The Single-Minded Focus of Giorgio Morandi

I can think of no painter in the history of art who has so limited his subject matter and dove so deeply into one pond, as Giorgio Morandi did. Although he did paint some landscapes, and a few self portraits, virtually the entire focus of his life’s work was “Still Life.” And not a variety of types of “still life”, but a template that contained a very few simple, common, household objects in a highly compressed space.

Born in 1890, to a prosperous family, Morandi lived outside of Bologna for his first 19 years. Then, upon the death of his father, (his mother had already died) he moved with his three sisters and a housekeeper to an apartment in the city. Here he lived for the rest of his life, working and sleeping in the same room. The family was quite sophisticated, and Morandi went often to the Uffizi in Florence,  and other museums throughout Italy, but in fact, he did not leave Italy until 1956, to attend two art exhibits in Switzerland. He was a deeply methodical man, who cultivated his reputation as a solitary, serious-minded  intellectual. His nickname was, “Il Monaco,” the monk. Morandi famously said, ” It takes me weeks to make up my mind which group of bottles will go well with a particular colored tablecloth. Then it takes me weeks of thinking about the bottles themselves, and yet, often, I still go wrong with the spaces. Perhaps I work too fast.” Nonetheless, he produced over 1300 paintings, and was succesful both commercially and critically, in his own lifetime, though his style was outside of contemporary norms for most, avant-garde, 20th century art.


Morandi studied at the local Accademia, where he taught himself to etch
by copying Rembrandt. He was a superb technician, right from the start,
and completed over 130 etchings during his prolific career. He also taught etching there, himself, for many years.

Below, left, is one of  these wonderful etchings, and right a still life from 1929, before he adapted the spatial compression, atmospheric haze, and muted and subtle gradations of hue and tone, that was to become his signature style.

  

The painting above right, done in 1929, shows an assemblage of the kind of houshold items that are to become Morandi’s stock in trade. Though there is the beginning of an atmospheric haze and pushing of the abstacted background, forward, there is still a traditional aspect to the treatment of space, objects and palette, which was soon to condense into his mature style of visual attack.

After finishing his studies, Morandi was briefly under the influence of the Futurists, as well as de Chirico, and the old Renaissance masters. He was still consolidating his sources and influences into his own unique vision.

      

In the late teens and early 1920′s,  he worked in these different, converging styles, left and above. It wasn’t really until the mid 1930′s, through the study and influence of Cezanne, that he was able to set himself free. Below are some landscapes and still lifes from the mid 30′s to early 40′s.

    

    

At this point, his landscapes seem ahead of the still lifes in tems of formal simplification. Below, we see his mature, classic style emerging.

   

    

Still lifes are invariably about architecture, relationships and intimacy. Morandi has squeezed out the background to focus intensely on the formal relationships of the objects, and the light that models them. He has abstracted these common house-hold objects by taking away their labels, and washing away their reflections. These are quite the opposite of ‘Impressionistic” renderings of one exact moment. The forms emerge from an unspecific source of light. Like Cezanne, they are highly ‘Post Impressionist”, in that they attempt to find and portray the underlining, basic, and universal structure of the world. Morandi, like Cezanne, ” gave up the sweetness of the flesh for the cold force that binds the universe.” Morandi’s visual process is a slowing down of perception, and he forces the same patient, intense focus upon us, as observers. Morandi also said, ” I am essentially a painter of the kind of still life that communicates a sense of tranqullity and privacy, moods which I have always valued above all else.”

   

    

Morandi’s palette “echoes the ochres, browns, pinks, and brick reds” of Bologna’s old architecture. The repitition of colors and objects “become like mantras throughout his work, each adjustment finely calibrated to break the silence,” that exits on a deep metaphysical level. ” These are iconic still lifes, noiseless and austere in their muted color scale and spatial ambiquiites.” These paintings, simple as they appear to be, are monumental by virtue of the intensity of their focus. There is also an intimacy beteen the objects themselves, as well as between the objects and the very ether they inhabit and emerge from, that feels intensely private. One  almost feels, the voyeur, in front of these, cloistered, hermetic worlds, like one has accidentally overheard the most intimate family conversation.

  

    

 

” What interests me most,” Morandi said, is expressing what’s in nature, in the visible world…Nothing is more abstract than reality.”

Morandi’s life work, in the intensity of it’s focus and ability to exclude the extraneous, was certainly a form of meditation. In seeing his painting and letting it’s quiet intensity into our minds, we join him in what is not just an act of perception, but also a journey of the soul.

 

 

 

 

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21 Comments on "The Single-Minded Focus of Giorgio Morandi"

  1. Ulf Skei says:

    Wonderful article on a master sublime of the still life. You really point out those areas, the intimate relation between the objects, the ‘private’ feel in his paintings. I really enjoyed this.

  2. David Leeds says:

    Thanks Ulf. Morandi never ceases to amaze me when I see his works in person. He packs so much into such a subtle formal simplicity. And for me he is so much the child of Cezanne-who is my own guru.

  3. Kathy says:

    I love the line that he thought perhaps he “worked too quickly”. It’s so relaxing to visualize him taking his time with his objects, observing them, moving them ever so slightly, and meditating on their relationships to each other. His process is almost as fascinating as his paintings, which are some of my favorites ever. The intimacy he creates in his still lifes, go far beyond anything I’ve ever encountered in that genre.

  4. I really enjoyed reading about this artist that I had not known about. His approach to still life painting is so interesting. He really pares everything down to the essential shapes and their relationships. His art seems very modern. And you can definitely see the influence of Cezanne. I’m with you, David, about Cezanne. He may be my favorite artist.

    • David Leeds says:

      It’s amazing, Sunday, when you see his works in person, how subtle, yet also how intense they are. They have such an aura about them.

  5. Really fascinating. Your posts always help me see more of what is going on. Now I will look for these ideas and elements in 20th century still lives.

    The two landscape paintings really stand out as examples pointing in the direction he was heading. Interesting, since he couldn’t manipulate landscapes the way he could manipulate still life objects.

    • David Leeds says:

      I agree with you Susan. The landscapes are also exceptionally Cezannesque, and I think it is perhaps here that he really played with spatial compression and simplification, more aggressively.

  6. ben says:

    beautiful piece on a wonderful artist, thank you. i was curious to learn where some of these excellent quotations were from?

    Morandi, like Cezanne, ” gave up the sweetness of the flesh for the cold force that binds the universe.”
    The repitition of colors and objects “become like mantras throughout his work, each adjustment finely calibrated to break the silence,”

    • David Leeds says:

      Ben, the line about Cezanne is from a poem I wrote called “Clouds Do Not Weep.”
      The other line is just a description/metaphor I came up with. You can see a bit more of my poetry on my website, davidleeds.us

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    site is actually fastidious.

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  10. Have always loved Morandi. He went his own way and discovered the universe in a grain of sand. His work still informs and elucidates. His muted colors and “just off” compositional elements create a unique kind of mystery. A monk indeed. Very good.

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard