Giorgio Morandi’s paintings make me think that artists may not totally choose, or even control, their subjects or style. Batty as it sounds, subject and style may choose artists, through some unfathomable cosmic means. How else to explain that even artists who enjoy what they do can be perplexed or even horrified that they’re doing it? It must have vexed Morandi that, as art leapt forward in the twentieth century, he kept painting the same thing over and over.
Living and working for four decades in a Bologna apartment and studio he shared with his unwed sisters, Morandi painted little but bottles, boxes, jars, and vases. Yet like that of Chardin and the underappreciated William Nicholson, Morandi’s work seems to slow down time and show you things you’ve never seen before. The objects in his paintings dissolve and reconstitute themselves before your eyes. Edges go wobbly, space pulsates. His art makes you sense Goethe’s “mysterious power that all may feel and no philosophy can explain.” He painted things one sees all the time, yet portrayed things never before seen.
Wallace Stevens wrote of wanting “to feel the same way over and over,” the desire for “the river to go on flowing the same way.” That’s Morandi. Seemingly in violation of natural law, he stepped into the same river thousands of times. His paintings are optical odes on metaphysical urns.
At the Met’s retrospective, we see one of the most condensed trajectories in all of art—one that young artists trying to find themselves should go out of their way to visit. Morandi goes from painting a workmanlike Cubistic landscape in 1913 to a pair of still lifes, three years later when he was 26, that predict his entire career. The darker of them depicts two bottles, a jug, a box, and a Neapolitan coffeepot against a brownish background. It is quasi-Cubist and a little Cézanne-like. The other, better work portrays a fruit bowl and two vases. Both paintings carve out a new perceptual space. The objects, while clearly identifiable, also exist as Pythagorean abstractions, figures, and sentinels. Foreground and background flip-flop; the spaces between objects quiver. At first you think you’re seeing it all; then everything is a mystery.
Morandi can seem like a conservative who sat out modernism. But like Bacon or Giacometti, he recast reality without going wholly abstract. Physically, the paintings are slow accretions of pigment and color. Painter Allison Katz has called them “irritants that grow like pearls,” meaning, I think, that his work begins with small pictorial events that gather weight and become perfect things. Taking in his rhythms, balance, color, and surfaces, you see how something as minor as a still life can vie for greatness with the Sistine ceiling.