Painted in 1953, Natura morta sings with the radiance of the still life pictures that Giorgio Morandi was creating during this period in the 1950s. While Morandi's work had long been popular in Europe, and especially in his native Italy, it was now that the artist, who famously avoided international travel except the rarest jaunt to Switzerland, gained an international following, especially on the other side of the Atlantic. The fact that this work entered the collection of Elinor Arnason of New York in the mid-1950s is a mark of the increasing esteem in which Morandi's works were held in the United States in particular. Likewise, it is a tribute to his status within the art world that he won the first prize in the Sao Paulo Biennale the same year that Natura morta was painted, having exhibited several of his pictures there.
Morandi had long been fascinated with the still life genre. During the 1910s and 1920s, he had been involved with the Pittura Metafisica pioneered by such artists as Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà. While he moved away from the rigid stylisation of those earlier works during the 1920s, achieving a more naturalistic tone and atmosphere reminiscent of the paintings of his great artistic hero Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, and thence towards the more abstracted appearance of his post-war still life pictures, he always retained an ambience of mystery and meditation that owed itself in part to its genesis under the aegis of de Chirico.
Morandi's incredible self-discipline, visible in his paintings, drawings and etchings in the limited subject matter (a few portraits, a larger group of landscapes and above all the still life images of bottles, vases and dried flowers) increased during the post-war years, when the compositions that he created became more and more concentrated. Fewer vessels were shown, often in clustered compositions such as that in evidence in Natura morta or in the picture from the same period recently sold from the collection of Max Palevsky, heightening the sense of restraint. With an incredible, and increasing, economy of means, Morandi was managing to express himself, his views of painting and his views of the harmonies that underpin existence, through his ikebana-like arrangements of these vessels. Working in the legendary surroundings of his home in Bologna, in the dust-covered timeless space that he had created which was cluttered with the cast of objects that populated his paintings, Morandi would arrange the various groupings in such a way as to capture that particular rhythm that caught the aesthetic power that he sought. Sometimes, he would explore subtle variations between one arrangement and another, as is clear from comparison between Natura morta and some of the pictures of the same period, where almost identical groupings are depicted, sometimes with the addition or slight adjustment of one of the vessels. This process, and its time-consuming nature, was described by Morandi during an encounter in the studio that took place the same year that Natura morta was painted, described by the Polish artist Josef Herman, who was largely based in Great Britain and was a friend of Jacob Epstein and David Bomberg:
'In a low voice, as though to no one in particular, he mused: "What do people look for in my bottles?" I looked at him and he now looked at me. "It is already forty years since I looked for some element of classical quiet and classical purity, a moral guidance perhaps more than an aesthetic one." Then he changed the direction of his meditation. "It takes me weeks to make up my mind which group of bottles will go well with a particular 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?"' (J. Herman, 'A Visit to Morandi', pp. 26-27, in L. Klepac, exh. cat., Giorgio Morandi: the dimension of inner space, Sydney, 1997, p. 27).
That slowness, Morandi's own sense of contemplation in looking at these compositions, resulted in the delicate, careful poetry of Natura morta and its fellows. He would himself describe the quality that he sought, which related to his fascination with the pictures of Paul Cézanne, in an interview with Voice of America four years after painting Natura morta:
'What interests me the most is expressing what's in nature, in the visible world, that is. I believe the educational task for the figurative arts, particularly at the present time, is to communicate the images and feelings that the visible world arouses in us. I think that what we see if the artist's creation and invention, if he is capable of getting past those diaphragms, that is to say, those conventional images which place themselves between him and things. He remembered Galileo: the real philosophy book, the book on nature, is written in letters unknown to our alphabet. These letters are triangles, squares, circles, spheres, pyramids, cones and other geometric shapes' (Interview with Morandi, 'Voice of America', Presto Recording Corporation Paramus, New Jersey, 25 April 1957).
It was with a view to writing, as it were, in these letters, and to decoding the messages contained within the world around us, that Morandi created his contemplative still life pictures, creating from the humble objects that he depicted a realm of weighty importance, in which modest, poetic epiphanies are conjured in the mind of the viewer. In a sense, Natura morta is an intimate still life, yet its composition grants the various vessels a monumentality, recalling medieval towns in Italian landscapes as much as bottles and boxes. Natura morta, then, reveals Morandi's own Mont Sainte-Victoire.
As well as echoing Cézanne's fascination with structure, which had long been central to Morandi's painting, his late still life pictures also have a luminosity that recalls the works on paper of the Master of Aix, a fluid radiance that adds the mirage-like shimmer so in evidence in Natura morta. During this period, Morandi was increasingly interested in the fact that his pictures were representations, were paintings, and accordingly involved himself less in modelling the three-dimensionality of his subject matter, instead deliberately increasing the sense of flatness, accentuated by the almost even, muted light - in Natura morta, there are the faintest whispers of shadows at the edges of some of the vessels and in the gaps between them, heightening the sense of visual rhythm. Indeed, this underscores the fact that, as well as a depiction of vessels, Natura morta consists of a horizontal arrangement of forms, a grouping of colours hinged around the near-symmetrical white-blue-white of the three central objects. While Morandi's paintings remained anchored in the figurative world, which he used as a springboard for his investigations of colour, rhythm and form, the appearance of Natura morta nonetheless recalls some of the developments that were taking place simultaneously across the Atlantic with the Abstract Expressionists. Indeed, the forms of Natura morta hold their place on the canvas in a manner that recalls the transitional abstract paintings of, for example, Mark Rothko.
Perhaps it was in part due to this resonance that Morandi's work became so popular in the United States during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Certainly, when Alfred H. Barr Jr and James Thrall Soby were travelling through Italy in 1948 seeking works to exhibit in the Twentieth Century Italian Art show they were arranging for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, to be held the following year, they found that they were strongly advised to visit Morandi at every turn. This paved the way for a greater fascination within the American market for Morandi's work, as is demonstrated by the early purchase of this work by Elinor Arnason, whose descendents still own the painting over half a century later.