Giorgio the Obscure

The first thing you’ve got to say about the Met’s new exhibition of Giorgio Morandi’s paintings, prints and drawings is this: It’s about time.

Over the past few years, a handful of almost surreptitious gallery exhibitions were devoted to the Italian modernist. The pickin’s were slim—10 paintings in each venue, if that—but they were enough to set gallery-goers drifting out in a haze of pleasurable disbelief. Why wasn’t this great—hell, sublime—painter getting the widespread attention he deserves?

The answer isn’t hard to pin down. Morandi painted tenderly choreographed arrays of bottles and boxes and the stray landscape—that’s about it. The pictures aren’t sexy. Dusty with isolation, Morandi’s homely dioramas are redolent of studio quietude. A Morandi doesn’t demand attention; it beckons for intimacy.

Working in collaboration with the Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna (MAMbo), the Met show is the first complete Morandi exhibition organized in the United States. It’s installed in the lower level of the Robert Lehman Wing, a space whose physical remove and hushed ambience are suited to the artist’s restraint. The entirety of the oeuvre is touched upon with uncommon deliberation. After traversing over a hundred pieces, you want more. The Met has done up Morandi right.

Born in Bologna, Morandi studied at his hometown’s Academy of Fine Arts (his interest in art having been grudgingly capitulated to by his businessman father). The experience was dispiriting: The school, Morandi wrote, “served only to plunge me into a state of deep unrest.” Skepticism about art as an academic discipline stayed with Morandi even as he returned to the Academy some 20 years later to teach etching. As an instructor, he preferred teaching technical procedures over aesthetics.

 

PAINTING, NOT POLEMIC, drove Morandi. After an infatuation with Futurism’s radical bromides, Morandi looked for inspiration in less flashy precedents: Chardin, Seurat, Corot, Cézanne. His paintings don’t play into the standard Modernist narrative. Stylistic innovation and the spotlight didn’t interest him. “In the eyes of the Grand Inquisitors of Italian art”—he means the art establishment—“I remained but a provincial.” Obscurity suited Morandi fine.

Morandi’s fascination with natura morta was loving, remorseless and, in the end, inexorable. Hindsight reveals as much in early experiments with Cézanne-esque facture and Cubism, but it isn’t until the mid- to late teens that Morandi’s signature motif gains real emphasis. You can feel it in the elongated vessels in a Picasso-influenced canvas. But it was Surrealism or, rather, its Italian offshoot, pittura metafísica, that made Morandi’s imagery concrete and contributed the profound heft he brought to oil paint.

Metaphysical painting involved itself less with Freudian theory than with unsettling nostalgia. Giorgio de Chirico was its best known and definitive practitioner. His dreamscapes of isolated plazas, zooming architecture and longing for Renaissance clarity were spartan in tone, if not always in composition. Morandi’s forays into this ascetic realm were even more distilled—to the point where metaphysics was almost beside the point.

De Chirico is in the mix in the handful of Morandi’s metaphysical paintings on display. Set on anonymous surfaces, a selective array of things are stringently orchestrated—a fruit dish, a pipe, cylinders and, the only blatantly “surrealist” object, a bisected mannequin’s head. Items float inside boxes with unearthly poise, the boxes themselves denatured and transparent. The best of the lot, a canvas from 1919, is passive-aggressive: The still life confronts us with dreadful quietude.

An air of mystery, however understated, continued to filter through Morandi’s paintings, as did an unrelenting concentration on placement. Portent became less important than softly stated anxiety over representation. “Nothing is more abstract than what we actually see,” Morandi famously said. The harder Morandi looked at stuff on his table, the more elusive it was. The bristling trail left by his brush became increasingly forthright, agitated and meditative. Morandi’s search is palpable; the paintings question themselves right in front of our eyes.

Morandi’s palette is grayed and dusky—ochres, burnished browns, smoky off-whites and, in a lone hedonistic gesture, a pinkish and orange cream in a trio of canvases from 1956. His tabletops are almost pro-forma—a horizon that, at rare moments, curves or slopes. Morandi’s objects nudge each other, as though trying to situate themselves with some fleeting sense of logic. Elisions of space, gravity and viewpoint create a just barely discernible electricity. In an odd way, you feel the paintings before you see them.

The artist himself appears in two rare self-portraits. Striking the same pose in each—Morandi, with slumped shoulders and palette in hand, sits despondently in thought. One painting is monumental, heavy and solid—Morandi the Mountain. The other is intangible, almost ghostlike; in it, description yields to mood and specificity to abstraction. Both paintings are about the impossibility of grabbing hold of a moment. Their tenacious doubt is unshakable, and a gift.

 

“Giorgio Morandi, 1890-1964” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until Dec. 14.

mnaves@observer.com.