the next; this is where Morandi lived in the museum.  Not exactly an event but a tap on the back of the head.  An appeal to the conscience one might say.  A worrying doubt.  Made by a doubter: who raises the disturbing possibility that the modernist juggernaut that we were so happy about, might one day crash and burn.

And then there would be this small painting that says, yes.  This kind of thing can happen.  And it has happened before.  Rome was for 4000 years the center of the universe known to man.  And it is therefore very Italian to know that the favors of history can wash in and then wash out leaving empty buildings and unfortunately located agendas.

Giorgio Morandi Still Life 1946, oil on canvas, 21 x 24 inches, London, Tate.  not in exhibition. reproduced from Resistance and Memory, p.9 © Giorgio Morandi by SIAE 2008
Giorgio Morandi, Still Life 1946, oil on canvas, 21 x 24 inches, London, Tate. not in exhibition. reproduced from Resistance and Memory, p.9 © Giorgio Morandi by SIAE 2008

One day I’d see it and I’d think, this is great.  It’s really weird.  And then another day I’d see it and I’d think to myself that he was an idiot.   And so was the Tate for putting it up all the time.  And then another day I’d see it and I just didn’t know what to think.  It wasn’t exciting yet it was exciting.  Exciting in its resistance, in its subversiveness.  Someone asked me once if abstraction was subversive.  I did not think so.  And I don’t think so now.  It’s subversive in the sense that it makes or helps people to think free.  But it’s not trying to bring some other structure down to be seen.  It makes it’s own space or has invented its own space.  A space, that didn’t previously exist.  This, coincidentally, Morandi did.  This small painting used a space that was not used before, or could not usefully be used by anything else.  The architecture of the idea, was to say yes. Correct.  But what about this?  That was big, this is small.  That was a statement, this is a state.  That Morandi was making an art of figuration during an epoch characterized by a wholesale march towards abstraction was, in itself, an act of defiance.  However in his case the defiance was wrapped in a cloak made of humble subversion.  His paintings were not merely opposite in subject.  His “opposite” subject was painted apparently meekly in colors that were pale and seemingly tired, as if defeated at the outset of their contest with international abstraction.  Like a boxer who fights each round without getting up from his seat in the corner of the ring.  As if in a sense to make a demonstration of rising for the contest, would be far too conformist and compromising.  Morandi paints in pale, nearly dead color, which itself cannot or will not rise to full spectrum. It will not reach across space to communicate visualpower, but makes you reach across space toward it. We do the walking.  The painting does the waiting.  It lets you, in fact invites you to walk past it and ignore it: It is only after you have seen many other paintings that you return to it, with your doubt.  Morandi embodies the patience and the diffidence of history.

The undersized painting that is pallid at birth, doesn’t need to be defeated by time and by its offspring history.  Morandi, who is full of history, understands it can begin in life that way.  As if it has already been weakened by time as it is being made.

Morandi, the priest of subversion and reverence, sits in his small room stroking his humble surfaces with a vibrating acceptance of the impossibilities and necessity of resistance.  Resistance to the majority and resistance to progress.  When Fascism was rising in Europe like a galloping fire, Giorgio Morandi was a young man at art school, and trying to articulate his place in the contemporary world.

He began his public life as an artist with an active dialogue with the visual ideas of his day, the most dominant of which was Cubism.  His landscape and still life paintings from around 1913 and 1914 demonstrate a willingness to do what all young artists must do: which is to learn the lessons of recent Art.  However in Morandi’s case this dialogue is short lived, and his rejection of Internationalism is born of a deeply felt negative reaction to war and its consequences.  Thus Morandi began his unique journey by traveling in the opposite direction to his contemporaries.


To see and to work.  To paint in a way that was predetermined and to paint a subject that was always virtually the same.  Thus to simultaneously liberate the painting style which represented the subject without prejudice: as I would call it, and the freedom to read that subject as space, light, color and form.  Morandi paints things that exist, though they are stripped of all burdensome references to social function and history or political contexts.  His discreetly expressive painting style is in concertwith a subject that is also discreet, in the sense that they are vessels and containers who’s meaning is open and exists outside clearpolitical or functional reference.  We are free to enjoy them and feel them as we might an abstract painting, yet they are faithful and mysterious representations of objects that were there.  Huddled together in familial dependencies.  So that their edges touch, and the bodily groupings and their contact enables them to stand humble yet noble on their simple shelf.  They stand for themselves, but they don’t articulate exactly what that is.

Giorgio Morandi Natura morta 1919 oil on canvas, 14-1/8 x 17-1/4 inches Courtesy of Eni © Giorgio Morandi by SIAE 2008
Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta 1919 oil on canvas, 14-1/8 x 17-1/4 inches Courtesy of Eni © Giorgio Morandi by SIAE 2008

The sameness of his subject amplifies the imaginative response.  He has learned the lessons of abstraction.  He has understood how powerfully repetition, and visiting the same or similar motif again and again can open up emotional depth and interpretive range.  Abstraction abstracted reality to reach the non-objective shore of new experience.  Morandi reverses this journey and returns this possibility to simple observed reality.  In this he is very different from Cézanne, his great example.  Cézanne never knew abstraction until he was an old man, even though he pioneered it by making painting systematic.  Yet, in his way, he overcame appearance with structure.  This, Morandi did not have to do, since the appearances of things in the world had already been conquered by abstraction.

