March 29, 2009

Morandi Still Life, Nature Morte

One of the surprises of looking at a lot of Giorgio Morandi's work is how varied it is. Although he uses the same ensemble of objects over and over, constantly varying their configuration, any two paintings that contain several of the same items are very different as chromatic arrangements too. The experience of seeing an exhibition of his work, such as 2008's large show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, far from being monotonous or repetitious, brings out the variety that resulted from Morandi's serial approach. Yet they always look like Morandis. In the two paintings below, several of the same objects appear, but in every respect the treatment is different.

In this painting, Morandi's last work, the color of the background is almost indistinguishable from the color of the funnel/cap, and on the left, in the direction of the light, the funnel has no real edge but merges with the background. Only a change in the direction of the brushstrokes defines it. Morandi all but ignores the form of the funnel, painting the shadow on the right as a sharp, dark edge, which defines the outline while leaving the image flat. The painting was executed in natural light on a day when there wasn't a lot of strong light in the studio. According to Janet Abramowicz, Morandi's studio (which was his bedroom) had one window and a single overhead light fixture; she says he painted only with natural light. That would explain the tonal ambiguity of some of Morandi's paintings, for if he was working in diffused daylight, he would not have had strong cast shadows all the time. He painted in the afternoon, when "the light was best," he said. But his light, and his color, is remarkably varied from one painting to the next.

This painting may call to mind the late, crude, cartoonish paintings of Philip Guston, and I think it should whether or not Guston had Morandi in mind. There is the same refusal of finesse, the superficial brushy elegance that so marred Guston's more beautiful abstract work. The sheer skill that intoxicated the high renaissance Morandi ignores. He uses no sprezzatura or fancy vigorous brushwork; no sfumato, for plastic qualities, what some artists call form and others call modeling; the illusionist's skills, the art of deception, hold no interest for Morandi. What then is he interested in? The change effected by the fall of light, for one thing. For another, some kind of intense emotion generated by attention to the arrangement on the table. But what this emotion is remains obscure and wordless, which is why he is said to be "silent," as of course all painting is; he paints without symbols, indeed without metaphors, which is all but imposible. He relentlessly removes all such associations, and he is in that respect the exact opposite of a poet. I think his painting centers on some aspects of sensory experience--tonality, the close-range coupling of the values of the gray scale, and hue, as if there are no things, only patches of color.

It is therefore extremely tempting today to say that in his paintings the objects in the arrangement on the table are not represented at all, since realistic depiction is no part of Morandi's project, and thus the paintings themselves become things rather than pictures of things. The most famous statement about his work that Morandi made, in an interview with Edward Roditi, is "I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see." This statement is often cited to support the claim that Morandi was a kind of abstract painter, in the sense of "non-objective." But in the same interview he unequivocally denies any relationship to Mondrian, and the point is to separate himself from artists whose concerns are only with form. In the next sentence after the remark just quoted, he says something even more pregnant: "We know that all we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meaning that we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree."

The statement that "all we can see...never really exists as we see and understand it" suggests the view point of a classical Pyrrhonian skeptic. Things are known to us only as appearance; what is "behind" appearance is forever hidden from us. But then he goes on to say what a traditional skeptic would not affirm: "Matter exists, of course," and then he adds that it is we who add meaning, by which he means proleptic meaning, conceptual grasp of what we perceive. "Only we can know that a cup is a cup." What he seems to be getting at is the fact that all perception, in all its aspects, imposes some human ratio on the ever-elusive thing, and it seems to me that this human intrusion is what Morandi was trying to show in his paintings.

That his paintings are not realistic is clearly so at least in the sense that when we see photographs of his still life arrangements, they look nothing like his paintings. Moreover, the experience to which he is directing your attention is that of looking at a paiting. However, my strongest sense is that he was painting what he saw. If so, he is rightly called a modernist along imagist lines. "No ideas but in things," as William Carlos Williams put it. "Direct presentation of the image," as Pound put it. However, the Williams saying puts too much weight on things, and Morandi evidently believed things per se were beyond our reach. He is by the end of the thirties no longer a metaphysical painter. He is assuredly not a Platonist, these are not eternal forms but ephemeral. I repeat: he has no interest in plasticicity.

