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Morandi's Tightly Arranged Life
Italian Painter's Seemingly Simple Works Reflect a Constricted -- And Curious -- World

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008

NEW YORK

You expect a landmark exhibition to yield surprises, but they're not always as big as this. ¶ Digging into "Giorgio Morandi, 1890-1964," now premiering at the Metropolitan Museum -- the largest-ever survey of "Italy's greatest modern painter," as Morandi has been called -- I discovered something fe w art lovers know: In the first years of Mussolini's dictatorship, Morandi was a full-blown Fascist. ¶ You won't see that crucial fact mentioned in the Met's wall texts, labels or catalogue essays. But buried in an appendix are the following words, from a thumbnail autobiography Morandi published in 1928, when he was 37: "Among the buyers of my works, it gives me great pleasure to recall His Excellency Benito Mussolini. . . . The great faith I have had in Fascism from the outset has remained intact even in the darkest and stormiest of days."

The show is the toast of the New York season, and it deserves to be. Who could resist the parade of still lifes this famous "painter's painter" turned out over his 50-year career? But all the talk seems to skirt the exhibition's central questions. Such as whether, with this new chance to look at him in depth, Morandi can keep his status as the poster child for the old ideal of art for art's sake, with no regard for any world beyond the frame. Or do we need to imagine that Morandi's still lifes, with their tightly marshaled bottles, boxes and vases, are about more? That they give a glimpse of a strange world in which a middle-class, stay-at-home painter chooses to salute Il Duce.

Mostly, the Met survey gives the standard take on the standard Morandi story. It shows and tells how, over the course of two world wars, across the rise and fall of Mussolini, through Allied bombing and lack of food and the start of postwar plenty, Giorgio Morandi stayed cloistered at home in Bologna with his three adult sisters, painting.

The exhibition includes a few early experiments inspired by the modern avant-garde, as well as a handful of self-portraits. It displays a number of landscapes painted at various houses in the country. But the show centers on Morandi's lifelong campaign as a painter of little tabletops covered in jars and bottles. There are often boxes, too. When Morandi was feeling really wild, he might paint a vase, sometimes even one with flowers in it.

"Morandi's simple, silent, unswerving choice to paint pure objects devoid of all semantic overtones enabled him to approach the transcendence of form," reads the preface to the exhibition catalogue. And who could deny that there's transcendently admirable form in these pictures? No one has ever arranged a bunch of bottles as Morandi did. It's easy to see them as so many abstract building blocks of shape and color, combined into endless lovely paintings. We get to watch Morandi work the tiny world inside his pictures, building and unbuilding it until there's nothing left to be explored -- and then to watch him always finding more. Bach's 32 "Goldberg Variations" seem almost a piker's move compared with the 87 still lifes in this show.

(Not that it's easy to appreciate them, in the Met's hideous Lehman wing. Imagine trying to concentrate on pictures scattered pell-mell among the concrete walls of a bad hotel atrium, circa 1975 -- that's when the wing opened -- and you'll get a sense of the challenge. One contemporary painter, a Morandi fan, said he fled after 10 minutes.)

So here I was, looking at these supposedly "pure" experiments in picturemaking, yet I felt like I was drenched in the "semantics" they're supposed to exclude. The pictures seemed overflowing with meaning and content -- with all the mess and stickiness that comes whenever artists paint a picture of their world.

I feel the strictures of Morandi's bourgeois life in the pictures that came out of it. After all, to witness someone painting the same tabletop, day after day, week after week, year after year after year does not exactly conjure up a sense of life lived large. Morandi portrays a world where a few attractive objects, arrayed on a corner table, are what matter more than anything. Where arranging and then rearranging all the little things you own counts as a fulfilled existence. It's a world of tamped-down ambitions -- the kind of world that keeps an only son painting the same modest scenes, over and over again. "Muted" is the crucial word for what is on view here -- "painting on Prozac," as one onlooker said.

Just beyond the edges of any Morandi still life, I can almost glimpse the antimacassars, the half-drawn drapes, the stale air and veiled light in the old apartment the Morandi siblings shared. (Judging by the range of kitschy gilt-and-linen frames that still throttle most of the pictures in this show, those were also just the kinds of decors his pictures were bought for.)

You'd imagine that Morandi's very domestic scenes would feel intimate, hands-on, close-up. But they don't. Many of his still lifes feel like they bear witness to a life lived at one remove: The perspective in Morandi's scenes is often flattened out, as in a picture taken with a telephoto lens, so that there's barely any change of scale or sense of space between his nearest boxes and the bottles at a table's rear. His crowded tabletops are cropped as though we're close to them, but they're seen from far away.

Morandi has been billed as a champion of traditional techniques, the last credible disciple of the old masters. Yet many of these pictures strike me as being less about the warmth of traditional oil paint than the calculated coldness of photographic lenses and lighting. For a stunning 1954 still life, Morandi chooses a flatly frontal view and a flatly frontal light -- almost like a snapshot camera's flash -- that keep his objects sealed off in an airless world beyond arm's length.

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 http://www.metmuseum.org.

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