Show all posts

Giorgio Morandi

Master of the still life

What interests me most is expressing what’s in nature, in the visible world, that is.

Giorgio Morandi was an Italian painter and printmaker who specialized in still life. His contemplative paintings are famous for their subtlety in tone and depiction of simple subjects - mainly vases, bottles, bowls and flowers. These still lifes, arranged against neutral backgrounds, may be boring to some, others find them to have a meditative effect and can look at them endlessly. Art historian Roberto Longhi even described Morandi as ‘arguably the greatest Italian painter of the 20th century’.

Despite his reputation as one of the greats among art aficionados, the Italian artist remains a singular and somewhat mystical figure, who is not closely affiliated with any one movement or era.

Giorgio Morandi was born in 1890, in Bologna, where he studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Bologna. Even though the artist hardly ever left his home town, his style of painting was influenced by the works of Cézanne, Derain, and Picasso. He even taught himself the art of etching by closely studying books on Rembrandt. 

Cézanne in particular, had a strong influence on his style of painting, which is evident in the reduced compositional elements, the flat planes of colour and the purity of form in his works.

Morandi excelled at his studies, but his teachers disapproved of the changes in his approach during his final two years at the Accademia. However, after a brief digression into a Futurist style in 1914, Morandi was given a job teaching drawing to kids at Bologna’s elementary school that same year.

In 1915, he joined the army but soon suffered a mental breakdown and was indefinitely discharged. A few years later, in 1918–19, he became associated with the Metaphysical school, a group of artists who painted in a style developed by Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà. Their goal was to imbue everyday objects with an atmosphere of mystery. This entailed dreamlike imagery with eerie lighting, unusual perspectives, and symbolic objects. A fine example of this period are his 'Metaphysical Still Life’ paintings. 

This Metaphysical phase in Morandi's work lasted from 1918 to 1922 and was to be his last major stylistic shift; thereafter, he focused increasingly on his subtle gradations of tone, and objects arranged in a unifying atmospheric haze, establishing the direction his art was to take for the rest of his life: still life arrangements of bottles, vases and jugs on a table, painted in sombre greys, browns and chalky whites.

Already in one of his 1920’s still lifes, his ‘Natura morta’, he had abandoned the use of dramatic shadows and bold, black outlines in favour of a gentler, more diffuse light. This particular painting’s subjects: a bread, apple and an empty glass hint at a frugal meal, which amplified the myth that has since developed around Morandi. The painter is remembered as a simple, reclusive figure who went by the nickname of Il Monaco (‘The Monk’). A lifelong bachelor, he lived most of his adult life in a modest apartment with his three sisters, his bedroom doubling as a studio. He himself has said:

I’m a painter of the kind of... composition that communicates a sense of tranquillity and privacy, moods which I have always valued above all.

From the 1920’s on, Morandi’s paintings show remarkable consistency, but while superficially, his paintings may look similar, they are full of subtle shifts, dependent on which objects are placed where; in what combination; and under what sort of light. In his ever varying compositions he managed to create a certain rhythm by the range in heights of the objects, as well as by their alternations in colour. By way of endless experimentation, the painter managed to transform a generic group of bottles into a timeless composition. He once declared:

It takes me weeks to make up my mind which group of bottles go well with a particular tablecloth and yet still, I often go wrong with the spaces. Perhaps I work too fast.

Painting was a very physical process for the artist. He often stretched his own canvases and would grind his own pigment. To make his works look more opaque and timeless he would even coat them in paint and then allow dust to accumulate on the canvas.  

From the end of the 1920s, Morandi had started to gain serious recognition for his work. In 1928 he participated in exhibitions in Italy and abroad, among which the Venice Biennale exhibitions and the Quadriennale in Rome. The 1948 Venice Biennale even awarded him the first prize for painting. In 1956 he visited Paris for the first time and in 1957 he won the grand prize in São Paulo's Biennial (defeating both Marc Chagall and Jackson Pollock in the process). This success enabled him to finally give up his teaching job at the Academy and focus exclusively on his art.

Next to his still lifes, the only other one genre Morandi explored repeatedly was landscape painting. He would paint the view from his studio window in Bologna, or vistas of the mountain town of Grizzana, in the Apennines, where he spent the summer months and a big part of the Second World War. ‘En plein air’ the artist would paint his tranquil rural landscape at a time that the rest of the world was in turmoil.

Morandi was a prolific painter; throughout his career he completed over 1350 oil paintings which would often depict the same familiar bottles and vases again and again, with a great sensitivity to tone and compositional balance. He also produced 133 etchings - from 1930 on he had been working as a professor of etching at Accademia di Belle Arti.

Through his simple and repetitive motifs and sparse use of color, Morandi became an important forerunner of Minimalism. His work has been a source of fascination and inspiration, not only for painters, but for many other creatives:

Italian film director Federico Fellini for example, featured his work in La Dolce Vita, and Michelangelo Antonioni did the same in La Notte. His practice of arranging and re-arranging similar objects also resonated with architects. The objects he used were plain, but the interactions between them could turn into intricate ever-changing compositions of varying form, color and texture, much like a city skyline. He once said:

After all, even a still life is architecture.

Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Frank Gehry were all familiar with his work and the latter even cited Morandi as inspiration for an unusual house he had built in Wayzata, Minnesota.

Quiet and polite, both in his private and public life, Morandi was known in Bologna for his enigmatic yet optimistic personality. The artist died of lung cancer on June 18, 1964, aged 73, but his imagery as well as his teaching would go on to influence several generations of artists after him.

In 1993, Marilena Pasquali and the Bologna Municipality created the Giorgio Morandi Museum. His sister Maria Teresa, donated many of his works as well as his atelier. Today, the museum includes a reconstruction of his studio that has become a source of inspiration to many. 

In 2015, photographer Joel Meyerowitz published ‘Morandi’s Objects’, a book comprising pictures he took of bottles, vases, pitchers, jugs, blocks, and other stuff found around the studio. His wife, writer Maggie Barrett wrote in an introduction:

in spite of having looked hard at Morandi’s paintings for thirty-five years, the man himself remains an enigma, not only to me, but also to those who knew him.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sources: Wikipedia, Christies, Brittanica, Artnews