At Estorick Collection of modern Italian art
6 January to 30 April 2023
“Remember, remember, this is now, and now, and now.”
Visually primed from visiting the Cézanne exhibition at Tate Modern the day before, it was surely appropriate to move on to the Giorgio Morandi show the next day. Through his work Cézanne may have been saying, stop and look at the world (often the landscape) and construct it directly through the dynamic act of perception – but take your time. Calmly experience what is in front of you, he may have added, with the incomplete narrative of the here and now. Morandi appears to take this lesson from the master of modern art and subsequently devotes his painting mission to this, his unrelenting lifetime project.
The literature on Morandi confirms that he was interested in Cézanne’s work (especially in Morandi’s own still lifes of 1914-15 onwards) and the viewer will sense it in many of the examples from future works in this marvelous show at the Estorick Collection in London. The exhibition has travelled from the Magnani-Rocca Foundation in Mamiagno in northern Italy – not so far from Bologna where Morandi lived and worked for the whole of his career. Normally for the UK based artist or keen gallery visitor, to see and contemplate Morandi’s works the opportunities are severely limited as there appear to be less than a dozen paintings in public collections. Outside of London, visits would be required to such places as Norwich, Birmingham and Edinburgh but one would only see individual works. The best and most obvious option is a weekend trip to Bologna to visit the collection in the Museo Morandi, part of the Museum of Modern Art of Bologna (better known as MAMbo). Fortunately, as the Magnani-Rocca Foundation undergoes some refurbishment, the Estorick has the honour of displaying seventeen paintings and 33 works on paper, including etchings, for four months.
Oddly, as I felt compelled to write about this exhibition I also had a contrary sense of there being no necessity to do so. What more can one say about such a relatively straightforward range of imagery. Morandi’s works, especially the oil paintings, are so matter-of-fact painterly that they are surely just what they are, no more, no less – or as Dan Flavin the American minimalist sculptor once said: “It is what it is and it ain’t nothing else”. So I hesitated for a couple of weeks or so, during which time I happened to read Italo Calvino’s ‘Six Memos for the Next Millennium’ and came across some ideas that could be applied to considering Morandi’s paintings – most especially the still life compositions. For example, Calvino writes about the transition from word to image and vice versa as a crucial aspect of writing for novelists. So I wondered if Morandi, perhaps instinctively, takes the viewer from image to image, but in the same work. That is, as an inseparable combination, conjoining the material object (the oil painting) and the mental image (the viewer’s) as one phenomenon. Referring to St. Ignatius, Calvino also wrote of the “…visual contemplation or meditation”. This viewing approach is crucial for any work of art, but especially so for Morandi. This point also reminded me of Giotto’s frescos in Assisi and most especially to the palette that Giotto had access to. This link, however pertinent or not, was realised as I flicked through an old copy of ‘Forma e Colore – Giotto Gli Affreschi di Assisi’ by Roberto Salvini (1965) that a friend had recently passed on to me. There’s probably more detail in Giotto’s work, and a clear religious narrative of course, but the overall sense of the essence of form and a restricted palette renders an insistence on contemplation, both spiritual and commonplace for both of these pre-eminent Italian painters.
In a more modern sense (post Freud and Jung), Calvino brings psychological experience and time into the creative equation: “…to the individual or collective unconscious, for example, or to time regained through sensations that rise up from lost time, or to epiphanies or concentrations of being in a single point or moment.” Such experiences may be rare unless programmatically sought through meditation and so do we learn from Morandi that time, by extension, returns the viewer to a concrete notion and an awareness of now? His still-life paintings appear to acknowledge the past as present, even beyond his own lifetime. Or, to put it another way, Morandi realises the metaphysical nature of perception of the world without recourse to limiting or tying himself to the illustrational or imaginary aspects of Metaphysical artists such as Carlo Carrà and Giorgio di Chirico, both of whom he knew personally in his formative years. Morandi’s imagery is utterly solid and direct: he sees the wood for the trees.
