Above image: Still Life / Natura Morta (1936). Oil on canvas. 32 x 37 cm.
20th-century Italian painter Giorgio Morandi’s art is a lesson in close attention. His quiet, lyrical still lifes featuring vases, bowls, and bottles elevate these simple household items to poetic forms. When the California installation artist Robert Irwin helped mount an exhibition of Morandi’s works at the Ferus Gallery in the 1950s, he declared it a “litmus test on seeing.” Meanwhile, as a young man, the writer Umberto Eco visited a local art gallery every day for a fortnight to observe a single Morandi painting, because it appeared differently to him each time. Morandi teaches us that every surface contains a story if we look closely enough.
For its 25th-anniversary exhibition, London’s Estorick Collection presents Morandi: Masterpieces from the Magnani-Rocca Foundation, which combines the gallery’s own holdings with an inaugural British showing of the many works collected by his close friend, musicologist Luigi Magnani. Alongside the intimate clusters of domestic objects that form the nucleus of Morandi’s output, there are ethereal watercolor and pencil drawings, and captivating etchings that testify to his extraordinary skill as a printmaker.
Self Portrait / Autoritratto (1925). Oil on canvas. 61 x 47.5 cm. Still Life / Natura Morta (1953). Oil on canvas. 35.5 x 45.5 cm. Still Life with Bread Basket / Natura Morta con il Cestino del Pane (1921). Etching on zinc plate. 16.6 x 22.2 cm
Morandi spent his life in Bologna, most of it in the same apartment, only decamping to the mountain town of Grizzana in the sultry summer months. Familiarity and routine set the pace of things—his teaching position at the Accademia di Belle Arti, the company of his three sisters and modest social circle, occasional outings to Florence or Venice. From his bedroom window he captured the trees and rooftops of the russet-colored city, while in the country a pair of binoculars provided views of the rugged hills. As he remarked in the final years of his life, “My only ambition is to enjoy the peace and quiet which I require in order to work.”
The artist and his objects of eternal affection. Still Life / Natura Morta (1962). Pencil on paper. 16.5 x 24 cm.
Morandi painted in the same room where he slept, working meditatively amid a slow-turning constellation of dust-coated jars, vases, bottles, and cans that marked the boundaries of his noiseless world. Months passed before a composition was nudged into place, ready to be put down onto canvas or paper. Just as a face can wear a multitude of expressions, so too do Morandi’s forms: endlessly revisited, they subtly mutate and shift according to their placement, the light, and their relationship to one another.
As the collector Magnani writes of the artist’s work in My Morandi, “I loved them because they were the lively and direct expression of consciousness: an example of spirituality”…As every attentive designer knows, in careful composition, grace can be found.
Morandi: Masterpieces from the Magnani-Rocca Foundation runs from January 6 – May 28, 2023.