A nubby canvas supports creamy pastel brushstrokes that coalesce into the rippling edges of bowls, a vase,a folded yellow cloth, and a jar in Giorgio Morandi’s Natura morta (Still Life) (1952), a representative work from his larger, decades-long series of still lifes. The lushly textured props, positioned atop a brown surface that looks more like unformed clay than a table, bump against one another in the center of the painting. The background is a monochromatic tan, while two lines—a thin brown one dividing the painting in half horizontally, and a thicker, gray-brown strip at the bottom—suggests the table’s edges. The setting is hazy, veering into abstraction; color, shape, and mood interested Morandi more than realistic renderings of objects and places. This painting, like much of the artist’s oeuvre, allows a temporary escape into a delectably quiet, timeless aesthetic environment.
Morandi is famous for transforming simple cups, jars, and bottles into objects of reverence. Spending most of his life (1890–1964) in Bologna, the artist returned to his studio day after day for decades, reconfiguring and repainting the same mundane tokens of domestic life. Morandi looked at only a few unexceptional objects throughout his career, but found infinite permutations and perspectives to depict them. The artist’s humble yet masterful practice argues for the importance of small, poetic gestures in lieu of large, flashy statements. “In my ideal world,” Peter Schjeldahl once wrote, “the home of everyone who loves art would come equipped with a painting by Giorgio Morandi, as a gymnasium for daily exercise of the eye, mind, and soul.”
The Italian artist’s paintings have their own soft mystique, but varying accounts of his biography offer a more complicated story. “For art history, as codified in textbooks, and galleries and museums, Morandi has remained an outsider, alienated from the great movements that created modern art,” wrote Laura Mattioli, founder and president of the Center for Italian Modern Art, in Giorgio Morandi: Late Paintings (2017). Yet the artist has influenced art world heavyweights, suggesting more of an aesthetic lineage, perhaps, than the typical art history course proposes. Mattioli has noted that Morandi’s serial production of one similar canvas after the next places him “at the center of the most innovative artistic debates of the fifties and sixties.” She likened Morandi’s still lifes to Andy Warhol’s oft-repeated “Flowers” (ca. 1964–70) and Josef Albers’s iterative series “Homage to the Square” (ca. 1950–75).
Schjeldahl has also suggested a connection to the impastoed work of midcentury painter Philip Guston. Similarly, Wayne Thiebaud’s depictions of cakes from the 1960s, which employ thick dabs of paint as a baker might use frosting, literalize the sumptuous application of paint that Morandi seemed to advocate. More recently, artists like Sean Scully and Vija Celmins have written about Morandi’s effect on their practices. Contemporary artists’ overall admiration for Morandi’s technique has led to his reputation as a “painter’s painter,” though his work is also easy on the uninitiated eye……………….