Giorgio Morandi’s Brownfields: The Artist as a Seductive Sneak
Art That Seems to Do Nothing
By the time Giorgio Morandi had really discovered himself as an artist at the age of thirty-two, his artistic universe was reduced to a handful of simple objects, primarily bottles, tins, jugs, vases, and a few bowls. When necessary, Morandi was perfectly content to make do with just two tins and a vase. He would arrange the three things and then paint them. Generally he stuck to a subdued, understated range of coloring: grays and beige, with an overall dominance of browns. Even when Morandi did use brighter colors they still seemed like brown dressed up in drag for the moment. His paintings do the opposite of pop art, the startling forms and bold colors of which fairly scream out at the viewer for attention. Morandi’s paintings, on the other hand, seethe beneath their outer bland, mundane veneer. They patiently wait for the viewer to come to them.
If Morandi painted his two tins and vase in an arrangement one day, the following day he would move the vase a few inches and then paint them afresh. These minute transformations amazed Morandi. He didn’t need anything more. The smallest change in the lighting, a subtle shift in direction, and his world of three things was forever fresh and new. By all rights, these should be some of the most boring paintings in history. Nothing happens in them. Morandi was happy to do as close to nothing as a painter can manage to do. He sat at his easel, year after year, shifting his two tins and the one damn vase, and then painting the scene in his own special vision of muted brownness.
Yet, these are extraordinarily beautiful and moving paintings. That’s the shock of it all. Viewing some of Morandi’s paintings in the current retrospective of Morandi’s work currently on exhibition at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, one is initially left feeling quite puzzled. One wonders about just how on earth did this homely and private Italian fellow managed to pull it off?
Morandi as a Sneaky and Seductive Liar
Some art critics have proposed that Morandi is exciting because he is both sneaky and a liar. He pretends that he’s just a modest man letting objects be objects and letting nature be nature. His pastels and repertoire of browns dull the senses and draw you into his seductive web, and once you’re in, Morandi has you. Once Morandi’s captured your attention, his seemingly dull paintings take you through a nearly infinite set of examples of how much control he exerted over the very objects that normally mark our limits as human beings. Every day we are impinged upon and forced to serve the mute indifference of things, the many parts of our world that seem out of our control.
Morandi reduced his artistic world down to just a few of those things, to the minimum. He eliminated the background and foreground. He shifted everything into a color spectrum of his own choosing. Things, objects, in his universe come to to play by his own rules. Thus Morandi’s obsessiveness demanded that objects conform to his vision, while still portraying them as real objects.
So he arranged his bottles and tins and vases in one way and then he arranged them in another. He painted them in the morning and the evening and at night. He observed them through shifts of light and color and position. And for 25 years Morandi painted canvas after canvas using the same handful of tins and bottles and vases, sometimes shifting their position no more than an inch or two. He painted his little vases and tins not as they are really found on an actual kitchen table, but as Morandi would have them be.
It is soothing and rapturous to stare at that painting, to know it exists, to realize that one man was so able to master the world immediately before him, calmly, surely, on his own terms and none other. So, in a sense, Morandi was another great egotist of 20th-century art. The modest scale and subject matter of his paintings tricks us into talking about Morandi as a painter of humility and small gestures. But that is wrong.
He chose his own field of battle, the kitchen table and the handful of small objects that he arranged and rearranged upon it, and he waged war on all those material things that resist our attempts to understand them. We may never understand them, say Morandi’s paintings, but we are able to make of them something that is grand, something brown and something completely our own.
Brownfields: The Artist as a Seductive Sneak
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