Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964)
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Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964)

Natura morta

Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964)
Natura morta
signed and dated ‘Morandi 1940’ (lower center); indistinctly inscribed (on the original stretcher)
oil on canvas laid down on Masonite
Oval: 14 ¾ x 19 5/8 in. (37.5 x 50 cm.)
Painted in 1940
Anon. sale, Galleria d’Arte Brera, Milan, 8 November 1961, lot 42.
Acquired at the above sale by the late owners.
G. Ungaretti, Pittori italiani contemporanei, Bologna, 1950, p. 38, no. 38 (illustrated).
L. Vitali, Morandi: Catalogo generale, 1913-1947, Milan, 1977, vol. I, no. 260 (illustrated).
M. Potter et al., The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection: European Works of Art, New York, 1984, vol. I, pp. 47 and 321, no. 141 (illustrated in color).
E. Tavoni, Morandi: Disegni, catalogo generale, Milan, 1994, p. 63.
L. Vitali, Morandi: Dipinti, catalogo generale, 1913-1947, Milan, 1994, vol. I, no. 260 (illustrated).
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Lot Essay

Morandi painted this Natura morta in 1940, employing a canvas stretched into an oval shape, the second and final work of this rare kind in his entire oeuvre. The previous picture in this format is a tabletop arrangement of various vessels he completed in 1919 (Vitale, no. 50). The present oval canvas evokes a self-contained, protected, and orderly environment, in which the artist’s state-of-mind, like the manner in which he depicted these objects, each of them long familiar and meaningful to him, seems calmly centered and whole, far removed from the turmoil of the outside world. These peaceable qualities would prove most comforting in the years that immediately followed.
Whether this still-life was painted before or after 10 June 1940, we do not know—on that fateful day Italy entered the Second World War as the Axis ally of Nazi Germany. Within weeks, various cities in the north were subjected to British air raids. Bologna, where the artist lived his entire life, was an important railway hub that beginning in 1943 endured heavy Allied bombing. The artist sought safety in the countryside at Grizzana, where he occupied himself by painting some of the finest landscapes of his career. It is difficult to find tell-tale signs of the war in the domestic tranquility of his still-life subjects, except by way of contrast. These pictures, filled with a humble and unassuming humanity, so somber, silent and contemplative, stand as the very antithesis to the spreading horror and chaos everywhere around him.
The gentle character of Morandi’s work could indeed provide a balm for the troubled spirit, as the critic Giuseppi Marchiori recalled in 1963: “During the tragedy of conflict and oppression we were consoled in our sorrow by the thought of the man in a room on the Via Fondazza…Morandi was in all probability painting a picture of bottles, lamps and dusty boxes. Amid the clamor of war his silent and lonely steadfastness was a bulwark; it was a noble protest of the man [who was] ‘the most out of step’ in the world” (quoted in J. Abramowicz, Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence, New Haven, 2004, p. 165).
Like the many Italian writers, composers, and artists who refrained from outwardly resisting Mussolini’s Fascist state, Morandi benefited from the government’s extensive patronage of the arts. In 1930 his growing reputation as a painter and printmaker won him the professor’s chair in etching at the Bologna Accademia di Belle Arti, a position he held until his retirement in 1956. He exhibited paintings in the Venice Biennales of 1930 and 1934; following the latter event the critic Roberto Longhi praised him as “one of the best Italian painters alive” (quoted in Morandi, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2008, p. 361). Morandi participated in the Rome Quadriennales of 1931 and 1935, and was given a personal room to show fifty works in the 1939 Quadriennale, where he won the second prize for painting.
This award drew criticism from the Fascist party. Morandi’s mundane still-life subjects and his seemingly withdrawn, private stance did not suit their program of La Romanità—the chest-beating emulation of ancient Rome—nor the image of Mussolini’s “The New Man” and other espoused public ideals. Morandi was also accused of overlooking nationalistic values while continuing to allow into his work corrupting foreign influences; Morandi would always proudly declare his admiration for the Frenchman Cézanne. Nor would the Fascists forget his participation as a young man in the modernist Valori Plastici group. The critic Giovanni Scheiwiller, in a monograph on Morandi published in 1943, responded: “A still life can move us because of its intrinsic qualities, for its emotional intensity and for inexplicable mysterious reasons…His works document the triumph of the spirit over materialism…Morandi is one of the few privileged [artists] with the capacity to produce paintings of pure poetry” (quoted in J. Abramowicz, op. cit., 2004, p. 176).
The Ministry of Education, Morandi’s official employer, included him in their large inaugural exhibition of contemporary art held in 1941, intended to advertise the “eternal vitality of the genius of our Italian race” (quoted in ibid., p. 177). In his review of the show, Attilio Crespi lauded Morandi’s “aristocratic reserve, his ability to ennoble the most humble and silent of models…giving a solemn dignity to his paintings of objects that Morandi elevated to the stature of symbols” (quoted in ibid.).
Morandi’s response to the war was to paint. The sensitive interiorization of his experiences inflected the tone of his painting and prints during 1940-1945, lending a special gravitas to his expression. “Some of the works that Morandi painted during the war are among the most beautiful of his career,” Janet Abramowicz has written (ibid., p. 168). Notwithstanding all those factors that threatened to impinge upon his private world in the studio, Morandi painted steadily and with increasing productivity as the conflict wore on, completing nearly 20 pictures in 1940, 46 in 1941, and 67 in 1943, numbers that fell off substantially only when he returned from Grizzana to Bologna in June 1944. His native city remained under German occupation until the end of the war, at which time the artist’s friends were not even sure he was still alive.
The oval shape of the 1919 Natura morta may have been occasioned by the end of the First World War, as a gesture welcoming the return of peace. The reappearance of this format in the present painting may have held a prayer for the same in 1940. Between 1942 and 1946, Morandi employed a tondo (circular) surround within a square sheet to contain the tabletop motifs in four still-life etchings (Vitale, nos. 109-111 and 113). In the etched composition Natura morta in un ovale, circa 1942, Morandi used an elliptical shape as a window through which the viewer peers into an unusual close-up of his chosen objects (Vitale, no. 130). Morandi’s interest in the oval format also reflects the table in this shape that he built and kept in his studio as prop for his still-lifes, the curved edge of which appears in numerous compositions.
“We had bought a number of contemporary Italian paintings in 1959 from the Galleria dell’Obelisco in Rome [including works by Campigli and Mušic],” David Rockefeller wrote. “Alfred Barr was aware of our interest in them and brought to our attention this ‘Still Life’, which he had known about through Lamberto Vitale. We had seen two Morandis that my brother Nelson had in his house in Washington and had always liked them; thus we were pleased to be able to acquire this work, with its unusual oval shape” (M. Potter et al., op. cit., 1984, p. 321).

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