Early on in art school, an instructor of mine showed the class slides of Cézanne, Hopper, Balthus, and other stalwarts of modern figuration. Those monumental apples, existential interiors, and chiaroscuro Lolitas humbled the majority of us who’d rarely been to museums and appreciated only magazine illustrations or the chaotic stylings of something recently christened “MTV.” Our gifted teacher got us to slow down long enough to comprehend the powerful visual buttresses underlying such works, but after diagramming the intense chutes-‘n’-ladders space of Hopper’s 1939 New York Movie, it was hard to understand why we also had to study a handful of battered beige cups and bottles by some guy named Morandi. Painted at around the same time, they felt clunky and desiccated next to Hopper’s emphatic composition. Always, during slide lectures, those spare still lifes would appear, with nothing much said except perhaps an admonition that Morandi was even more poorly served by reproduction than most painters.
Amen to that. Even if Morandi’s compositional variations are easily grasped from photos, the material presence of these small paintings must be experienced in the flesh. “Painter’s painter” and “once in a lifetime” are two clichés surpassed by the Met’s eloquent survey of this under-recognized modern master, which includes more than 100 works gathered primarily from Italian collections. The exhibition’s title is blunt—just dates bracketing a life unencumbered by love affairs or any known passions save for art. And yet this homebody—who only rarely ventured far from his native Bologna, where he shared an apartment with his mother and three spinster sisters—was cursed to live in interesting times, including two world wars (the first of which found him quickly discharged from the Italian army after a breakdown) and endless revolutions in politics, science, and the arts.
Morandi studied Italy’s early-Renaissance masters, and befriended numerous contemporaries, including Giorgio de Chirico, a painter whose mysteriously depopulated piazzas were influenced by Nietzsche’s foreboding intimation that “underneath this reality in which we live and have our being, another and altogether different reality lies concealed.” Like a physicist probing the atom, Morandi’s obsessive rearrangements of a limited number of workaday objects—their contours softened by coats of gesso or wan colors—led to images that feel straightforward, yet vibrate with an emotional resonance that the mind cannot quite pin down. He was capable of painting engaging self-portraits and landscapes: a 1913 view of hills and trees bristles with brushstrokes as weighty as Cézanne’s, while hinting at the agitation of his country’s Futurist movement. But it is his confoundedly simple still lifes that lift him into the modernist pantheon.
By the 1920s, Morandi had left Cézanne and Futurism behind, although de Chirico’s metaphysics could still be glimpsed in the bold architectonics of the still lifes. As he matured, Morandi began focusing on the corporeal heft of his inanimate characters, enveloping them in a strangely circumspect luminosity, as if even the speed of light had slowed down under his remorseless scrutiny. Invariably titled Natura Morta, these muted dramas further the enduring mystery of representation—how the three-dimensional elements of our physical world can be distilled into daubs of pigment on a flat surface. “Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own,” the artist once said. “Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.” A painting from 1960 (catalog number 105) features the lip of a pale, fluted cup melding into the top of a rose cylinder, which dissipates into the gray cone of a funnel that dissolves into an olive wall. This beautiful recessional of color and tone is so exquisitely balanced that a tiny bright triangle—the cylinder re-emerging from behind the cup—feels solid yet evanescent, the painting equivalent of that ineffable boundary between body and soul.
Morandi broke rules that any first-year student is taught, as in his habit of aligning objects so that their contours form a continuous, flattening line. Yet, in his hands, such formal spines anchor brushstrokes that shift as imperceptibly as the edge of a weather pattern. In Morandi’s last finished painting, a ball, funnel, and box sprout from a single hazy axis, a trio of classic geometric forms that cast monumental shadows harking back to di Chirico’s broad, desolate avenues. This weave of abstraction and believable expanse is even more startling in a series of late watercolors that reduce his tabletop world to nebulous dark patches surrounding radiant white absences. The still lifes remain, but, stripped of solidity, the objects have become palimpsests of a reality just beyond perception.