Georgio Morandi. 1890 – 1964. Still Life.

A still life is a work of art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, its origins are found in the Middle Ages and ancient Greco-Roman art, it was first seen in Western art in the early 16th. century when the paintings often contained religious and allegorical symbolism relating to the objects depicted,  we see how these objects lose their domestic purpose to become sculptural objects  ‘that may invite meditation and contemplation’,  we slow down and focus when looking at them.

Morandi solved the problem of ambiguity in meaning, i.e.  domestic objects or motifs in art, reaching an integration that gives the objects new meaning, it is possible to give new meaning to most works of art , some artists are more skillful than others in conveying what they wish to express, some art critics interpret the intention in the work in a way the artist has not. ‘His work ( Morandi) is not about depicting the solidity of objects but rather interpreting them as a metaphor of light, space, body and time’ I think this is so, others may disagree.

Georgio Morandi was born in Bologna, Italy, he spent most of his life  living with his mother and sisters, he had a second home in the Appenines. He studied for six years at the Academia de Belle art in Bologna, He was aware of paintings by Giotto, Massaccio,  Uccelli and Monet and very much admired the work of Cezanne, whose use of geometric shapes, like the cube and cylinder, when painting landscapes and still lifes, was to influence his own work. He knew Futurist painters and writers and exhibited work with them, also Surrealist painters like de Chirico, although he didn’t share their philosophy. He didn’t travel abroad until 1956 and then he did not go to Paris, the hub of artistic creativity at the time.

In this still life which Morandi painted in 1956, he arranged eight objects in two lines, the colours are beautifully muted, he did at times use the earthy colours of his native Bologna. He wrote ‘The only interest the visible world awakens in me concerns space, colour and forms’,  as mentioned earlier, these themes crop up often  when describing his work, he uses these elements to transform what he sees into what he paints, so we see how he places his objects, chooses the colour and creates new shapes, groups of objects create new boundaries. Some critics have been critical of Morandi for using  the objects over and over again while others write that the objects ‘are not there at all.’ His work oscillates between figurative and abstract, it ‘is elusive as well as self revealing’ and as mentioned earlier sometimes his objects overlap or are grouped in blocks, so that a contour becomes a boundary shared by two or more objects.

Looking at his work we can sense a stillness, the groups are an island of calm , the bowl, bottle or pitcher provide their own stability and balance. One art critic wrote ‘In the limitation of Morandi’s motifs appears the abundance of his world.’ He successfully remained focused on very familiar objects for many years just as Cezanne had painted the same mountain time and time again. Space became indistinguishable from the object.  George Lakoff describes it as ‘in betweeness’ that also contains meaning. Looking at more  of Morandi’s work would be of help to see how he creates a variety of shapes gained from the same objects, I enjoy turning his paintings upside down to see the objects/spaces from a new angle. He was an excellent draughtsman and left a large body of work in many media – oils, watercolours, drawings and etchings.




4 thoughts on “Georgio Morandi. 1890 – 1964. Still Life.

  1. I find still lifes a challenge to engage with – but I guess the challenge is a parallel to that of mindfulness meditation, of getting interested in a simple object that doesn’t have a story or a plan attached to it. Is that your experience, Norma? Is the process of looking at a still life similar to that of engaging with meditation, and do you think there are any particular aspects of meditation we could carry over to it?

    1. Hi Robert,
      Thank you for your question which I will attempt to answer. Perhaps in Morandi’s water colours we have a better idea of the meditative quality of his work, they have been likened to Oriental ink-and-brush work which possesses that quality, one painting doesn’t really give a true picture of his output. I think Morandi’s life was a creative endeavour to achieve his aim, to use objects as metaphors for light and space. He did I think have a plan attached to his work, I see his working life as one of mindfullness, he wrote ‘I believe there is nothing more abstract and unreal than what we actually see,’ he is doubting the cognitve in favour of the emotive meaning I hesitatingly claim, while working to find an integrated whole. He was not concerned with fantasy, he had a controlled ‘seeing’ – his work was rooted in tradition even though he was part of the modern movement. ‘Order cannot be invented or imagined it results from an act of contemplation of the object’ – ‘the variety in his work does not come from the subject matter but through how it was observed.’ His canvasses were small, on average 25cm x 30cm, I think of a transparent porcelain bowl, it has beauty that we can ‘see’ but is hard to describe.
      When I paint my seeing is focused on the paint as it is applied onto the two dimensional surface, how it relates to the other marks, how the colour reacts against other colours, no matter what the subject matter. It can make time melt away, often it is tiredness that brings me down to earth or I need another think about how the painting is progressing, I then I sit and look at it, hoping to work out how to proceed, calmly and unhurried.

  2. ‘Order cannot be invented or imagined it results from an act of contemplation of the object’

    Perhaps because I’m trying to sort my personal beliefs from my assumptions that the world dogmatically is the way I personally see it, I find statements like the one quoted above rather irritating. I think it’s the use of the passive voice “Order cannot be invented……” which – for me – carries the sense of there being no conceivable alternative, so don’t bother to raise one.

    I think I’d find the statement more persuasive if it were prefaced by “To my way of thinking…..” or “In my opinion……..” or “It’s my experience that…..”

    My own first impression of this particular still-life is that it looks edible. The objects remind me of marzipan, perhaps it’s their pastel colours and gentle outlines. They look soft and pliable. My second thought is that I like their companionable proximity, as if they’ve got up close to each other, the way people do for a group photograph, happily unconcerned that they’re not dressed for the occasion.

    Although I ‘see’ marzipan and a “companionable” cluster in his painting I’m aware that these are my projections on to the image that the painter produced, and I can only vainly and unneccesarily conjecture about what – if anything – he intended to convey: what he intended isn’t important to me, that he painted is. And our improbable connectedness is, and that he intended it, not personally for me, but nonetheless intentionally – that is – I think – important, though I can’t say why, nor does it seem important that I should try.

    Robert, I find your comment on mindfulness intriguing (as it applies to contemplating or becoming mindful of a simple object). Like Morandi, perhaps, I could agree with the proposition that “there is nothing more abstract and unreal than what we actually see”, although I’m not sure what he intends to convey when he says”actually see”. What’s the antithesis to “actually see” (except possibly “not actually see” or “not see”)? When I contemplate with eyes open, the act of seeing gives way gradually and not always smoothly to some other state of being, but one that doesn’t rely on ‘seeing’, or something ‘seen’, or something that possesses qualities of being interesting (or uninteresting etc), or anything intrinsically cognitive or emotional, except as occasional distractions.

    Perhaps that’s what I’m struggling to say: he laid something down when he painted – a kind of channel. Not a channel that communicated his intended meaning to mine, but a channel that allowed a stream of meaning to flow in which we both could immerse ourselves, and be seen.

    Very interesting blog, Norma.

    1. Hi Peter,
      As always I found your reply thought provoking, thank you. You bring something new to the painting, you see plasticity in the objects, like marzipan, as you say, I think of play dough, it could be fun re – arranging the shapes!
      We each have our own way of interpreting art, there is always room for variety of views. I agree that the way ‘order’ was descibed is rather dogmatic, I think art critics do sometimes think they know the correct interpretation of a work or body of work, I tend to trust their judgements, perhaps I should be more questioning.

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