The big Giorgio Morandi survey that opens this week at the Metropolitan Museum features over 100 paintings, drawings, watercolors and etchings. In the New Yorker Peter Schjeldahl writes that painting for Morandi was manual labor, first and last. “For a time, he ground his own pigments. He stretched his own canvases, constantly varying their proportions. (In the Met show, there are almost as many different sizes of picture as there are pictures.) No one work builds on another. Infinitely refined, Morandi never succumbs to elegance. Even his effulgently pinkish floral still-lifes abjure virtuosity, though they beguile. (One might be made of ice cream; another stiffens to marzipan.) That’s because the exigencies of rendering—tiny slippages between eye and hand—constituted, for him, a permanent emergency, requiring incessant adjustment. (Rose petals may jam up like large people competing to pass through a small door.) He did not have a style. He had a signature: ‘Morandi,’ written large, often, to broadcast that a picture had done all it could. He is a painter’s painter, because to look at his work is to re-create it, feeling in your wrist and fingers the sequence of strokes, each a stab of decision which discovers a new problem….Morandi has never been a popular artist and never will be. He engages the world one solitary viewer at a time. The experience of his work is unsharable even, in a way, with oneself, like a word remembered but not remembered, on the tip of the tongue.” Read more.
Born in Bologna on 20 July 1890, Morandi lived with his mother and his three unmarried sisters his entire life, but he was hardly a recluse. Every summer, the family went to Grizzana, in the Apennines, where he built a small studio. From 1907-13 Morandi studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Bologna and traveled around Italy to study Renaissance art. He took part in a group exhibition with the Futurists, but the association was short-lived. When Italy entered the First World War,Morandi enlisted but suffered a breakdown and was discharged. He taught drawing in elementary schools from 1916-29. During this period he was briefly associated with Metaphysical Painting, a movement typified by the enigmatic still lifes of Giorgio de Chirico. After Mussolini came to power, Morandi also exhibited with the semi-official Novecento group. However, his closest ties were with the rustic Strapaese movement, which advocated a return to local cultural traditions. In 1930 Morandi became Professor of Etching at the Accademia di Belle Arti, and his works began to be shown abroad.
Morandi emerged to international acclaim after the Second World War. He received the first prize for painting at the 1948 Venice Biennale, rapidly becoming one of the most respected Italian painters. However, he appeared to shrug off the attention, commenting, ‘I don’t ask for anything except for a bit of peace which is indispensable for me to work.’ In 1956 Morandi traveled outside Italy for the first time. After retiring from the Accademia in the same year, he achieved greater concentration in his work. He won the Grand Prize at the São Paulo Biennale in 1957. The esteem in which Morandi was held in Italy is reflected in Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita (1960), in which his paintings are featured as the epitome of cultural sophistication. By this time, however, Morandi had withdrawn to work at his studio at Grizzana. He died in Bologna on 18 June 1964. (Bio via Tate Modern)
Top: Morandi in his studio. He was over six-feet-four-inches tall and had special tables made so that he could position the objects at eye level.
Bottom: A reconstruction of Morandi’s studio inside the Museo Morandi at the Bologna Town Hall. Photos are from the Museo Morandi website, which has much more detailed biographical info than the passage quoted from the Tate Modern website.
“Giorgio Morandi: 1890-1964,” Metropolitan Museum, New York, NY. Sept. 16-December 14.