Nine years ago I received a brisk introductory handshake from the mid-century Italian painter Giorgio Morandi at a small show in the Estorick Collection, a miniature gem of a museum in a detached house in North London. One week ago, we got to know each other properly at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I considered Morandi exactly once in the interim, when I noticed during a doodle that his surname was an anagram of Mondrian, a Dutch artist with whom he shared active years. Subsequent attempts to talk about the man triggered a tenacious mental tic where I could only think about his near namesake or, if not him, an Italian artist called Piero Manzoni who was around during the last decade of Morandi’s life. In other words, Giorgio Morandi begged to be forgotten by my art brain. It’s hardly a point of pride, but I know why it happened.
A bachelor who lived his entire life in a Bologna apartment with his mother and three younger sisters, Morandi led an impressively mundane existence that is directly mirrored in the work that he made. Happiest at home alone, he left Italy only once in his 74 years. War and global social upheaval be damned, the man spent his entire mature period painting still lives from a collection of bottles, vases, and trinkets on a table in his studio. Asking a young art fan to recall a Morandi invites a soulless, generic amalgamation to gel in the mind’s eye, an idea of his work rather than an actual work. This is not a good thing, but it happens consistently, thanks to a lack of strong flavor wafting from the canvases, and the obstinate fact that no individual moral or ideological narratives can be drawn from them. By the electrified, hungry standards of the last hundred years in art and society, this makes for boring, bland art that will struggle for footing.
Open for a month now and both well attended and universally hailed, I had no idea what news I would be bringing home from the Met’s Morandi retrospective. Having seen it, I am compelled to say, emphatically, that the 110 works in this exhibition promise that there will be no better opportunity to get acquainted with Morandi’s career. There has never been and will never again be a more complete exhibition of this artist’s work.
Whether you’ll enjoy yourself depends on how you’re looking. The man is as patient an artist as I have ever encountered. Completed works did not come easily to him, and his stubby, unsure brushstrokes speak of pained particularity and impossibly high standards. Small matters—light crawling across ribbed contours on an egg-shaped object, this or that millimeter between two objects, the reach of shadows (find all three in Natura Morta, 1964, one of the final and most poignant works in the show)—made for both his greatest joys and most desperate frustrations. Discoveries were organic, never bombastic, gently reared and nurtured, and very slow. Enjoying them takes a good while. I became very keen on a zigzag brushstroke he hit upon in the late 1940s and revisited in several paintings, sort of a wee squashed lightning bolt. It’s not remotely striking to the viewer’s eye; indeed it’s so unlike a flourish or a conclusion that one can’t tell the speed at which it was executed. You can’t even really see it unless the light bounces off the surface in the right way. It’s a very tiny element of what he did. Its meaning is private. All the viewer can really take from this zigzag is the knowledge that Morandi earned it.
Being impatient and accustomed to real deal thrills from the get-go at blockbuster shows, I spent my first pass through the galleries, without the ability to focus, fixated only on the panoply of frames that surrounded the work. Chunky chocolate-box styles were popular, the sort that looked like looted Rococo molding. Gold, of course, was the finish of choice with these ones, corroborating their vague but firmly stated aspirations towards future classicism and heirloom status. A singularly bizarre frame telescoped a small work towards the eye through notched wooden tiers decreasing in size, a sort of tramp-art pyramid with its top lopped off. The Museum of Modern Art’s loan was predictably underplayed, a graphic border in thin dark wood, staunchly protective but unobtrusive, with a tasteful touch of cleavage showing the painting’s raw sides. Humble and tight, nice. Several schools of buffing, patination and antiquing vied for supremacy. Two works that once belonged to Andrew Mellon came surrounded by mighty ostentatious scalloped frames in what appeared to be scrimshaw: one scarce and precious commodity sprouting from another.
80 percent of the frames in this exhibition, in other words, are horribly inappropriate. The gulf in tenderness between this work and its borders is striking, and it reveals the biggest hurdle in the battle to introduce beauty into the world: Finding real beauty takes time. Morandi waited, his whole life, so he wouldn’t have to make mistakes he’d have to live with down the line. We don’t afford ourselves Morandi’s accountability—it doesn’t have a place in the art world’s current consumer age, where impatience is a virtue—but we could stand to respect it considerably more. I won’t forget Morandi again, and you should see this show.-Bones
Giorgio Morandi, 1890-1964 will be up in the Lehman Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street, until December 14th. To avoid long lines, enter via the mysterious lower level entrance to the left of the main stairs, and feel free always to pay only a few dollars to get in.
Next week, a Swiss nutcase with an eye on the world, a flair for the absurd and a studio on Lafayette Street named Olaf Breuning throws Bones a line at Metro Pictures in Chelsea. Breuning romped over this spring’s Whitney Biennial. What’s he doing now?