“[Morandi] 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”
Giorgio de Chirico
Bathed in a soft, ethereal light, the protagonists of Giorgio Morandi’s Natura morta are grouped together, huddled in the center of the table top, their forms appearing almost indistinguishable from one another. In this symphonic study of light and tone, the utilitarian function of these vessels has evaporated, transformed through Morandi’s intense and scrupulous gaze into abstract planes of color that float within an undefined and seemingly infinite space. In this work, Morandi has chosen a group of predominantly tall bottles, with a grey pitcher—an oft used object from the artist’s small and beloved repertoire of artistic props—serving as the central focus of this grouping. As a result, this still-life is imbued with an architectural sense of structure, its vertical emphasis a frequent feature of Morandi’s post-war works, calling to mind the artist’s reflection that he regarded his arrangements of bottles, “like spires of a gothic cathedral”, or “towers that rise above the view of a city” (quoted in M.C. Bandera and R. Miracco, Giorgio Morandi, 1890-1964, exh. cat., New York, 2008, p. 34).
Filled with a serene sense of stillness, Natura morta was painted in 1950, and embodies the silent, meditative nature that characterized the artist’s iconic still-lifes in the aftermath of the Second World War. Throughout the 1950s, Morandi’s fastidious self-discipline and intense focus came to dominate his practice, as he concentrated on the interrelationships between an increasingly small number of objects. With a limited number of components in the present work, Morandi created a visually compelling, timeless composition from the simplest of means. As Italian art critic and historian, Lionello Venturi noted in 1957, “a still life by Morandi is most beautiful when it is simple; when few objects of common shape are offered on the canvas. In recent years Morandi has become aware of this, and his simplifications of motifs are more and more emphasized, in order to let the color harmony speak by itself” (Giorgio Morandi Retrospective 1912-1957, exh. cat., New York, 1957, n.p.).
Paradoxically, Morandi’s intensive scrutiny did not lead him to a greater level of realism, but to an ever-increasing abstraction. In the present Natura morta, the gathering of bottles, pitcher and pots have been rendered with such focus that they have ceased to appear as objects upon a tabletop but have instead become otherworldly apparitions, or, more literally, lavishly applied strokes of soft ivory, blue and gray paint. Similarly, Morandi’s lengthy period of planning and subsequent execution bely the seeming ephemerality of the arrangement of bottles and their shadows. The objects are depicted with such intensity that there is a sense that the smallest of movements or changes would destroy the harmonious equilibrium of these pieces, forever altering the complex play of shadow, light and color. Hovering between the boundary of representation and abstraction, Natura morta encapsulates this extraordinarily diverse range of radical pictorial effects that Morandi garnered from his study of the everyday world.
As Morandi explained, "I think that 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" (quoted in P. Mangravite, "Interview with Giorgio Morandi" in exh. cat., op. cit., 2008, p. 350).
While presenting the quintessential characteristics of Morandi’s work following the Second World War, Natura morta also stands as a poignant testament to the friendship of Morandi and Italian art historian and curator, Cesare Gnudi, who was the first owner of this luminous still-life. Born in Bologna, Gnudi was a well-respected writer and critic in the years before the war. In the spring of 1943, Mussolini’s campaign to round up anti-fascist intellectuals intensified. In Bologna, a number of Morandi’s friends, including Gnudi, the art critic, Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, and the poet and critic, Franceso Arcangeli were engaged in anti-fascist activities. On a Sunday afternoon in May, the secret police, known as OUVRA, arrived at Morandi’s home. They searched his studio and rooms and confiscated a number of his letters, suspecting that due to his friendships with Gnudi and Ragghianti, who had founded the Partito d’Azione and been imprisoned the year prior, he was party to and indeed a participant in these subversive activities. Morandi was taken to the local prison, San Giovanni in Monte, where he was incarcerated with a number of his friends, including Gnudi and Arcangeli, who had similarly been arrested due to their connections with Ragghianti. Morandi was released a week later thanks to the intervention of Roberto Longhi and others, and decided, given the scrutiny he was living under, to relocate to rural Grizzana, escaping the Allied bombardment of Bologna that followed in July of this year (J. Abramovich, Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence, New Haven, 2004, p. 179).
Following the war, Gnudi and Morandi remained close friends. Rising to the position of director at the Pinacoteca in Bologna, Gnudi was a vital and steadfast supporter of the artist, not only writing a monograph on him, but coming to his defense when his work was criticized in an exhibition following the war. Morandi likely gave Natura morta to Gnudi.