GIORGIO MORANDI: Masterpieces from the Magnani-Rocca Foundation

At Estorick Collection of modern Italian art

6 January to 30 April 2023

“Remember, remember, this is now, and now, and now.”

Giorgio Morandi – ‘Still Life’ 1936

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.

Giorgio Morandi – ‘Still Life’ 1953

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.

Giorgio Morandi – ‘Flowers’ 1942

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.

Giorgio Morandi – ‘Courtyard on Via Fondazza’ 1954.

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.”

Giorgio Morandi – ‘Still Life’ 1960

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 –

The Magnani Rocca Foundation –

Bologna Museum of Modern Art –

All artwork images images – Fondazione Magnani-Rocca © DACS 2022

JULIAN LE BAS: Studio Visit for Spirit of Place

Star Brewery Gallery, Lewes

4 to 12 March 2023

“Plein air painting on a large scale has heightened my sense of involvement. My use of colour is instrumental in expressing my feelings about form and light within the landscape. Inspired by some new subjects, a shift in my work has transpired.”

(Julian Le Bas, 2023)

In preparation for Julian Le Bas’ much-anticipated exhibition at the Star Brewery Gallery in Lewes, I was asked by Sarah O’Kane (Sarah O’Kane Contemporary Fine Art) to write about Julian’s work, as she knew I was a follower of his career and had written about his show at Berwick Church for Lewes Artwave 2022. I made a visit to his studio last November to talk to him and to see completed canvases and a few works in progress for the exhibition in Lewes. Some of this new text has been included in the catalogue for the show and a suitably edited version is published on her gallery website.

With Sarah’s approval, here is the full version of the exhibition:

A Studio Visit

Julian Le Bas is a painter, perhaps the contemporary painter, of the Sussex section of the South Downs. His work bares witness to this characteristically splendid and captivating geography of chalk hills, meadows, woodland and the adjoining coastline. The Sussex landscape possesses a subtle drama that does not provide the instant awe of, say, the Peaks of the Yorkshire Dales or views from Snowdonia, but the chalk cliffs that stretch eastwards from Brighton and Seaford towards Eastbourne are unique enough to provide a painted image with the visual impact of location not always provided so explicitly in other locales.

If you know Sussex reasonably well you will be aware of Chanctonbury Ring, Black Cap, Mount Caburn and Firle Beacon, and will recollect on how these geographical landmarks change in mood and appearance depending on the weather, the season and the time of day. On a more micro-level you will know that as you travel around, away from the A roads, you will expect to see characteristic churches in the villages, such as at Berwick and Southease. You will also know that there are marvellous trees in the various churchyards, or alongside the fields that produce crops or are home to the cows and the pigs. Look closer still with this consummate painter and, depending on the time of year, see the bluebells, snowdrops or a defiantly red rosehip amongst the winter brambles. In other words, there is no hierarchy of place or incumbent: be it animal, mineral or vegetable.

I wonder, also, if the paintings are a form of storytelling. Many of these visual tales will find their way to new homes, perhaps above the hearth, in a bedroom, a study or in a corridor leading to the kitchen. The point being that the paintings will find, literally, a home to prompt a recollection of a known and familiar landmark, embedding an internal conversation not necessarily or exclusively about rural Sussex, but also beyond to landscape revealed through the act of painting. Prompted by various locations, painting as gesture, as abstraction and as colour obsession – in an era of the digital and the virtual that can loose the immediacy of a physical and mental interaction with light, form and space.

These many places visited by Le Bas, often with the imperative ritual of walking to them, are invested with powerful colour effects and combinations of brush marks too. The viewer might be convinced that they are as improvised as much as they are consciously planned and controlled. Le Bas balances these two complimentary aspects of the act of painting, which is so important for what I interpret as reflection in action, as a matter of course. He produces visually potent and efficacious oil paintings that retain this sense of having a heart beat, of being visually fixed but alive somehow and which have to be authentically realised in situ. These studies can only be so faithfully achieved, by necessity, out of the studio environment.