I once watched a film of Cézanne painting.  He moved as a bird moves, and his head was rapidly inclined toward the subject, the canvas, the subject and the canvas.  Back and forth in a  triangular relationship between the painter, the subject and the painting.  This, Morandi did also, since he was painting his jars or the view out of his window in Grizzana.  Always in a triangle.  When I paint I look at the canvas on the wall, and I paint it.  I move back and forth, between my seat and the painting, in a straight line, between me and the work.  The painting being the subject and the object, all in one.  There is no triangle.  Everything I need to make the painting is in me when I start.  And this difference is crucial.  There are similarities, but the difference is profound.

Robert Irwin has described Morandi as making a unique kind of Abstract Expressionism.  While being able to identify with this generous view, and being equally in favor of Morandi’s work as Irwin, I would describe Morandi oppositely.  The Abstract Expressionists worked in an atmosphere that benefited from group support, and furthermore their position in world culture was advanced from being in the right place at the right time.  The various group photographs that were taken of De Kooning, Pollock, Krasner, Motherwell, Newman et al testify to the cultural momentum of which they were the positive recipients.  The Abstract Expressionists were working harmoniously with contemporary cultural history and their careers were enlarged accordingly.  They were working on the back of European Art, as exemplified by Surrealism and geometric abstraction, whilst rejecting and improving it in favor of a new “heroic” American Art.  They had the writers such as Greenberg, Sandler and Hess, and the monied patrons such as Peggy Guggenheim, as well as the construction of new Art palaces in America to contextualize critically, to buy and exhibit, these powerful new works.

The simple fact that Morandi, even today, still represents a “cause” that other artists feel obliged to assist, shows how resistable the work of Morandi was.  Morandi’s paintings were not really collected, because they simply didn’t fit.  Because when the great collections of America and Europe were being assembled in the fifties and sixties what largely “fitted” was major abstraction.

Many painters like to argue that the “subject” of Morandi is not important, and that one can ignore the figuration on his work, in order to enjoy the abstraction.  However Morandi’s work was ignored by the major institutions for good reason.  And simply put, it is not abstract.  And it therefore cannot even legitimately be seen as a form of Abstract Expressionism.  It should be read as figuratively based.

As a counterweight to the dominance of American painting of the fifties, Morandi holds a position that cannot be challenged, and today seems to yield an array of possible influences and examples for young painters.  Morandi’s work doesn’t negotiate with Abstract Expressionism as does, say, the work of the important French artist, Yves Klein, who competes with America for scale and conceptual directness, or like other Europeans such as Soulages, Schumacher and Tapies who worked on a similarly large scale.  Morandi’s extreme originality is achieved as a counter-point to all this.  He is the authentic opposite.  He doesn’t attempt to compete with American Art: he does the contrary, which is what American Art cannot do since no culture can effectively represent the opposite of itself.

I was talking to a friend once on the ‘phone about a painting I had just finished.  The painting is called “Wall of Light Sky”.  She was asking me to describe it.  After a few minutes I said, “look, I can describe it to you, by describing something that can’t really exist.”  I told her, since it was made of many greys that were mixed in with pink and red and blue, that it was maybe like a Morandi on a giant scale that was drawn on a broken grid.  So I was talking of the way a simple subject could be given a compressed complex history, by being overpainted in uncertain colors.  This made everything clear to her even though I had described the impossible: since a giant Morandi is the opposite of what a Morandi is.  What its sense of being is, and what it registers itself as in the world of Art.

Giorgio Morandi Natura morta 1954 oil on canvas, 10-1/4 x 27-1/2 inches  Mart, Museo d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Collezione Augusto e Francesca Giovanardi Archivio fotografico Mart © Giorgio Morandi by SIAE 2008
Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta 1954 oil on canvas, 10-1/4 x 27-1/2 inches Mart, Museo d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Collezione Augusto e Francesca Giovanardi Archivio fotografico Mart © Giorgio Morandi by SIAE 2008

Morandi is the opposite of heroic scale Abstraction in every way.  That Morandi worked in isolation is part of the central meaning of his work.  He chose to resist modernism in a way that Jackson Pollock did not and did not have to. Pollock, for example, was working in a rising culture that had just won a world war, and played a major role in defeating fascism.  The United States had been flooded with grateful, eager to be patriotic immigrants after World War II, and it was glowing with self-belief.  New York represented openness and freedom and importantly: wealth.  There was no reason why its artists should resist its direction.  They were, after all, the equivalent of Masaccio working in Florence in the 14th century.  New York was the new Florence, and was a golden gate to a future of freedom and wealth.

Morandi’s world was very different.  His world was not big, in the sense that it was expanding into light. It was small, in the sense that in the midst of personal crisis, fascism and impending darkness, Morandi had to paint in a corner out of “what was left”.  What he could salvage.  Not what was possible, in terms of invention, growth and freedom: but what he could hold onto, as a human being, in a context of failed hope and danger.

