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Morandi's Tightly Arranged Life

Where a classic Dutch still life is about displaying all the space and air and light that surrounds precious things, Morandi's version is about compression, claustrophobia. There's no celebration of the objects in Morandi's scenes. It's more a kind of forbearance, or even a studied complacency, that he puts on view.

The world we witness in these pictures is precisely the world we'd imagine propping up a petty boss like Mussolini -- maybe not supporting him when he moves on to his most noxious acts, but happy enough to stick with him at first, so long as he keeps settled bourgeois life and privileges intact. (Morandi won a long-desired job at the local art school through the Fascist circles he moved in.)

And yet . . .

Morandi's pictures aren't an objective mirror on the life he leads. If there's oppression in them, he had to put it there. We have to read his pictures as some kind of comment on a hidebound bourgeois life, even a critique of it. (Especially in the art created in his post-Fascist years.) After all, these pictures have been carefully constructed, by the artist himself, to look the way they do, to feel the way they feel, to say the things they say about the world they show.

Morandi didn't plop his easel before a table in a corner of the drawing room. The tabletops he painted were set up in a room reserved for his craft, on the far side of his bedroom, and some of them were fake -- old tables cut in half and bolted to the wall at various convenient heights. One was bolted high enough so that Morandi, at 6-foot-2, could get a view that made the lips of all its different-size bottles align with the tabletop's back edge. That's a Morandi trademark, and it helps give his still lifes some of their obsessive anxiousness, as though the painter has been down on his knees to make sure every bottle sits just so.

If the world in Morandi's art looks dusty and stale, it's because Morandi wanted it that way. The family's hard-worked servant girl was forbidden from dusting the bottles and boxes in his studio, and visitors commented on the careful mess he kept them in.

Morandi, the man, may have praised Benito Mussolini, and profited from his regime. But the Met survey shows that Morandi the painter -- or at least the art that he turned out -- chose to reveal the limits of a world, and a social class, that refused to look beyond itself.

Giorgio Morandi , 1890-1964 runs through Dec. 14 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on Fifth Avenue at East 82nd Street in Manhattan. Call 212-535-7710 or visit

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