For the uncompromising en plein air painter the idea of the studio is, potentially, a notional one, as four walls do not restrict the site of production. So when I visited Le Bas’ studio in the back garden of his home in Seaford I was not sure what to expect. At 12 X 10 feet the space was significantly more than big enough for the lawn mower, gardening tools and cracked flowerpots that one might normally expect to come across, although thankfully there were no such items stored here. But this was more than simply a storage area for dozens of canvases of various sizes. The wicker chair and cushion, just the one, was evidence enough to reveal a space for the artist to sit and ponder on his latest day’s work. Space too, to rethink and assess the necessity to return to a particular location to complete a canvas not yet considered fully realised, hence the provision of three viewing walls. I asked Le Bas if he sometimes continued the paintings here, away from the subject. A simple ‘no’ was the answer. I need not have asked, for his many collectors and supporters will know that he is a purist of sorts; passionate and uncompromising in the most positive sense and completely at one with the traditions associated with the landscape/seascape painter who will go out in all weathers to attain their goals – and to constantly surprise themselves at the inexhaustible range of subject matters and moods that wait to be seen and experienced.

Such an approach is Le Bas’ unspoken manifesto. He just gets on with the task in hand, albeit as a healthy compulsion loaded with drive and sheer enthusiasm. The work is so memorable that it speaks not only for itself, but also for the inexhaustible landscape related encounters that somehow await the viewer’s comprehension, though intriguingly via the work itself. The paintings may well function as signposts, imploring the viewer to get back out there and look again, but they are more than mere signage of course. The canvases, as carriers of physical imagery, embody lived experience and a sense of time, where to pin down the visual realisation of a particular place, set in some notion of the abstractness of duration, is reliant on the paint medium and its expert treatment. Time and light is fluid too, which poses a contradiction to the solidity of form, of the interaction of colours and the myriad relationships that constitute fixed composition. Le Bas’ works bring the observer and observed together so that the works also realise the shared experience of seeing, through the manifestation of consciously formulated structures constructed by this communal gift of sight.

There is an inherent democracy at work, wherein the drawing content, the range of mark making, the colour range are all carefully balanced so that if anything dominates it is the difficult to define ‘spirit of place’. Le Bas can apply such an abstract notion in any aspect of the landscape environment, whether nearby or far away. Interestingly, the historical picturesque can be discounted in his approach to composition and content, as there is an honest acceptance of what is simply there. What lesson we might learn from Le Bas’ life-long project is that every day and every scene presents a seemingly revived landscape offering a new vista, and a fresh encounter, with the apparently commonplace. These landscapes are tirelessly offered up, re-imagined, for continuous engagement and revelation, so long as the viewer will give over their own time to enjoy and contemplate the imagery.

Le Bas’ paintings celebrate, exalt and revere the various locations and unequivocally express awe at the natural world. The role of shamanic consort, expressing the elevating metaphysical aspect of the everyday through the ordinarily magical presence of the landscape is his task. The work continuously appears to convey this sense of the uniqueness of the quotidian and the local which changes in appearance, not only due to time of day or season, but is subject to the artist’s own crucial engagement at any particular time. This notion of self, however, is not selfish as these paintings help the viewer to see afresh and to experience beyond subject matter.

There is an extrovert inclination in these paintings and drawings, revealing an emotional involvement steered by rigorous and disciplined draughtsmanship. This engagement with the physical qualities of medium, from compressed charcoal or chalk pastel in his drawings to oil paint on canvas, Le Bas’ works are somehow a summation of perceived experience that lives beyond his initial encounters in the landscape. High key colour combines with earthy local colour. His engagement with the glorious power of colour reveals both a romantic and a matter-of-fact connection with the landscape experience.

There is, I suspect, some deliberate exaggeration in Le Bas’ practice. A visual proclamation in his use of colour and insistent mark making, which is intended to bring the viewer into the work, and to make a lasting impression, reminds us that the landscape is still a worthy and increasingly important genre. Not solely for the sake of decorating our walls, or as a reminder of those places we love to visit, but as ecological imperative. For, as our burgeoning awareness of environmental issues develops for all the wrong reasons, Le Bas’ representations of the landscape may be reminding us that Arcadia is on our doorstep and, by implication, we need to stop trashing it a.s.a.p.

Geoff Hands


Sarah O’Kane Contemporary Fine Art

Edited version of the essay –

Julian Le Bas website –

Star Brewery Gallery –

Visit Lewes –