In 1915, when Italy entered World War I, Morandi was conscripted into the Italian army. This event caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown.

It is also the case that politically speaking, Modernism, as exemplified by Futurism in Italy, had been on occasions loosely connected with Fascism.  After his breakdown Morandi withdrew into a quiet life of teaching.  There he could create a distance from the polarized world of political extremes, war, and the Italian avante garde.  This is when, I believe, Morandi began to actively separate himself from the International community of artists, to create his own private space populated by his mute, hand sized, familiar figures.  The subject, of his intimate scale vases and boxes and jars, gave him stability and the peace vital for his mental well-being.  With this extremely unique subject he was able to rebuild himself emotionally, and begin the gradual formulation of a great understated body of work that was a return to small scale painting in the tradition of Chardin and Manet.

His personal crisis in the face of the non-negotiable image of progress, as widely understood in 1915 Italy, is what forced him to turn away from Modernism.  His escape and his solution is what have made him into a great artist for us today.  We still revere the modernist masters of the 2oth century, though now they seem as if they are from another age.  However Morandi sits more comfortably and truthfully for us, on our highway of doubt.  His alternative to modernism corresponds with the temperature of our own time, precisely because it is anti-heroic and therefore the opposite of Abstract Expressionism.

During the years immediately after his breakdown, Morandi was still engaged in a modernism of sorts: though now it was Pittura Metafisica.  In reality this meant he was gradually moving away from Internationalism and the influence of Cubism towards a National style.  It is symbolically important that in his Pittura Metafisica period Morandi painted a form of construction or still life that was contained within its own box.  Cubism broke up the solidity of the object, fractured it and spread it out over the picture plane.  Pittura Metafisica, as exemplified by Morandi’s painting, Still Life 1918 (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Roma), established a dream world where objects sit silently and in a protected context.  They are secure and framed inside the picture and therefore, metaphorically and symbolically, not in direct contact with the outside world.  By 1920 Morandi had positioned himself in his own box, which was his modest studio, where began to paint his “still life” paintings in solitude.  This represents a journey away from international engagement, through a National engagement, and ultimately into a private world where he stayed for the rest of his working life.

Sean Scully Wall of Light Burren 2003 Oil on linen, 75 x 85 inches, courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York
Sean Scully, Wall of Light Burren 2003 Oil on linen, 75 x 85 inches, courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York

Modernism represented by the Futurists Boccioni,  Severini and Balla stood for progress in the painting world of Italy in 1913.  The interaction with the machine and its dynamic movement was reflected powerfully in their paintings.  Their engagement with the machine world was responsible for their force since they fed off the juggernaut of progress.  However like the Suprematists and Constructivists before them in Russia, the paintings of the Futurists lacked sensibility.  One only has to look at the paintings of Rosanova and Malevich to see that they are painted with a kind of generic neutrality. To find a profoundly personal painting style for the Suprematists or the Futurists was not the point of their work or of their mission, which was to represent in paint an International idea.  The representation of movement in for example,Dog on a Leash1912 by Giacomo Balla, is dynamic, but it is also mechanical in style.  This undoubtedly was the point, since an overly subjective or personal worldview would have appeared anti-progressive and bourgeois.

It is against this backdrop of Fascism, modernism and its opposition to a personal and private sense of poetry that Morandi made his small revolution. This radical resistance, a stand for the individual as a spiritual being, made with humble work in a small room in Bologna should not be underestimated.  By slowly withdrawing into his own private box, Morandi constructed a reality that gave him time to think and work against the way large masses of Europe were moving.  Morandi worked in the shadows of his studio, for the existential position, to feel as an individual.  This is fundamental to the gradual formulation of a masterful sensibility.

Morandi paints like no other, before or since. His brushstroke is in complete philosophical agreement with the subject, the scale and the color of his paintings.  It is expressive, though it is modest, and not so expressionistic as to disturb the sense of meditative silence that inhabits all his paintings.

Still Life c.1957 (The University of Iowa Museum of Art) carries a signature in the left lower corner that is huge in relation to the size of the painting.  The signature stands for the individual as author.  And for the uniqueness of touch that runs through the painting.  As is typical of Morandi the color is pale and profoundly gentle.  Two jars, two boxes and one vertical bashful shape, probably standing for a jar, huddles protected in the middle of the group, partially hidden by the bodies of its familial neighborly objects.  All the figures close the space between them, and all the figures contain space within their bodies.  The absence of earth color gives the two front figures weight and absence of weight simultaneously, so they appear lit-up.  The two boxes behind them make a backdrop that has sculptural force.  The central figure is compressed, pushed into the position of protected and captive.  This quiet drama takes place on a grey, bent interior horizon which gives the centralized composition its place, and its insecurity.  Morandi’s hand is everywhere, dominating the weak color, yet allowing the whole composition to pulsate evenly.  Even the shadows running around the figures as a dark grey collar locks them into place, and the light from the back of the surface is allowed to leak out through the laconic brushstrokes of the painter.  He is timeless yet vital, timorous and seemingly threatened by something outside, yet determined and stoic in his will to be. To be human.  To stand noble, modest and resistant to the violence of the world.