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ART: "Morandi: Master of Modern Still Life"

Giorgio Morandi (1890?1964). "Still Life, 1953." Oil on canvas; 8 x 15 5/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1954.
Giorgio Morandi (1890?1964). "Still Life, 1953." Oil on canvas; 8 x 15 5/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1954. (The Phillips Collection - The Phillips Collection)

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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Is there any work of art that doesn't have a political backbone -- or at least a splinter of politics stuck under its skin? Even abstraction can't keep clear of the political. Once Stalin had concluded that abstract art was counterrevolutionary, the Russian avant-garde had to rush back to figuration.

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Until not too long ago, I was willing to buy the standard, apolitical take on the still lifes of the great Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, almost 60 of whose pictures will go up at the Phillips this month. It's commonly said that the works Morandi made to either side of World War II -- which mostly show crowds of bottles, boxes and cups -- are barely even about those objects. They're often viewed as pure studies in light, form and subtle color shifts, unpolluted by the world outside. I could believe that, too, until I visited Morandi's recent New York retrospective and discovered that the artist, who in later life took on the role of an unworldly aesthete and recluse, had in his earlier days been a true homo politicus. "The great faith I have had in Fascism from the outset has remained intact even in the darkest and stormiest of days," he wrote in 1928.

Once you've heard that, Morandi's pictures inevitably change their sense. The refusal to look beyond the tabletop in front of him can start to look less like the quiet asceticism of a lyric poet and more like a retrenchment into the bourgeois complacency that helped Il Duce's rise.

Of course, it's never really pictures that have politics in them -- paintings still don't have the right to vote. It's our human eyes and minds that can take the slightest hint or metaphor of power in a painting, and build a party platform from it. Now that this nation has undergone a political shift, I wonder if Morandi's pictures will have done the same for me. Could their bottles come to stand for folk of every shape and size and hue, standing shoulder-to-shoulder against adversity?

-- Blak e Gopnik

"Morandi: Master of Modern Still Life" runs Feb. 21 through May 24 at the Phillips Collection. 202-387-2151, www.phillipscollection.org.


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