When the MoMA directors James Thrall Soby and Alfred H. Barr, Jr., were touring Italy in 1948, while preparing a comprehensive exhibition of 20th century Italian art, they were told at every turn that Morandi was then the country's greatest living painter. This claim is all the more remarkable because Morandi stood resolutely apart from the essential ethos of post-war modernism, with its predilection for abstraction and grandiose statement. The artist declared: "I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than that what we actually see... I am essentially a painter of the kind of still-life composition that communicates a sense of tranquility and privacy, moods which I have always valued above all else (quoted in E. Roditi, Giorgio Morandi, Dialogues on Art, London, 1960; reprinted in Giorgio Morandi 1890-1964, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2008, pp. 352 and 354).
Morandi's approach to his subject during the years following the Second World War was serial: he moved stepwise from one modestly scaled, easel-sized canvas to the next, often using the same objects which had long been in his possession, shifting them slightly, or altering the composition more dramatically with the simple addition of a new bottle, vase or canister. Employing these limited means he created endlessly subtle and unfolding variations. Soby recalled first seeing the artist's paintings: "One sensed the intense meditative and philosophical process through which these objects were arranged...One knew that the slightest shifts in scale, light, color, balance, and counter-balance were of the utmost importance to him" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2008, p. 230). The continuous process of painting, not the finality and significance of a single image in itself, was Morandi's primary interest, as it had also become in the sculpture and painting of Giacometti, and the late work of Picasso.
The present Natura morta displays the profound serenity of Morandi's still-life arrangements during the 1950s. A canister resting atop a box, a small fluted cup and a thin-necked oil bottle huddle as if for mutual protection at the center of the canvas. The painter and critic Leone Minassian wrote in 1953: "The objects are bathed in a dreamlike atmosphere but nevertheless retain an elusive presence" (quoted in ibid., p. 268). They hover, as if suspended in time, in the pale, bleaching artificial light of the artist's small bedroom which doubled as his modest studio (fig. 1), yet in this silent stillness, such simple things seem pregnant with the potential of endless becoming.
"The paintings yield their subtleties, and the process of seeing them yields its subtleties, only to steady, relaxed attention," Kenneth Baker has observed. "Any such meditative effort, looking at Morandi's paintings will make you feel the darting restiveness of your everyday conscious attention...Morandi's art presents us with a vision of calm, relaxed awareness. But is also confronts us with the thought that such consciousness comes about only through the discipline of unflagging concentration such as the paintings record" (Giorgio Morandi, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1981, pp. 43 and 45).
In his review of the 2008 Morandi retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Peter Schjeldahl praised this singular artist's revelatory pictures: "In my ideal world, the home of everyone who loves art would come equipped with a painting by Giorgio Morandi, as a gymnasium for daily exercise of the eye, mind and soul... Make your choice a still-life... Morandi's stagings of his repertory company of nondescript bottles, vases, pitchers and whatnot are definitive twentieth century art works. They breathe intimacy with the past--Piero della Francesca, Chardin--and address a future that still glimmers, just out of reach. They remain unbeatably radical meditations on what can and can't happen when three dimensions are transposed into two. Morandi will always rivet painters and educate all who care for painting" ("Tables for One: Giorgio Morandi's still-lifes" in The New Yorker, vol. 84, no. 29, 22 September 2008, p. 92).
Giorgio Morandi in his studio, 1953. Photograph by Herbert List. BARCODE: par51813_dhr
(fig. 1) Objects in Giorgio Morandi's studio, Bologna. Photograph by Luciano Calzolari. BARCODE: 28858638