Giorgio Morandi at the Met

You have to love a painter who loves both Masaccio and Cezanne—the first introduced perspective to help launch the Italian Renaissance, and the second began the flattening that became a hallmark of Modernism. Morandi himself (in a major retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art through December 14th) may be a forerunner of Minimalism, but I prefer to think of him in the same serene eternity of clear, even light as his artistic forebears.

Everyone knows that Morandi painted small objects—bottles, boxes, bowls, pitchers, butter molds—endlessly rearranging and repainting them, often in series.  I loved his work early on, then thought I was bored by its sameness. In this show, I fell in love with his work all over again, happy to be seduced by its amazing variety and extraordinary subtlety. No one has better evoked the essential, mysterious thingness of things, even as his work became so abstract that his late watercolors were miniature color fields, compared by the Met’s wall text to Rothko. But then, Morandi himself pointed out that “Nothing is more abstract than reality.”

Morandi groups his objects in ways that your art teacher never would have allowed: he clumps them together or lines them up in a single or double row, almost or actually touching. Yet it’s exactly this density that gives them presence. Early on, he uses lines, but these dissolve. His palette runs to warm, muted tones of eggshell, browns, pinks and the occasional blue, green or red, and to strong whites and grays.

Sometimes the thin spaces between objects are darkly mysterious, as in a Still Life of 1956: three vertical boxes in front defined by flat planes of color, pale, delicate tones of eggshell, white and peach, with a green tin next to them and behind them a white bottle and a blue-necked one, on a gray table against a pale bluish-gray background. Between the boxes are dark crevices that lead the eye to the bottles, but the tops of the boxes and tin and the body of the blue-necked bottle are the same gray as the table, making them seem to merge with it. The white box is directly in front of the white bottle, almost merging with it; the grey top of the box could also read as a horizontal band across the bottle, except that the box is a slightly whiter white. The neck of the bottle is set off from the pale background by a vertical blackish vase directly behind it. The white and peach boxes are aligned with the front edge of the table; the eggshell one is set back, almost in line with the bottles. The background, table and front edge of the table can all be read as horizontal bands. What’s surface, what’s space?

With an evenness of light, tone and hue, it’s mainly the color that evokes space and flattens it out. In a Still Life of 1943 Morandi groups 4 objects: a yellowish-brown, two-toned bottle or bottle-shaped container with a lid, two round containers with flat tops—one dark brown, one a muted red—and what looks to me like a butter mold, a crinkly walnut-shaped object with a greenish-blue bottom and yellowish top. All these objects are clearly defined with shadowing or color; each one appears to touch one or two others. The muted red container cozies up to the bottle shape to the left of it; the butter mold seems to touch the dark brown container behind it, which is slightly behind but seems to touch the bottle shape to the right of it.

The objects are on a gray table set at a slight angle against the yellowish-brown background, its tone somewhere between the browner top of the bottle shape and its yellower bottom. In the bottom right-hand corner of the painting, the table edge is defined by two darker gray lines and a tiny sliver of background color.We read the objects as standing on the table, but the dark brown container on the left, with its perky little handle sticking up, seems to be set mostly off the back edge of the table. Or perhaps it’s leaning up against the wall, as its top seems to be set at an angle. There’s a dark brown shadow or stain on the front of the butter mold.

We see the objects, our eye places them on the table, as do their shadows, but really they are serenely sitting on nothing, an angled band of gray that meets yellow-ochre. It’s slightly disorienting.

As is the Still Life of 1964, the year Morandi died, which reuses the bottle shape and butter mold, gray table and pale yellow-ochre background. A pale-blue box, a vertical rectangle, stands right up against the bottle shape on its left. The butter mold sits in front of the left-hand corner of the box, apparently not touching it, except that it’s tipped to its right and the line of shadow between its top and bottom angles right into the thin, pale  shadow that defines the bottle shape against the box. All three objects have a heavy black shadow along their right edge, and the box and butter mold cast definite shadows on the table. But the left side of the top half of the bottle shape virtually disappears into the background. There is no front edge to the gray table; in fact, the gray seems to have been roughly painted over the background color, and meets it in an uneven boundary “behind” the objects. The whole surface is very brushy, the objects are rather roughly painted, and the tonal differences between the two halves of the bottle shape and the background are very subtle.

The eye reads the objects as object and as abstraction; the whole painting as abstraction, the bottle shape barely coalescing from the background, extending the background into the gray. If you stop fighting the contradiction you can look at this painting forever. In fact, it appears to achieve a perfect balance between abstraction and—not reality; there’s no question of that, the objects themselves are pure paint, pure tonality. Between surface and object, then.

And then the sublime watercolors tip completely into color-field abstraction.

There are other subjects in the show.  The semi-abstract landscapes of the 30’s and 40’s, a revelation, are in part a nod from one master to another. Several evoke Cezanne’s late great paintings of Mont St. Victoire; two particularly recall “The House with Cracked Walls”, one of Cezanne’s flattest.

There is  a series of architectonic flowers-in-vases painted as gifts to friends, a small series of shells, a couple of self-portraits and a selection of etchings. In the last, Morandi uses cross-hatching to get an even tone, with patches of bare paper creating volume.

But following Morandi’s vision of those bottles, boxes and vases that he painted throughout his life is the great pleasure of this show.

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One Response to “Giorgio Morandi at the Met”

  1. Jane Says:

    Ok this is very interesting could you please add some pictures on his artwork

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