Tuesday, September 29, 2009

`A Sense of Tranquility and Privacy'

“I am essentially a painter of the kind of still-life composition that communicates a sense of tranquility and privacy, moods which I have always valued above all else.”

These are the sentiments of an artist who lived precisely as he speaks, despite the fidgety distractedness of the age -- Giorgio Morandi, in a 1958 interview with Edouard Roditi (collected in Dialogues on Art, Horizon Press, 1961). Morandi was born in Bologna in 1890 and lived there all of his life, for much of the time with his mother and three sisters, and died there in 1964. Three times he left his native Italy, only to visit Switzerland. He taught etching at the Accademia di Belle Arti. He never married. He painted. His journeys were long but strictly aesthetic. He might have echoed Thoreau’s boast: “I have travelled a good deal in Concord.”

Morandi’s art appears superficially narrow. In his maturity, he painted still-lifes consisting of bottles, jars and boxes arranged on a table. What might suggest a cul-de-sac to most artists was for Morandi a microscope he converted into a telescope. He saw much and far in the near-at-hand. In Giorgio Morandi, Karen Wilkin notes that the artist had worked out his themes and style by the age of 30:

“For the rest of his life as an artist, he remained committed to exploring a deliberately limited territory, in a nearly obsessive investigation of perception that produced images at once remarkable for their repetitiveness and for their subtle variation. But for all the conscious narrowing of his field of inquiry, for all the rigorousness of his self-imposed restrictions, he had no single way of making a picture. It often seems as though he were testing the limits of representation, now vigorously modeling and separating forms and setting alike into broad, uninflected passages of paint. It even appears that each new picture, each new set of visual phenomena, no matter how familiar, elicits from him a different touch, a different way of orchestrating color. In fact, the more closely we look at Morandi's art, the more images we examine, the more individual each picture seems.”

Morandi’s aesthetic, as Wilkin describes it, is deeply attractive, one any artist could learn from. It seems almost Japanese in its attentive to details and subtle changes in their deployment. The Italian poet Eugenio Montale was six years younger than Morandi. In The Second Life of Art, Montale makes a single glancing reference to his great contemporary, describing his work as “tonal,” but I hear traces of kinship in his poems. In “The Lemon Trees,” Montale writes (translated by Lee Gerlach):

“You realize that in silences
Things yield and almost betray
Their ultimate secrets.”

Both artists embody a benign hermeticism. Both listen to the silences between things. In the interview with Roditi, Morandi says:

“I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. We know that all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meanings that we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, a tree is a tree.”

Here is the final stanza of “Don’t Ask Us for the Word,” in Jonathan Galassi’s translation:

“Don’t ask us for the phrase that can open worlds,
just a few gnarled syllables, dry like a branch.
This, today, is all that we can tell you:
what we are not, what we do not want.”

1 comment:

Nige said...

Patrick - have you visited the Morandi museum in Bologna? One of the great single-artist museums, I'd say, and seeing his works in quantity doesn't dull them, but rather makes them sing. They've even reconstructed, with everything exactly in its place, his painting room. Extraordinary.