Friday 20 April 2018

What Lies Beneath: 'Still Life' ('Natura Morta') by Giorgio Morandi

'Still Life' ('Natura Morta') by Giorgio Morandi, Oil on canvas

'Still Life' ('Natura Morta') by Giorgio Morandi.
'Still Life' ('Natura Morta') by Giorgio Morandi.

Niall MacMonagle

Going places? Or have you been? And does it matter? Are we more interesting for having visited Machu Picchu, Antarctica, Uluru, Angel Falls, the Great Wall and all those other bucket-listed places? DH Lawrence says that "a traveller in his self-contained manner reveals far-off countries present in himself" - but what happens if you stay at home?

Giorgio Morandi, born 1890, died 1964, hardly ever went anywhere. He lived in Bologna all his life, shared an apartment with his mother and three sisters. His father had died in 1909; his mother died in 1950.

As a day job, he taught drawing and etching and in his bedroom-cum-studio he painted again and again a little group of objects that you'd find in most kitchens: a bottle, a bowl, a jug, a canister. Same old, same old, it might seem, but there's a simple and quiet atmosphere in every one.

He celebrates what was before him and every work is different. All called Still Life, a jug is turned one way this time, differently arranged another. This one, from 1956, includes three bottles, that jug, a white circular object and three rectangular biscuit-coloured objects. He liked a plain surface, an even plainer backdrop. Colours are always low-key. Yet each little cluster is of itself. Deliberately blurred outlines create a feeling of togetherness.

Known as a painters' painter, his subdued celebrations of space and light were recognised in his lifetime. Awarded first prize for an Italian painter in the Venice Biennale of 1948, and the Grand Prize for Painting at the São Paulo Biennial in 1957, Morandi believed "nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see." He wanted to communicate "a sense of tranquillity and privacy, moods which I have always valued above all else" and his only ambition was to enjoy "the peace and quiet which I require in order to work".

Morandi, nicknamed "il monaco" (the monk), lived through turbulent times - world wars, fascism, the civil rights movement - but thought himself fortunate to have led "an uneventful life". He didn't live to see Twitter or Facebook. There is no selfie, but there's a wonderfully quiet sense of self.

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