'The bottle still lifes which form the core of his art may be grouped according to various points of view, that is, according to composition, colour, and mood. The monotony of which Morandi has been accused because of his "bottles" is confined to his subject matter. It appears on the surface only, one would say rather in the eye of the beholder. However, he who looks below the surface knows that hardly two of Morandi's still lifes are similar. It is the miracle of his genius that out of the humbles boxes, tin cans, outmoded oil lamps, and dusty bottles, emerge works of art full of poetry and often most justly called "songs without words"' (Vitale Bloch, 'Introduction', Giorgio Morandi: Paintings and Prints, London, 1954, n.p.).
Giorgio Morandi's Natura morta was painted in 1954 and was in the collection of the artist's friend, the collector, connoisseur, dealer and critic, Vitale Bloch; it is only too appropriate that this picture is being offered in order to raise funds for a prize for writers upon art, to be given in his name. Natura morta has the restrained, almost abstract appearance that marks out some of Morandi's paintings from the 1950s, which often featured an increasing restraint in the working practice of an artist who was already working within incredibly - and deliberately - restricted boundaries, largely limiting himself to the subject matter of landscapes of Bologna and the area around his country house, flowers and of course the boxes, jars and bottles in his studio. Here, a small number of objects are clustered together in a tight formation, with the round box even perching on another element. Morandi has extracted the geometric form of these shapes, which are relieved by the Baroque flourishes of the ornately-shaped bottle and the striped vessel in the foreground. These serve, with the addition of the criss-crossing shadows and the signature at the bottom, to disrupt the regularity that dominates so much of the canvas, including the two bands of the table-top and the wall in the background. In a sense, Natura morta recalls the composition of Mark Rothko's late grey paintings, which resembled minimal seascapes. Here, with the clutch of elements huddled together at the centre of the canvas, Natura morta recalls instead a landscape with, say, an Italian village perched within the countryside, its various buildings, including its spired church, protruding from the surrounding fields.
Morandi was able to use his incredibly restrained means, the receptacles in his studio, to express an infinite amount. Each work is different from the other, despite the similarity of the materials at the artist's disposal, a reflection of his incredible consideration. For each of his still life compositions, he would spend a great deal of time attempting to find a configuration that tapped into the atmosphere that he wished to capture. The box and bottle of Natura morta are the building blocks with which Morandi created a unique, highly intimate and domesticated cosmogony. There is a stillness in his paintings that speaks of infinite poise and contemplation. His still life compositions are intended as pools of calm, tranquillity and timelessness, focal points for our meditations that allow a sense of stillness to descend, in contrast to the hustle and bustle of the modern era in which he worked and in which we live. As Morandi himself explained, 'I am essentially a painter of the kind of still life composition that communicates a sense of tranquillity and privacy, moods which I have always valued above all else (Morandi, quoted in Lou Klepac, Giorgio Morandi: the dimension of inner space, exh.cat., Sydney, 1997, p. 12).
The sense of timelessness that permeates Morandi's pictures was partly the result of his versatile ability to look both to the present and the past in artistic terms. Interviews with the artist revealed that he was aware of many of the developments of contemporary art that had emerged during the post-war era. There is a rigorous modernity to the pared-back appearance of Natura morta that itself teeters away from pure figuration, pushing the visual reality of his small Bolognese studio to a point of near-absurd abstraction. At the same time, Morandi's visual erudition meant that he was able to combine a wide variety of references to and lessons from sources such as Seurat, Cézanne and the Old Masters in even his still life compositions. In some, the folds of drapery have been seen as the focus for Morandi, which he would echo in the elongated bottles of some of his pictures. In Natura morta, the reference appears to be more direct: a prototype of the circular box which appears in this picture and also in several others from the same period appears on the shelf in the background at the top right of the Madonna di Senigallia painted by Morandi's great artistic hero, Piero della Francesca, and in the collection of the Museo Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino.
Morandi had been hugely affected by his acquaintance with painting in Tuscany and Le Marche, as Bloch, the former owner of Natura morta, recalled in his essay for an exhibition of the artist's works which was held in London the same year that this picture was created. 'Probably the impact of the great masters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries contributed to the shaping of his mind,' Bloch wrote, before recalling that:
'Morandi still talks about his first day in Florence and how he visited the Uffizi and the churches with frescoes by Giotto, Paolo Uccello, and Masaccio. In the evening following that day he lay in bed with a high fever. Roberto Longhi, who as early as 1935 in his inaugural address to the University of Bologna praised Morandi, once gave a list of the painter's "deities": Giotto, Masaccio, Uccello, Piero della Francesca, Bellini, Titian, Chardin, Corot and Cézanne. This list conjures up volumes' (Vitale Bloch, 'Introduction', Giorgio Morandi: Paintings and Prints, London, 1954, n.p.).
Even the treatment of the light in Natura morta reverberates with the mystical yet understated luminosity of Piero's works, while the incredible sense of arcane poise of the picture hint at hidden meanings: Natura morta is suffused with a sense harmony and of transcendent stillness that appears to allow us glimpses of some of the hidden language of sight. Intriguingly, another influence pertinent to Natura morta, with its combination of delicate light and the sense of modelling of the various components, is Georges Seurat. Morandi was fascinated by Seurat's works, and indeed was given one of his drawings. In part, as with Piero, it was the transformatory ability of Seurat to reveal what appeared to be hidden truths through the depiction of plastic forms that intrigued Morandi. His vessels, in their mysterious configurations, appear to convey some message, representing something that is far beyond the deceptively simple cast of vessels that it contains. As he himself explained, 'I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. We know that all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meanings that we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree (Morandi, quoted in E. Roditi, 'Interview with Giorgio Morandi, pp. 143-55, K. Wilkin, Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings and Interviews, Barcelona, 2007, p. 146).