Giorgio Morandi: Late Paintings
(David Zwirner Books, 2017)
Often revisions of the canons of older art respond to and thus reveal significant contemporary cultural transformations. During the past sixty years Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), traditionally generally scorned, has become a cultural hero. Identified, perhaps misleadingly, as a homoerotic artist, he has been the subject of many exhibitions, numerous popular biographies and, even, a film by Derek Jarman. And more recently, thanks to feminist art historians, Artemesia Gentileschi (1593-1653) has become much celebrated. The recent apotheosis of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) is a little more surprising. Early on he was a familiar, but marginal figure within Italian Futurism, who by the time of his death occupied only a modest place in modernist collecting culture. Thanks to important historical work by Janet Abramowicz in Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence (2005), we have a reliable account of Morandi’s life. Her full account of his place in Italian visual culture, and of his relationship to fascist politics, corrects some of the older myths about his life, but does not, I think, in itself inspire revisionist commentary. To this growing corpus, we can now add the perspectives of other contemporary artists collected in Zwirner Books’s Giorgio Morandi: Late Paintings.
Morandi’s reputation started to change during the 1960s. A decade ago Sean Scully published an account telling of being an art student in London at that time:
(In the Tate) I would consistently pass a typically small painting by Morandi. It seemed to upset and disturb everything else that was going on. It was as if it was participating in the Modernist dialogue, since its spirit was twentieth-century . . . but, then again, stubbornly refusing to participate with appropriate enthusiasm.
What attracted his attention to Morandi, and inspires also many of the artists in this marvelous volume on Morandi’s late paintings, is the sense that his canvases stand in opposition to the dominant trends of what Clement Greenberg influentially dubbed “American-style painting.” Not just because his determinedly modest pictures are not abstractions, but because Morandi’s whole ethos was surely alien to that of these ambitious artists. Indeed, once when I asked Greenberg about him, that critic told me, “he’s just a bottle painter.” Since the 1960s, the fortunes of contemporary figurative art have dramatically revived. Again, however, Morandi’s still life images and landscapes of the countryside near to his hometown, Bologna, tend to be seen as in opposition to this recent fashion.
Today Morandi’s art speaks to present day audiences in ways that the art of his once much better-known European contemporaries does not. The Italian futurists have become minor historical figures. And nowadays the much admired late works of Matisse and Picasso belong to a historically distant art world. But as Giorgio Morandi: Late Paintings nicely indicates, a number of very different contemporary artists see Morandi as a living influence. Thus, Lawrence Carroll praises Morandi’s self-sufficiency and refusal to be distracted, saying that he focused on what he needed, and did not chase after what he was not. Vija Celmins, telling a marvelous story of how when young, she was stopped in her tracks by a Morandi, speaks of the odd psychology of his art. The figurative artist Mark Greenwold asks why he made so many works. Liu Ye, the Chinese painter, says that Morandi’s productive use of “repetition results in the disappearance of the objects.” Wayne Thiebaud, noting how Morandi juggles his forms, developing tensions, offers a marvelously eloquent appreciation: “Morandi suggests we are all single in this world, hoping for independent repose. But our best opportunity, for a community of excellence, depends upon a collection of enlightened individuals.” Alexi Worth praises Morandi’s shadows, in an account linking him with American minimalism. Zeng Fanzhi, the Beijing-based painter, says: “There is actually not much to say about his paintings.” And the art historian and collector Laura Mattioli, ruminating on Hans Belting’s famous reflections about the history of art history, and taking issue with prior Italian views of Morandi, links him with Andy Warhol, Josef Albers, and Agnes Martin. None of these artists make paintings like his. What inspires them is his way of life.
Just as in Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (1950) we get multiple versions of one story, without any sense of how to choose the correct version, so here we get many different, perhaps incompatible versions of Morandi. Everyone responds personally to Morandi. So, too, do I. At the very start of my career as an art critic, I recall as if yesterday being extremely puzzled by the 1981-1982 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It was hard to say anything about him. Then, at the very end of Arthur Danto’s life as critic, it happened that we saw the Metropolitan’s 2008 show together. In his review Danto nicely says: “The literature about Morandi almost universally answers” questions about the meaning of his art “with recourse to two metaphors: his pictures are poems in paint, or they are studies in stillness and silence.” Here he accurately summarizes the vast critical literature. Otherwise varied artists and writers, myself amongst them, project their individual artistic worldviews onto Morandi, finding in his art what they each seek.
Does anyone nowadays dislike Morandi? The present canonical status of Caravaggio and Artemesia Gentileschi seems likely to be secure, for their art expresses ways about identity politics, which are becoming almost universally accepted. Perhaps paradoxically, at a time when a great deal of the most fashionable contemporary art is determinedly anti-aesthetic, Morandi’s very painterly paintings attract great attention. But insofar as his grand present reputation has depended, in large part, upon his being identified as a minor, marginalized artist, what will happen now, so I wonder, that he has become so much celebrated and so generally admired?