The ‘small gestures and silent perfection’ of Giorgio Morandi

Lorenzo Balbi of the Museum of Modern Art in Bologna shows us around the artist’s former home in the city, and discusses how his focus on the process rather than the result makes him one of the most important figures in 20th-century art

Giorgio Morandi was born in the Italian city of Bologna in 1890 — and rarely ever left. As a young man, he studied at Bologna’s Academy of Fine Arts, an institution where later in life he’d serve as a professor for 26 years.

Morandi is best known today for his beautifully contemplative still-life paintings — works which prompted the art historian, Roberto Longhi, to describe him as ‘arguably the greatest Italian painter of the 20th century’.

Experiments with Cubism and Futurism

Very early on in his career, Morandi experimented with the day’s prevailing styles, Cubism and Futurism. Then, for a few years from 1917 onwards, he embraced the Metaphysical Painting movement, led by his compatriots Giorgio di Chirico and Carlo Carrà.

Broadly speaking, this entailed dreamlike imagery with eerie lighting, unlikely perspective, and strange, symbolic objects. A fine example is Metaphysical Still Life, now part of the State Hermitage Museum collection in St Petersburg.

‘These works of Metaphysical Painting are crucial to Morandi’s artistic development,’ says Renato Pennisi, Senior Specialist in Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s Italy. ‘However, they don’t tend to appear on the market, as they’re pretty much all in museum collections.’

Morandi’s signature style: moods of ‘tranquility and privacy’

By 1920, there were signs of Morandi moving away from di Chirico, towards his own signature style. In that year’s still-life, Natura morta, he has abandoned dramatic shadows and bold, black outlines in favour of a gentler, diffuse light.

The painting’s bread, apple and empty glass hint at a frugal meal in keeping with the myth that has built up around Morandi. He’s remembered as a simple, reclusive figure who went by the nickname of Il Monaco (‘The Monk’). A lifelong bachelor, he lived most of his adult life in a modest apartment with his three sisters, his bedroom doubling as a studio.

As he himself put it, ‘I’m a painter of the kind of... composition that communicates a sense of tranquility and privacy, moods which I have always valued above all’.

Morandi’s trademark pictures: bottles, vases and jugs on a table

From the early 1920s until the early 1960s, Morandi’s paintings show remarkable consistency. He has by now hit upon his trademark pictures: still-life arrangements of bottles, vases and jugs on a table, painted in largely sombre colours (greys, browns and chalky whites, above all).

Superficially, these may all look similar. However, his painting is full of subtle shifts and inflections, dependent on precisely which objects are placed where; in what combination; and under what sort of light. Such was Morandi’s attention to detail that his slight shift of a bottle has been compared to the chess move of a grand master.

Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), Natura morta, painted in 1939. 12⅝ x 22¼ in (32 x 56.5 cm). Sold for £2,546,500 on 16 October 2015 at Christie’s in London © DACS 2019

In Natura morta (above), painted in 1939, a rhythm is created from left to right by the undulating heights of the objects in a row, as well as by their rich alternations in colour (vermilion being the most striking). Morandi’s gift was to transform a group of quotidian vessels into a composition that looked timeless.

'It takes me weeks to make up my mind which group of bottles go well with a particular tablecloth,’ Morandi once said. ‘And yet still  I often go wrong with the spaces. Perhaps I work too fast.’

Painstaking preparation and a sense of permanence

This sometimes included stretching his own canvases and grinding his own pigment. A rare oval-shaped canvas — one of just two he ever made — actually holds the world auction record for the artist. Natura morta (1940) sold for $4.3 million in May 2018, as part of The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller.

Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), Natura morta, painted in 1940. Oval: 14¾ x 19⅝ in (37.5 x 50 cm). Sold for $4,332,500 on 8 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York © DACS 2019

In a bid to make his objects look opaque and, thereby, imbued with a sense of permanence, the artist was also fond of coating them in paint and allowing dust to accumulate on them.

The market for Morandi’s work

‘Buoyant’ is the word Pennisi uses to describe the market for the artist’s work. ‘Morandi has always been considered an icon of 20th-century art and always been a star among collectors in Europe and the United States. What has changed in the past few years, however, and what has given his market a boost, is the fact that Asian buyers are now seriously interested in him.’

Morandi’s practice of repetition, small gestures and silent perfection is one that has parallels in a number of Asian cultures. ‘One thinks of customs such as calligraphy or tai chi,’ says the specialist. ‘He’s an artist whose still lifes can be appreciated far beyond the time and place in which they were made — and current prices reflect that’.

The record price for a Morandi at auction has been broken twice in the past three and a half years, on both occasions at Christie’s — first by 1939’s Natura morta (see above); then again last year (see below).

Landscape paintings

Alongside still lifes, the one genre Morandi returned to on a regular basis throughout his career was landscape. These would either be of the view from his studio window in Bologna, or vistas of the mountain town of Grizzana, in the Apennines, where he spent summer months and also a large chunk of the Second World War.

Painted en plein air and emanating a sense of rural tranquillity at a time of international turmoil, Paesaggio (1943) dates from that wartime period. In the manner of one of his heroes, Paul Cézanne, Morandi managed to abstract the scenery slightly yet at the same time ensure it retains a certain monumentality.

Fame, acclaim and increasing abstraction

Fame came Morandi’s way after the War. In 1948 he represented Italy at the Venice Biennale, and in 1957 he won the Grand Prize for painting at the São Paulo Biennale (defeating both Marc Chagall and Jackson Pollock in the process). Such success enabled him to give up his teaching job at the Academy and focus exclusively on his art work.

The early 1950s also saw a significant shift in his still lifes, which became increasingly abstract. In 1952’s Natura morta, above, his loose grouping of objects seems almost to float in space. Morandi eliminates any hint of the transition between different pictorial planes, to such an extent that the relation between objects, table and what appears to be the wall behind is unclear.

‘The more abstract paintings from the 1950s have become increasingly popular on the market,’ says Pennisi. ‘Prices for them have caught up with what people used to consider the peak period for Morandi — the 1940s — when he was still making the regular, figurative compositions.’

Symbols and the search for meaning in Morandi’s still-life paintings

Morandi died in 1964, aged 73. His imagery would influence numerous artists after him, including the Minimalists, who admired his pared-back aesthetic and emphasis on order, geometry and spacing. In 2008, he was the subject of a major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

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The multi-million dollar question, though, is whether his table-top objects were meant to symbolise anything. Some observers have suggested the skyline of a medieval Italian town, complete with towers of varying heights. Others see stand-ins for human beings, perhaps even the friends that Morandi lacked in life. The artist himself, however, disliked narrative interpretations of his work, so perhaps the final word should go to the Italian novelist, Umberto Eco.

In 1993, in a speech at the inauguration of the Morandi Museum in Bologna, Eco hailed a ‘poet of matter’, marvelling at ‘how so much spirituality can be expressed… through such humble items’.

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