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Morandi's Tightly Arranged Life

Italian Painter's Seemingly Simple Works Reflect a Constricted -- And Curious -- World

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008; Page M06

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."

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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.


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