Morandi painted Natura morta in 1943, most likely in the early months of that year, which would soon prove to be fraught with peril for this gentle, retiring artist. Italy entered the Second World War in 1940 as an Axis ally of Nazi Germany, an act for which the Italian people would suffer dearly during the next five years. Morandi had friends involved with the Resistenza, and when a postcard from the artist was found in the possession of his friend Carlo Ragghianti, who had been arrested for anti-fascist activity, agents of OVRA, the secret police, showed up at Morandi's door during the afternoon of 23 May 1943 and carried him off to prison. They found no incriminating evidence in Morandi's home--he had fortunately destroyed any compromising correspondence the previous year--and because he was an esteemed professor of art in the Bologna Accademia di Belle Arti, an adjunct of the University of Bologna, friends with connections high in the Ministry of Education managed to obtain his release within a week.
No less dangerous times were still to come. During the Summer the Italian government deposed and imprisoned Benito Mussolini. Italy then signed a secret armistice with the Allies, who had already invaded the Italian mainland after their victory over Axis forces in Sicily. Hitler could not allow Italy to defect to the Allied cause, and rescued Mussolini, while the German army quickly occupied the country, bringing with them the dreaded Gestapo, which began to hunt down members of the Resistenza and implement the Nazi final solution for Italian Jewry. As a major military transportation hub, Bologna endured severe Allied bombing for the remainder of the war, forcing Morandi to seek safety in the countryside at Grizzana, where he painted some of the finest landscapes of his career.
There may be some hint of the painter's uneasy state of mind in the unusual off-centre composition of Natura morta, or in his decision to give the heaviest weight in his arrangement to three mauve pitchers, stationed like sentinels on the left side, but in truth it is difficult to find tell-tale signs of the war in the familiar aspect of Morandi's still life paintings, of the kind he had been making for almost two decades, except by way of contrast. These paintings, filled with a humble and unassuming humanity, so sombre, silent and contemplative, appear as far removed from the daily experience of violence, chaos and death all around as anyone might have imagined. Indeed, the character of Morandi's work could provide a balm for the troubled spirit, as the critic Giuseppe 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 'the most out of step' in the world' (quoted in J. Abramowicz, Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence, New Haven, 2004, p. 165).
In 1930, Morandi's growing reputation as a painter and printmaker won him the chair in etching at the aforementioned Accademia, a position he held until his retirement in 1956. Morandi exhibited in the Venice Biennales of 1930 and 1934; following the latter, 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. 36l). He 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 right-wing commentators, for whom Morandi's simple still life subjects and his seemingly withdrawn, private stance did not fit Mussolini's concept of La Romanità--his chest-beating emulation of ancient Rome--or the image of the Fascist 'New Man' with its strongly promulgated program of collective ideals and national sacrifice. Morandi was accused of overlooking classical Italian values while continuing to subject his work to corrupting foreign influences--he would always proudly declare his admiration for 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., p. 176).
Morandi's fundamental response to the horror around him was to paint--just as Picasso continued to paint in occupied Paris--and the sensitive internalization of his experiences lend a special gravitas to his wartime expression. 'Some of the works that Morandi painted during the war are among the most beautiful of his career,' Abramowicz has declared. 'His paintings of the 1940s have a different palette from the works of the 1930s. The light in these works varies from a lugubrious dark crimson to austere sackcloth browns' (ibid., p. 168). Notwithstanding the terrible reality that always threatened to impinge upon his private world in the studio, Morandi painted steadily and with increasing productivity during the early years of the war, completing nearly 20 pictures in 1940, 46 in 1941, and 67 in 1943, numbers that fell off substantially when he returned from Grizzana to Bologna in June 1944. When the artist's friend Roberto Longhi organized a show of Morandi's paintings in Florence following the earlier liberation of that city, Morandi was still cut off in Bologna, alive and well, but his fate remained unknown to his friends until the war was over.