In the second painting, composed from some of the same objects, the light is like that of late afternoon when the sun is low; it is much warmer and the tonality has much sharper contrasts than the previous painting. Some of the same objects appear, but they are entirely different chromatic arrangekments. Notice the fluted sphere, which is warm, golden ochre tones on the top, where highlighted, and (complementary) green in the shadows, while the bottom half is blue. All the coolness of the first painting is replaced by warmth, while the tonality remains close.

Here the background and tabletop are the same color as the previous painting and the funnel/cap is closer to the color of the first. Yet its actual tonal value is so close to that of the background, as are the background and tabletop, that the edge of the funnel that faces the light is still almost indistinguishable from the background. This effect is one that Albers would have appreciated!

Not all Morand's color is "realistic," in the sense that the color is an attempt to match something as it is perceived or to be true to what it is. In the first painting, the table top is a dull gray he could have achieved by mixing a cool, neutral gray with raw umber and white; the overall tonality is cool, all the more so because the white side of the box is represented as pale blue. In the second painting the table top is the pinkish tone of the raw umber white mix without the neutralizing monochromatic gray, a slightly warmer tone, and the ochre background is almost the same value. (There are different ways to mix these colors but it seems clear in the case of the first painting that he mixed the gray into the umber. According to Abramowicz he didn't mix colors on his canvas, but the look of the table top here suggests otherwise since it varies from gray to pink.) He was not interested in giving an accurate representation of the color of the table top but rather in the relationships of the colors of the objects to the barely suggested background. In the first painting the colors are all quite close to each other, and in the second the objects are more vivid than the background, in extremely warm tones of yellow and red ochre, and this time he pays more attention to the modeling of the funnel because the light is strong. None of these colors is "realistic" or literal; his colors never are, because his objects have no stable color but change color as the light changes.

The dominant colors are earth tones, raw sienna, ochres, red ochre or terra cotta, dark burnt sienna. Morandi's palette is extremely rich in Italian earth tones. The full range of ochres goes from "gold" or very light, bright yellow ochre to burnt ochres and grey ochres. With the addition of taupes an entire Morandi still life could be painted in that range of tones. He was fascinated by the subtle variations of gray color.

It is sometimes said that he manipulates these tone and color changes in a way that is almost abstract, and it's true that there's a certain abstractness in his treatment of the objects, since he ignores details, but the reason for doing so is to concentrate attention all the more on their apparent color and the the relationships of one color to another. Like Joseph Albers, he noticed that color is relative; that each color changes the colors around it. Unlike Albers he doesn't fool around with optical illusions.

This painting shows Morandi's fascination with color harmony within a strictly limited range. Here he is presenting almost all the objects in various shades of umber. The tripartite division of the canvas into equal areas of foreground, middle ground, and background, exactly reverses the tonal arrangement of the striped box and seems to frame the scene in two very dark brown stripes.

When you see an exhibition like the one at the Metropolitan, you have the sense of an artist who worked in monochrome most of the time, whose pinks and whites and blues and earth tones are also always greys; the occasional painting where a cobalt blue jar or a scarlet pitcher appears comes as a visual shock. You might say, if you spoke of all the paintings together, that they are subdued, but that is only because they use so many gray tones. The colors are often striking, even when they are pastels.

This landscape, a fascinating late painting, illustrates the consistency of Morandi's approach to both landscape and still life, something which is not always obvious since organic forms, like the crowns of trees and the shadows they cast, are not controlled by the geometry of cylindrical bottles and rectangular boxes; this painting, however, presents a stucco farm building reduced to its basic rectangular geometry as alternating panels of light and dark against a green background, close in spirit to Corot's Italian paintings, and you can easily see that Morandi's approach here is the same as in his tightly clustered still lifes, where the objects are so close that they seem like a single facade and remind us of urban scenes. The painter who is never mentioned in connection with Morandi, but of whom I am constantly reminded, is Canaletto. But in Morandi, we get a Venice empty of crowds, and instead of the blues and greens of the lagoon we have only the browns and greys of his table tops.

Here we have a still life that evokes a landscape, or a cluster of city buildings. Morandi's interests were the same in each genre.

