Editors' pick

Morandi: Master of Modern Still Life


Editorial Review

Most Beautiful, Still
Morandi's Muted Paintings Are Study in Contrasts, Dimension

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 21, 2009

Nothing on the wall is less alarming than the still life. You know the one, that little picture in which nothing happens and of which there are millions, most completely routine. Nothing wrong with that. Tabletop still lifes are supposed to be routine. That's what they're for.

Every day Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) had to go through his sister's bedroom to get to his dusty studio in their apartment on Via Fondazza in Bologna. There he kept the stash of undistinguished beakers, bottles, vases, tea boxes, teacups, toys, tins and pitchers from which he'd pick out the ones that he would paint today. Tomorrow he'd pick others. He did this for years.

Still-life painters like regularity, and get to indulge in it. While other artists flounder about seeking a theme, still-life painters don't have to. They already have one.

The dusty, beautiful pictures in "Morandi: Master of Modern Still Life" at the Phillips Collection are repetitive, unsurprisingly. They're similar in size (small to middling), palette (muted), in sharpness of focus (blurred) and in the shallowness of their depicted space, which is seldom more than a foot deep. His bottles rarely gleam. Some he dulled with paint. All he left undusted, though his studio's plaster walls, which were unpapered and into which he drove nails, powdered perpetually. What makes his paintings beautiful is that you can't take your eyes off them. They won't let you. They make you keep seeing. That was odd. What was that? Morandi's still lifes are alike until suddenly they aren't.

Still lifes are for homes, not for palaces or churches, and this has long been so. In the steep, clean, canal-side houses of the 17th-century Dutch, they already were common. Their purchasers, now Protestant, tended to install them where, before, as Catholics, they might have shown the saints. Dutch still lifes made visible this world, not the next. Most were substantial, domestic and mannerly, quite unlike the martyrdoms they'd replaced. Flower pieces (tulip, dewdrop) and interrupted-breakfast pieces (diagonal knife, bitten bread roll) were particularly popular. These pictures were permitted to mildly admonish (this too shall pass) but not to the point of consternation.

A century later, in the larger houses of Baltimore and Boston, the still life on the wall and the fruit bowl on the sideboard stressed abundance. The Peales, who painted many of them, liked to heap bowls with peaches and grapes. Such paintings functioned mildly -- thanking God for His bounty and demonstrating the piety of the household. They were a quiet visual version of saying grace at the table. But mostly they were meant to hang beside the candlestick, fit in with the furniture and augment the decor.

Morandi's bowls don't offer peaches, or anything else to eat. Nor do they just hang there. Instead, they have a way of twitching almost imperceptibly, of discombobulating the composed stillness with small shiftings of the ground.

The exhibition at the Phillips is not the retrospective shown last year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; it's smaller and less official. Most of its 61 objects come from unfamiliar Italian collections (particularly that of the MART, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto, which organized the show), and just five were at the Met. I recommend the Phillips show. It comes with a Val Lewton installation. It fits the Phillips (Morandi's first American museum exhibition was held in this museum in 1957). It's the right size. And the right slowness. It won't let you rush.

Look at "Still Life" (1959) from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. First, you see, on a gray tabletop, a pair of corked bottles side by side, and, in front of them, a fluted teacup, and then you look again. You can't help it. The fluted teacup (which doesn't have a handle and could be a sugar bowl) isn't on the table. It looks as if it had been glued up against it. And the bottles aren't twins: The one on the right has a brighter gleam. And what's that between them? A green shadow? A container? A pleasing sense of symmetry, of classical repose, arrived with the first glimpse. Where'd it go?

And what shape is that gray table, anyway? Rounded? Square? What is its grayness doing, lifting up that way as if to put its arm around the shoulders of the flasks?

Also unsettling is "Still Life" (1950) on loan from the MART. Look at the form at the rear on the left. Does it have a gash in it? Is it gray or white, one container or two? (One, answers the shadow, but then the shadows in Morandi are not to be trusted.) What is this art about? Hard to say. It keeps changing its mind.

This gives it hesitance. Morandi's work promotes reconsideration. This is not a quality of much modern art.

Being a longtime NFL watcher, and a longtime art critic, I like to think I'm a pretty fast glimpser. Much of what we're shown these days -- the quick-cut TV ads, the image in the rearview mirror, the all-over field paintings -- asks for little else. Morandi rejects speed.

He also rejects politics. Politics are fine, of course, just not all the time. Morandi pulls your thoughts away to other realms entirely, or so it seems to me. Not everyone agrees.

In reviewing the Met retrospective, The Post's Blake Gopnik led with his discovery of the fact that the painter -- in 1928 -- had declared his "great faith" in Benito Mussolini and had been "a full-blown Fascist."

That cannot be good news. Fascism is bad. I would like Morandi more if -- stuck there in old Bologna, living with his sisters, seldom leaving town, staying in his studio, painting every day -- he had been worldly enough to notice that badness. Still, I'm tempted to forgive him if only for providing such wholly un-Fascist art.

When Mussolini stepped out on the balcony, jutted his chin, put his fists on his hips and stood there drinking in the roaring of the multitudes, the last thing that he wanted was their distrust of the given. Il Duce gave sharp assurances. Morandi does the opposite.

There is nothing quite as solid, or as solidly Italian, as an earthy, heavy terra-cotta jug. Then why does the one he painted in "Still Life" (1921) half-dissolve into thin air? Tabletops are meant to be reassuringly level. Morandi's bulge and heave. When he painted his self-portrait in 1924, his picture didn't say "This is who I am"; it left his face in shadow, his features indistinct and thereby kept us guessing.

It isn't just dust that grays Morandi's world. It's our own persistent doubt.