‘While everything all around is conspiring to eliminate the old artistic and moral truths, Morandi instead professes and honours them in unusual ways every day and in every work. In this sense, work after work, his art confidently seeks in its apparent visual normality to encounter the deep and threatening adventure that lies within the everyday existential condition’
(F. Arcangeli quoted in M. C. Bandera & R. Miracco, Morandi 1890-1964, exh. cat., New York and Bologna, 2008-2009, p. 264).
Painted in 1956, Natura morta dates from a period of prolific creativity in the career of Giorgio Morandi. Held in high esteem by the leading critics of Italy and beyond, his work was being exhibited in museums and galleries across the world, as he was hailed as one of the great masters of Italian art. One of the last paintings in a large series of similar yet subtly varying compositions, Natura morta resonates with a profound simplicity, serenity and a poetic sense of minimalism. In an almost square format, Morandi has arranged a tightly compacted group of objects. Three boxes are aligned frontally, behind which stands a white bottle and a dark, barely visible vessel, and next to them, a round, grey form, seen in still-lifes of previous years, which is an upturned pan, its black handle receding into the background. With delicate, muted tones of ivory, grey and soft pink, the painting has a chromatic harmony and luminosity that characterises the finest works of Morandi’s late period.
Natura Morta is presented on the market for the very first time since it was completed. The painting comes from the descendants of the same private collectors mentioned by Lamberto Vitali in the 1977 Catalogo generale of the artist’s œuvre.
The protagonists of the painting are the three boxes in the foreground, which were made, possibly by the artist himself, from cardboard. Variations of these simple geometric paper forms had begun to appear in Morandi’s work in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and by the end of this decade, they had taken centre stage in many of the artist’s paintings. In 1956, the year that Morandi painted the present work, the artist travelled to Switzerland to attend the opening of a large exhibition of his work at the Kunstverein in Winterthur. On the day after the opening, Morandi visited the esteemed collection of Oskar Reinhart, which included works by Manet, Cézanne and one of Morandi’s favourite artists, Chardin. The director of the museum, Heinz Keller, recalled of his visit, ‘Morandi’s attention was always selective… As one might imagine the Chardin paintings in the small salon were the objects of his greatest enthusiasm. He paid particular attention to Jeune homme construisant un château de cartes, examining in detail the layout of the cards’ (H. Keller quoted in L. Mattioli Rossi (ed.), The Later Still Lifes 1950-1964, exh. cat., Venice, 1998, p. 178). Chardin’s famous painting depicts a boy carefully constructing a rectangular house of cards; a structure that is akin to the fragile paper constructions that can be seen in the present work. It is impossible to ascertain whether Morandi was inspired to paint the boxes in the present work after his confrontation with Chardin’s painting, however, he had certainly seen reproductions of it before his trip to Switzerland and had already included the same fragile, frontally lit cardboard constructions in paintings prior to 1956. What is certain, however, is that on seeing Chardin’s masterpiece in person, he was not only able to admire the ephemeral, delicate house of cards that he had been previously drawn to, but also study the French artist’s handling of paint, brushwork and his artistic process. This trip resonated deeply with Morandi and three years later, in 1960, he stated in an interview: ‘Chardin was…in my opinion, the greatest of all still life painters…with his pigments, his forms, his sense of space, and his matière, as French critics call it, he managed to suggest a world that interested him personally’ (E. Roditi, "Giorgio Morandi" in M. C. Bandera & R. Miracco, Morandi 1890-1964, exh. cat., New York and Bologna, 2008-2009, p. 355).
Arranged in a horizontal row close to the front of the picture plane, the boxes in Natura morta appear like large building blocks, imbuing the scene with an architectonic quality. Partly concealing the objects behind, these hollow, paper boxes have a statuesque, weighty quality that is at odds with their weightless material. Describing similar works from the same year, the critic Carlo Ragghianti likened these forms to ‘castles or factories constructed in accordance with an extremely simple cubic principle’ (ibid., p. 284). Another critic, Giuseppe Raimondi, also noted the process of pictorial construction in Morandi’s painting, writing that he painted with ‘the keen, intelligent diligence of a “builder”’ (ibid., p. 32). Like an architect, Morandi, who himself believed that architecture was the greatest of the arts, mused over his compositions for long periods of time, meticulously constructing arrangements of objects which allowed him to explore how forms relate to each other in space, and the visual rhythms, patterns or contrasts that they create. ‘After all’, he once stated, ‘even a still life is architecture’ (Morandi quoted in J. Abramowicz, Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence, New Haven and London, 2004, p. 197).
Carefully poised, the central box in Natura morta gently rests on its right hand side neighbour, revealing on its left, a thin sliver of space that leads the eye through to the ambiguously flattened space behind. The minute details and shadowy spaces between the meticulously arranged objects assume a monumental importance and colossal presence within the confines of the composition. The identities of the two vessels and pan that are placed behind are obscured; the enigmatic placement distorts their utilitarian appearance so that they become almost abstract planes of pure colour floating within a barely defined space. With just six components, Morandi has created a visually compelling, timeless composition from the simplest of means. As Italian art critic and historian, Lionello Venturi noted in 1957, the year after Morandi painted the present work, ‘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 emphasised, in order to let the colour harmony speak by itself’ (L. Venturi, Giorgio Morandi Retrospective 1912-1957, exh. cat., New York, 1957, n.p.). Balancing in a delicate state of mysterious tension, which is heightened by the unified colours, there is a feeling that the smallest of movements would destroy the harmonious equilibrium and poise of these objects. This poetic intensity, garnered from the most humble and quotidian of objects, was for Morandi one of the fundamental aims of his painting: ‘Even in a simple subject’ he explained, ‘a great painter can achieve a majesty of vision and an intensity of feeling to which we immediately respond’ (E. Roditi, op. cit., p. 358).