In this etching, one of Morandi's greatest works, the "architectural" arrangement is the primary emphasis. Here the objects are clustered so close together as to suggest buildings, ruins, monuments, but all connected. Because they are black and white and often tend toward flat shapes without outlines, his etchings show how close his still lifes are to landscapes; the etchings call to mind skylines or cityscapes, architectural forms, the domes of churches, towers, factory smoke stacks. Again there is an abstract quality to this and there is no metaphor suggested by the resemblance. But Morandi's attention to the motif, as Cezanne called it, to what is actually in front of him, his insistence on painting the external world as it appears to him, is the exact opposite of abstract painting in intention. Many abstract painters today read him as one of their number, and have learned from his manipulation of shapes and colors, but these are not abstract paintings in that sense.

This painting is a realization in color of the etching. Sort of. Since Morandi was a serial artist, it is much like the etching, but since he also did nothing twice, some of the objects have been moved or replaced. But the arrangement is as solid in the etching and in the painting. Since it is a painting, it reverses the arrangement, which only further emphasizes its essential compositional strength. Notably, the painted version is drawn with the same strictness as the etching and the colors are more saturated than is Morandi's usual practice. Is it more realistic than Morandi's other paintings?

What is the meaning of these paintings, if they have any? Critics often say these are paintings of "silence," and Morandi himself, wrily, reminds us that after all these are just bottles and boxes, without symbolic implication; the absence of symbolism is probably what has led critics to speak of the "purity" of his painting, and others to say that it is almost, or actually, abstract. I don't think the idea of pure painting has much content. The "abstract" aspect of this work, while it is evident, should not be overemphasized. Morandi, in all his work, both still life and landscape, eliminated detail. He wasn't interested in it; he thought it was secondary in some way. It is tempting from our present-day perspective to see him as a kind of minimalist, looking for what is essentially art after details are dropped out. So he paints Ovaltine boxes but doesn't bother to attempt the lettering. (Since his style got increasingly loose, it is important to remember that he had all the needed drawing skills but actively chose to leave that level of detail out.) His paintings, we may be tempted to say, are modernist in the sense that in being realized they are separated from the objects that occasioned them. The paintings become objects in their own right. And, while there may be a sense in which this is so, and it may be the very thing that speaks to us today, it is just as likely that Morandi had no such intention, but like other great still life painters, Zurbaran, Cotan, Melendez, even Seurat, simply contemplating the arrangement he had contrived as a light-born image.

Here, I think it is best to look back at Cezanne. Cezanne is a much weirder painter than we sometimes realize nowadays, since we tend to see his work looking backward through the lens of analytic cubism, which took his geometries and radically disposed them as broken forms on the canvas. We should try to forget Picasso and Bracque, however, above all forget their purported attempt to flatten out three-dimensional objects like some kind of map on two-dimensional space, and look at Cezanne compared to late Manet, or to Monet's haystacks, where color is light. In the work of the impressionists nothing more radical occurs than an attempt to render things in terms of perceptions at a given moment. In Cezanne, something very different is going on, an attempt to get closer to the objects or motifs, to get up next to things, and Morandi presents us with a branch from Cezanne that is entirely different from that followed by Picasso, Bracque, and even Gris (whom Morandi admired).

This is a very late still life of Andre Derain, who abandoned fauvism for another kind of realism. What is the relation of this painting to Morandi? (Morandi and his sisters denied any influence on him by Derain,) It may be that Morandi influenced this phase of Derain's work, or it may be the influence of Balthus.

And this is one of mine.

Since writing the above, I had a Morandi dream, which when I woke I almost thought I grasped. First, he gave me a bottle of cheap shampoo that contained an ingredient to cure dandruff (I don't have dandruff). Then on another occasion, a bar of fine, hand-made soap. I was looking at a picture of him, a color photo, talking to a friend of his in the studio. But it was also a live image, and Morandi pointed out to me that his shirt color was the lightest light in the image, and that just above it was the darkest dark. His friend gave him a raincoat. Morandi said he was thinking of moving to Seattle, where the health services, he had heard, were excellent. The following day, I learned that he had died peacefully in his sleep. The dream is like a Morandi in the focus on simple, everyday things, a tube of cheap shampoo, a bar of soap, the tonal values in an image, its refusal to disclose anything, and death. Nature morte. In reality, it was important to him that the objects he painted were not symbols. In the end, he said, they're just bottles.


  1. Very interesting, thanks for posting

  2. Morandi is one of my favorites. I enjoyed your article and analysis.
    cheers, bill b.

  3. Wonderful analysis. I too can tell from another Nature morte painted in 1943 that Guston really looked at him very closely.Many thanks for such astute language