‘To my mind, nothing is abstract. I also believe there is nothing more surreal and nothing more abstract than reality’
(Morandi quoted in P. Mangravite, ‘Interview with Giorgio Morandi’ in K. Wilkin, G. Morandi, Works, Writings, Interviews, Barcelona, 2007, p. 141)
Painted in 1939, Giorgio Morandi’s Natura morta is a remarkable still-life that dates from the artist’s extremely interesting wartime period. As Italy stood on the brink of war, Morandi retreated to his studio, creating works considered by many to be some of the greatest of his career. One of a series of three paintings recorded in Lamberto Vitali’s catalogue raisonné which depicts, in this unusually long, horizontal format, the same large ensemble of objects, Natura morta demonstrates Morandi’s unique ability at transforming a group of quotidian vessels into a timeless and poetic array of volumes and colour harmonies. With an elegant simplicity and an exquisite visual restraint, Natura morta resonates with the timeless sense of contemplation, absorption and invention that characterises the finest of Morandi’s work.
Natura morta is the first in this series that Morandi painted over the course of 1939 and 1940. Like actors on a stage, this large, multipartite group of vessels is spread frontally across a round table top. The group is flanked on each end by a tall, slender white vessel, and is likewise anchored in the centre by a small, brilliantly white bottle. Placed next to each other, overlapping, or just touching, this repertoire of objects has been posed with the utmost care, each one endowed with an individual and resonant presence. When viewed as a group, the undulating heights and elegant forms of the composition create a visual rhythm that flows through the canvas. Further emphasising the pictorial unity and harmony of the image are the accents of rich colour that radiate against the softly muted background. At the time that Morandi painted Natura morta, he had begun to adopt a different colour palette which he would continue to explore into the 1940s, using unusual combinations of colours, and mixing deep tones with lighter hues, as the present work exemplifies. With a simplified palette of rich blue, vermillion red and white, this painting is a remarkable example of Morandi’s acute sensitivity to colour, which enabled him to create an intense pictorial poetry with the simplest of means.
The following two works of the series, painted in 1940 (Vitali 256 and 257), depict the same frontal ensemble of white and coloured objects, but with subtle, almost imperceptible additions or extractions: the large brown lamp on the right of Natura morta has been removed and replaced with a small, striped vase. Likewise, the white object – possibly a white pipe – that sits on the table on the right hand side of the present work has been removed in the subsequent paintings in the series. Such small, highly nuanced alterations alter the balance of the composition as a whole: changing the internal relationships and spaces between the objects, casting different shadows and subtly modulating the tonal effects across the scene. From the Second World War onwards, Morandi increasingly worked in series, making subtle changes to the composition, tracking its course over a number of paintings. Describing this highly methodical and deeply contemplative practice, Morandi said: ‘It takes me weeks to make up my mind which group of bottles will go well with a particular coloured tablecloth. 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? Perhaps we all work too fast these days? A half dozen pictures would just about be enough for the life of an artist’ (Morandi quoted in J. Herman, ‘A visit to Morandi’ in L. Klepac, Giorgio Morandi: the dimension of inner space, exh. cat. Sydney, 1997, p. 27). It is this careful measure, precision and contemplation that lends a work such as Natura morta its sense of meditative timelessness and pure, poetic visual restraint.
Morandi undertook the methodical preparation and subsequent execution of his painting in his studio on the Via Fondazza in Bologna, where he lived and worked for the majority of his life. Surrounded by his carefully accumulated collection of bottles, vases, jugs, pots and lamps, Morandi arranged these objects in different formations, against various backdrops and on a variety of table tops, constructing, within his quiet, never-changing studio, his own visions of reality. He often painted or filled these vessels with pigments, which not only dulled their reflective qualities but also concealed any labels or identifying markers, thereby draining them of their original function. Liberated from their utilitarian roles, on the canvas, these objects become lyrical forms of carefully nuanced colours and shapes, whose only purpose is to function within the confines of the picture itself. In Natura morta, Morandi has not painted a literal transcription of the objects that he could see in front of him, but has transformed them into a subjective vision of distilled forms, conveying his own experience of the objects set before him. For Morandi, this was the central purpose of his art, as he stated:
‘I think to express that which is in nature, that is, the visible world, is the thing that most interests me. I believe that, particularly at the present time, the educative task possible in the figurative arts is that of communicating the images and the sentiments which the visible world awakens in us; that which we see I hold to be a creation, an invention of the artist whenever he is able to allow those barriers to fall; I mean those conventional images which lie between him and reality. As Galileo recalled in his book of philosophy, the book of nature is written in characters which are alien to our alphabet. These characters are the triangle, squares, circles, spheres, pyramids, cones and other geometric figures’ (Morandi quoted in P. Mangravite, ‘Interview with Giorgio Morandi’ in M. C. Bandera and R. Miracco, Morandi 1890-1964, exh. cat., New York & Bologna, 2008-2009, p. 350).
Morandi’s desire to translate, with an unceasing scrutiny and rigorous observation, the visible world into forms and colours that exist on a two-dimensional surface, is akin to the artistic aims of Paul Cézanne, one of his most admired artists. With the same intensity of vision, these artists’ work demonstrates a confrontation and complete engagement with the act of painting and the act of seeing. It is the power of Morandi’s intense gaze and his systematic, meticulously controlled method that enabled him, as Natura morta exemplifies, to distil the essence of the objects and the spaces they inhabit in pictorial form, endowing them with a resonant monumentality. Giorgio de Chirico, whom Morandi had met in the late 1910s and early 1920s, during his Metaphysical period, was a lifelong supporter of the artist and wrote the introduction to an exhibition of his work in 1922. Though written many years earlier, de Chirico’s words still resonate when looking at the present work: ‘He tries to discover and create all by himself: he patiently grinds his pigments, stretches his canvases and looks around at the surrounding objects... He looks at a cluster of objects on a table with the same emotion stirring 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’ (de Chirico quoted in L. Klepac, Giorgio Morandi: the dimension of inner space, exh. cat., Sydney, 1997, p. 1).