Morandi must have dedicated countless hours of actively looking whilst painting, just as Cézanne did. We might wonder what Morandi may have been thinking about his restricted subject matter that was essentially local to Bologna and to his studio tabletop for so many years. Perhaps many days were necessary to make one small work, one more little addition to all of the pictures in the world. But the apparent narrative of the imagery, as there is always a context, returns to the moment when, typically, a group of objects that have been arranged to be studied, for no other reason than to make a painting that replaces the original objects, the lighting conditions and the local colours. This may suggest a very limited artistic programme, bordering on the absurd, for recording the instant in paint at least, requires great time and effort even to conjure something so simple. Would a photograph have sufficed? The problem with a photograph might be that it is, literally, an instant, albeit a split second, but a painting comes loaded with at least a notion of commitment to a long-winded task that can appear ridiculous considering the time and effort required to reach some kind of conclusion – again and again.
Painting can be unashamedly romantic too. Does Morandi seduce the viewer? The artist is doing no more than selecting, composing, looking, recording and painting his direct experience with an implied narrative of light, colour and form overtly realised in a particular arrangement of an apparently small collection of very ordinary objects – though sometimes a small bunch of picked flowers will appear. But Morandi shows us that the human gaze can rest upon something as simple, as pedestrian and as everyday, as a few mundane bottles, jars, and vases – and utterly captivate the viewer. Anticipating Object Orientated Ontology and contemporary metaphysics, Morandi’s paintings might be convincing the viewer that these objects and/or the paintings will exist eternally whether we are there to witness them or not – despite the contradiction that the paintings, his collection of domestic items and the occasional building from his window views were designed, made and contextualised by humans in the first place. The sound of the falling tree may not need a witness after all.
Returning to Calvino, pictures are starting points (imagined or real) and he makes reference to the playwright and author Samuel Beckett “…reducing visual and linguistic elements to the bare minimum…” This reductive tendency could equally be applied to Morandi’s imagery. His still life paintings in particular need no extra content than that which has already been selected, arranged and recorded. The viewer can look and wait knowing that Godot will probably never arrive after all. But we are here with the painting, nonetheless.
Just before, eventually, writing this essay I had the speculative thought that Morandi’s work might be of interest, his paintings in particular, because there is no overt or political narrative? Due to the omnipresence of the media and rolling news streams, notwithstanding the politically correct themes and causes that arts organisations have to embrace to secure funding, the curator and the viewer might sometimes lose sight of the aesthetics of the image? This is not to suggest that issues and contemporary subject matters are unimportant or unnecessary, but I sometimes fear that the immediacy of the painted image, including its inherent materiality, the appropriate choice of physical application and visual content becomes secondary to a particular narrative that ticks a societal, and therefore political, box.
The viewer might find some unexpected joy in visiting this exhibition. Luigi Magnani, the collector of these works said himself that Morandi’s “…works have no content”. So by not fulfilling a manifesto with which to frame the work Morandi does not appear to take sides or to insist upon a message. The work has to speak for itself, or as Stefano Roffi writes in the catalogue: “Just like angels, the works Magnani chose had to possess a soul, be characterized by essentiality, purity, formal perfection, a lack of agitation, of vain philosophizing; to convey silence rather than clamour, peace rather than anguish.”
In writing this purposely ruminatory essay, and in not being bound by a publisher’s deadline, I was also able to ponder and let the work sink in further, albeit from my own photographs and others kindly provided by Alison Wright (PR) on behalf of the Estorick. As a painter myself I have a conscious bias of concentrating on the paintings in the exhibition, but I chose not to discuss any particular work on display in this instance. But as I check my scribbled notes from the day I visited, I am reminded that I returned to view three works on paper before I headed for the bookshop to buy the catalogue. Each titled, ‘Still Life’ (from 1963, 1959 and 1963) they verge on the edge of abstraction with a minimalist aesthetic. The viewer could indeed start from the final works and study Morandi’s visual journey in reverse chronological order to find that he was a proto-minimalist after all. As, perhaps, Cézanne was too.
Review title from: “Remember, remember, this is now, and now, and now. Live it, feel it, cling to it. I want to be acutely aware of all I’ve taken for granted.” (Sylvia Plath, letter to Eddie Cohen, 1950)
The Estorick Collection – https://www.estorickcollection.com
The Magnani Rocca Foundation – https://www.magnanirocca.it/magnani-rocca-foundation/
Bologna Museum of Modern Art – http://www.mambo-bologna.org/en/
All artwork images images – Fondazione Magnani-Rocca © DACS 2022