At the time he painted Natura morta in 1948, Giorgio Morandi had become a canonical figure in post-war Italy. This picture perfectly demonstrates the elegant manner in which Morandi quietly forged a lyrical path for figurative painting against the backdrop of encroaching abstraction and politicisation. On a round table a few forms are clustered behind two intriguing objects: a cylindrical yellow container terminating into a reversed funnel and a copper coffee-maker. A shimmer of light is caught on the metal, reverberating part of its fabled glow on the yellow surface of its companion. The framing of the scene is carefully constructed. Cropping the ends of the table on each side and leaving just a hint of space below it, Morandi forces the viewer's eye to focus just above the group of objects, where the density of the forms contrasts with the heavy void lingering above them.
When Morandi painted Natura morta, Italy was recovering from the war and negotiating its new cultural identity after the Fascist dominance. Morandi, who had spent most of the war years tucked away in the countryside at Grizzana, came to be regarded as an artist untouched by recent history and indifferent to foreign influences. His friends and art critics - Giuseppe Raimondi, Francesco Arcangeli, Cesare Brandi, Cesare Gnudi and Roberto Longhi - helped construct the myth of a solitary painter, living in his studio as a monk in its cell, withdrawn from the world and immersed into his own universe of sober landscapes, humble flowers and dusty bottles. After the war, Morandi's art resurfaced as the strong, pure example of what Italian modern art could be.
Within this context, Natura morta provides an invaluable testimony of how Morandi was in fact much more connected with art historical developments than is normally assumed. While art critics of the time claimed Morandi was a quintessentially Italian artist, his art library suggests that he was aware and indeed an admirer of foreign artists. Jean-Siméon Chardin, in particular, was among those artists whose example Morandi looked towards. The copper coffee-maker in Natura morta strikingly resonates with the French master's Glass of Water and Coffeepot. Morandi owned at least four monographs on Chardin and one of them - A. de Ridder's 1932 volume - is marked in pen, suggesting that Morandi rigorously pored over the book.
In 1948, Morandi was not only in a dialogue with the art of past, but was also perhaps reflecting on his early works, which themselves were being regarded as historical objects in their own right. That year, at the Venice Biennale, Pittura Metafisica was chosen as a key theme, hoping to inspire the cultural renewal in post-war Italy. For the occasion, Morandi's metaphysical works were presented along side those of Carlo Carrá and Giorgio de Chirico's in the exhibition Tre pittori italiani dal 1910 al 1920. An international jury awarded Morandi the first prize for Italian art, while de Chirico - indignant at the decision - began a lawsuit against the Biennale. The event gave Morandi the chance to see eleven of his 'metaphysical' works hung together, almost thirty years after their creation. Exhibited in the group was Natura morta con il tavolo tondo, which has often been regarded as a seminal work in Morandi's artistic development. The unusual and rare framing of the table in Natura morta strongly resonates with the isolated round table of that important early work. In a charged act of self-reference, Natura morta pays tribute to the formative Pittura Metafisica years, while reassessing the artist's mature, distinctive style.
The year Morandi painted Natura morta, James Thrall Soby and Alfred H. Barr visited the artist's studio, with the idea of presenting the artist's works in the 1949 exhibition XXth Century Italian Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During that visit the two curators might have seen this work or three closely related paintings depicting the same group of objects with subtle variations (Vitali, 652, 653 and 654). After the war, Morandi had begun developing his still lifes into series, deepening his art's scrutiny into the world of visual phenomena. Commenting on the artist's painstaking and tireless rearrangements, Soby later compared Morandi's art to that of Piet Mondrian, in its 'persistent research into forms and space within a narrow iconographic range' (J.T. Soby, quoted in J. Abramowicz, Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence, London, 2004, p. 196). Even though Morandi never became involved with the artistic movements that were beginning to thrive in America, this encounter testifies to the artist's important position in the international development of modern art.
With its rich resonances, Natura morta is an entrancing example of the artist's belief and vision. 'There is nothing or very little', Morandi wrote two years before his death, 'that is new in the world, what matters is the new and different position from which the artist considers and observes the things of the so-called nature and the works that preceded and interested him' (G. Morandi, letter to L. Vitali, 3 August 1962, quoted in L. Vitali, Giorgio Morandi Pittore, Milan, 1965, p. 41).