Painted in 1920, Natura morta dates from one of the most important turning points in Giorgio Morandi's life. For this picture was painted when he was still involved with the Pittura Metafisica being championed by Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carr. And yet stylistically, Morandi has abandoned the bold outlines that had marked out his earlier Metafisica paintings, instead depicting the modest still life with a restraint that introduces his later, mature style. This is more Chardin than de Chirico, and is therefore bathed in an atmosphere of stillness and contemplation. Yet it retains, as would all his works from this point on, an hieratic sense of the magical and the mysterious. The bread, apple, knife and glass hint at a frugal feast that chimes with the legends of the artists own hermit-like existence legends that had little basis in fact. For while the Bolognese artist did later, as claimed in some of the myths and clichs that began to surround him, paint small domestic objects in relative, almost monastic, solitude in a room in the apartment he shared with his sisters, he was also a teacher and had an extensive social life, though he travelled little, and almost never out of Italy. In fact, at the time that Natura morta was painted, he was still relatively young, not living the reclusive existence, and indeed this painting reflects the influences of some of the friends that he had made during this period, not least among them Carr and de Chirico.
Morandi had met Carr years before Natura morta was painted, indeed, just before the outbreak of the First World War. It was during this period that he had also met Giuseppe Raimondi, in whose La Raccolta publication Morandi's work would be reproduced for the first time, in 1918. This was the period when another acquaintance of Morandi, Mario Broglio, began the famous Valori Plastici and, crucially, towards the end of 1919 offered the Bolognese artist a contract which ensured him financial security. Indeed, Broglio continued acquiring Morandi's paintings until 1924. This resulted in Morandi gaining an increasing amount of exposure and indeed recognition that began to pervade his paintings, resulting in a new confidence to forge his own unique path, as is evident in Natura morta.
Morandi's increasing recognition was in part due to the developments in his paintings which for several years had shared a superficial visual character with those of de Chirico in particular. This was evident in the use of mannequins as subjects in his paintings, and sometimes in the strange contraptions and architectural forms that contained various elements. It was also apparent in the use of the thick outlines that highlighted each object in a slightly unreal fashion. Thus, looking at Morandi's 1918 Natura morta at the Brera Museum in Milan, one sees that there is an aesthetic at work that is similar to that which fills the pictures more customarily identified as masterpieces of Metafisica such as de Chiricos La lassitudine dell'infinito. Morandi had become reacquainted with Carr and, through reproductions, his paintings only a couple of years before Natura morta was painted, as well as those of de Chirico. In 1919, in the Villa Borghese in Rome, Morandi met de Chirico in person while the latter was painting a copy from a picture by Lorenzo Lotto. Thus, while Morandi never fully adopted or espoused the concepts and ideas of his Pittura Metafisica colleagues, he was nonetheless involved with them all.
It is intriguing to note that it was indeed at this moment, now that Morandi was working in contact with the painters of the Metafisica, that he developed his own unique style, tapping into a quiet and unobtrusive poetry. In Natura Morta, with its gentle and diffuse light and the almost Zen-garden-like layout of the objects, which invests them with a weight of meaning, one sees the truth of Morandi's statement that, '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 L. Klepac, Giorgio Morandi: the dimension of inner space, exh. cat., Sydney, 1997, p. 12). This is evident in the sparse rhythm and lyrical restraint of Natura Morta. There is no window, no sense of space. Instead, we are confronted with a sparse scene that becomes all the more a focus of our contemplation, recalling the paintings of some of the more mysterious still life painters of yore such as Chardin and, before him, Cotn. Crucially, Morandis discovery of this new aesthetic, in which a few simple objects are filled with a weight of almost spiritual significance, did nothing to distance him from his Metafisica friends. Indeed, during a brief period, his pictures were exhibited more and more often with Carr and de Chirico, the latter writing on Morandi in 1922: 'He tries to discover and create all by himself: he patiently grinds his pigments, stretches his canvases and looks around at the surrounding objects: from the hallowed loaf of bread, dark and streaked with cracks like an age-old stone, to the clear-cut shapes of glasses and bottles. He looks at a cluster of objects on a table with the same emotion stirring in his heart as the wanderer in ancient Greece felt as he gazed at groves, dales and hills, believed to be the abode of ravishing and astounding deities. He gazes with the eye of a believer, and the innermost bones of these things, dead to us because their life is stilled, appear to him in their most consoling guise: in their everlasting aspect. Thus he shares in the great lyricism created by the latest and deepest European art: the metaphysics of the most common objects; those which habit has made so familiar to us that, however wise we may be to the mysteries of appearance, we often look at them with seeing yet unknowing eyes' (de Chirico, quoted in L. Klepac, op. cit., p. 1).