The Sights of Silence: Morandi's Enigmatic Vision

The exhibition devoted to the Italian Modernist painter Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), on display at Paul Thiebaud Gallery, doesn’t contain much:

The exhibition devoted to the Italian Modernist painter Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), on display at Paul Thiebaud Gallery, doesn’t contain much: six paintings and two drawings.

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It’s appropriate, in a way. Morandi spent his maturity painting not much: boxes and bottles, a landscape here and there, few things in abundance. Even so, is a less-is-more curatorial tack sufficient? Isn’t a comprehensive overview the best way to get a hold of an artist, particularly one as elusive as Morandi?

Maybe not. At the risk of talking a local museum out of mounting a full-scale retrospective, the scale and scope of the Thiebaud show feels just about right. If anything, it’s too full.

A Morandi still life, with its nudging juxtapositions and tenuous relationships, is hard to tease out. The paintings encompass so much, yet what they encompass is difficult to ascertain. A muffled and tender mystery pervades these smallish paintings, a plainness of affect as well. How much can dusty bric-a-brac sitting on a studio tabletop embody?

Disquiet pulses through his art; so do determination and, most of all, a pregnant sense of potential. These aspects are indisputably there to see, but identifying them utterly fails to do the work justice. Some of the canvases have barely been graced with oil paint. How does one come to terms with pictures that are close to nothing and almost everything?

A friend suggests that Morandi’s true subject is love. If that sounds vague or corny, consider the infinite and sometimes bewildering varieties of love, then bite your tongue. It may be as close as we get to the core of Morandi’s enigmatic vision.

Walking through the corridor separating Thiebaud’s front and back galleries, my eye snagged on the title of a coffee-table book wedged into a shelf: The Art of Silence. The book is, in fact, devoted to Morandi. It occurred to me that “silence” and “quiet” must dot every piece of writing that has tried to elaborate upon the attractions of Morandi’s fragile and unkempt still lifes: His pictures don’t shout for your attention; they whisper in your ear.

Visual art, by definition, thwarts words. Some artists thwart words more insistently than others. Morandi—like Vermeer and Fra Angelico or George Inness and Christopher Wilmarth—is such a figure. Art for which there are no logical literary equivalents is often pegged as “poetic.” In a 1981 essay, the painter Wayne Thiebaud wrote that Morandi’s canvases “address questions of what makes poetry in painting.”

According to Mr. Thiebaud, “We watched [Morandi] inquiring after the devilish questions of essences and substance.” The work’s “tattletale evidence,” he wrote, offers clues to understanding our own humanity. Mr. Thiebaud, a painter of significant achievement, is wise to the failures of language. A canvas by Morandi, he wrote, “present[s] no absolute answers.”

A deeply appreciative valentine, Mr. Thiebaud’s essay is also a tacit admission that the depths which Morandi plumbed are beyond the reach of even the most accomplished painters—himself included, I’d gather. One measure of an artist’s greatness is the degree to which he makes other artists humble.

Another measure is how much excitement his art inspires in those same artists—and not only artists, either. The Morandi exhibition two years ago at the Lucas Schoormans Gallery on West 26th Street set off a palpable buzz. The modestly stated intensity of those paintings made aficionados feel as if they were encountering Morandi for the first time. That enthusiasm stood in stark contrast to the over-inflated chatter surrounding the usual Chelsea fare. Up at Thiebaud, foot traffic will likely increase.

What is it about the pictures that elicit a devotional regard? Morandi’s unwavering commitment to the act of putting brush to canvas certainly appeals to painters, as does the immense subtlety he brought to his craft. He was no show-boater. The final images are deceivingly offhand; they neither hide nor flaunt their evolution.

The palette is dusky and severe—a mottled range of blondish and tawny browns and grays. The surfaces are at once dry and lush, slurred and lucid. Pictorial space is searchingly probed, and compositions are brought to exquisite tension (to pinch a phrase from Mr. Thiebaud). Though Morandi immaculately regulated the relationships between objects, the paintings retain a sense of unease. Brushstrokes waiver, as if they couldn’t bear their burden. Despite a hard-won equanimity, a threat of disorder remains intact.

Morandi created an art of surprising variety and allusive power. In a still life from 1953, he upsets his typical compositional positioning—objects set side by side—by placing them front to back. Space zooms, but with great patience and forethought. Figurative associations coalesce only fitfully. Two jars and what appears to be a metal can shuffle their feet like wallflowers awaiting an invitation to dance.

Notwithstanding the spare means and narrow focus—strike that: because of the spare means and narrow focus—a painting by Morandi is as rich, fleeting and impossible to grasp as life itself. The monastic air surrounding his work, the quietude and gravity, probably accounts for the artist’s relative obscurity or, at least, his cult-like standing. He didn’t cultivate outrage or innovation. The paintings are infinitely removed from the hoary clichés that have become part of the common culture.

A Morandi delivers momentary respite from the tumult, seemingly ever increasing, outside our windows. Ensconced in the meditative environment of the studio, he provided the sense of measure necessary to confront the world. Sustenance, not escapism, was Morandi’s forte. The Thiebaud exhibition offers a rare opportunity to commune with an unheralded master. It should not be missed.

Giorgio Morandi is at the Paul Thiebaud Gallery, 42 East 76th Street, until Oct. 28.

The Sights of Silence: Morandi's Enigmatic Vision