It isn’t the custom for most of us to go to Italy in search of modern painting–unless, of course, we’re willing to brave the Venice Biennale, where it used to be possible to see a good deal of modern painting, much of it simply awful. I don’t mean to suggest that otherwise there is no modern art worth seeing in Italy, but the fact is that most of us go to Italy to study the Old Masters, as people have done for hundreds of years.
Never mind that nowadays the museums, the churches, the cloisters and the other historic sites where the art of the Italian masters is mostly to be seen will very likely be as crowded, noisy and as resistant to esthetic concentration as Times Square on New Year’s Eve. The unlovely hordes that Henry James decried over a century ago as “our detestable fellow pilgrims” have continued to increase in volume and volubility with the passage of time, and today they are certain to be augmented by endless brigades of school kids led on forced marches through the sacred precincts of art by harried teachers whose attempts to impart some elementary words of instruction can scarcely be heard in the circumambient din.
There is this to be said for the kids, however. Being naturally more interested in each other than in the art, they give the latter only the briefest possible attention, leaving the view clear for “pilgrims” like you and me. The adults, alas, are more of a problem. Which is one reason why, when revisiting Florence last month, it was a special pleasure to quit that beautiful but very crowded city for a day to journey to Bologna in order to see the recently established Museo Morandi. The main reason, of course, was the quality and character of the collection, which is devoted entirely to the life and work of the painter Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964).
Morandi’s has never been a big-ticket reputation on this side of the Atlantic. His pictures are too small, their subjects–mostly still lifes of bottles, pitchers and other domestic vessels–too modest, and his color too muted to compete for major attention in an art world increasingly dominated by size, bluster, novelty and fatuous taste. When his art does occasionally come in for some official notice over here, as it did last year in Margit Rowell’s exhibition called Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life at the Museum of Modern Art, the result can be worse than total neglect. For in the Objects of Desire show, Morandi was represented by a single 1919 still life dating from his short-lived “Metaphysical” period, a choice that obviously had less to do with an interest in Morandi’s special quality as a painter than with an ill-judged attempt to fit his work into a scenario of 20th-century avant-garde movements. This is precisely the kind of scenario that is guaranteed to misrepresent the artist’s achievement.
For the fact is that Morandi, though very much a modernist, could never conform for very long to the imperatives of the avant-garde movements with which he was briefly associated in the early years of his career. His attachment to the Futurists was even shorter-lived than his involvement with the so-called Metaphysical painting of Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà. From the 1920’s onward, Cézanne was his touchstone of quality, and Cubism–but a Cubism so delicately assimilated to the natural reticence of his own sensibility that it is hardly recognizable as the Cubism we are otherwise familiar with–his last attachment to the avant-garde impulses of his time.
How much his famous withdrawal to the private world of his own studio owed to his distaste for the Fascist regime in the period between the two world wars is a matter we can only speculate about. Fascism in Italy was, among much else, noisy, histrionic, cruel, preposterous and deeply corrupt, and Morandi’s response to it seems to have been to entrench his art in deeper and deeper levels of reticence, delicacy and isolation. That he acquitted himself with honor in that long ordeal–an honor that is at once esthetic and moral–is perfectly clear in the work itself. “Morandi, with his still lifes and bottles,” writes the historian Giuliano Procacci in his History of the Italian People (Penguin Books), “set an example of rigor and chasteness that was implicitly a protest against the rhetoric and noise of officialdom.”
How did he get away with it? Morandi addressed the question in an interview with the American writer Edouard Roditi in the late 1950’s: “When most Italian artists of my generation were afraid to be too ‘modern’ or ‘international’ and not ‘national’ or ‘imperial’ enough, I was left in peace, perhaps because I demanded so little recognition. In the eyes of the Grand Inquisitors of Italian art, I remained but a provincial professor of etching at the Fine Arts Academy of Bologna.”
Bologna was, of course, the city where Morandi was born and lived out his entire life, mainly in the company of his unmarried sisters. It is now, appropriately, the place where his art can best be seen, thanks to the generosity of the artist’s family who, since the 1970’s, has donated 155 works to the city of Bologna in addition to his library, his own small collection of other artists’ work, his papers and the contents of his studio. In 1993, all of this was given a permanent home in the Museo Morandi, which is housed on the second floor of the 14th-century Palazzo Accursio, Bologna’s town hall. On the same floor is the Morandi Archives and Study Center.
It is an immensely moving experience to visit this museum collection. Its rooms are small and light and perfectly designed to accommodate the scale of the work, which includes a marvelous selection of watercolors as well as the better-known paintings and prints. The work itself ranges from lovely brushy landscapes dating from 1910 and 1913 to the very last still-life paintings Morandi completed in the final years of his life. It was an experience that certainly left me with the feeling that I had never before fully appreciated the depth of his achievement. You may think you know something about Morandi’s work when you come to this museum–that, after all, is why you have come–but the work itself turns out to be full of surprises.
It is not only that Morandi’s landscapes occupy a more important place in his oeuvre than you have been led to expect, and that the watercolors almost constitute a separate achievement in themselves–a more radical achievement, in some respects, than the paintings. But as you immerse yourself in this cloistered encounter with Morandi’s work, you come to appreciate the extent to which he absorbed something more from Cézanne than the formal conception of his pictures–something of the famous Cézannean “anxiety” that expressed itself in a reluctance to be satisfied with what was already accomplished. Where you might expect repetition, you find instead a headlong succession of fresh starts, right down to the very last touches on the last canvases and watercolors. It is an experience not to be missed.