Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Monumental Modesty: Morandi at the Met

For as long as I can remember I've been drawn to Morandi's paintings of bottles and vases arranged with "fearful symmetry." Maybe because the artist was Italian, like my parents, and named Giorgio, like my cousin in Genoa—or because his paintings put me in mind (they still do) of my father's humble paintings that adorned my childhood walls. Or they reminded me of my own paintings—those I had yet to paint, but when I did they would bear his influence.

The exhibit is located in the Robert Lehman wing, the paintings arranged in chronological order, more or less, around the circular hall. The earliest works date from 1914, when the artist was clearly influenced by Cezanne, cubism, and the Futurists. Born in 1890 in Bologna—the city where he would remain his entire life—Morandi served briefly in the army during the Great War, but suffered a mental breakdown and was soon discharged. For several years afterwards he experimented with Metaphysical painting, his own canvasses reflecting those of his fellow Italians De Chirico and Carlo CarrĂ . But within a few short years he would settle into his own permanent style, one that would carry him through four decades to his death in 1964.

Like all of my favorite artists—like all artists worthy of the name—Morandi was his own man. Though he dabbled in all the "isms"—Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, Primitivism—he never remained in any "school" for long. Like Rouault, his contemporary, he shunned all trends and marched to his own drumbeat while enduring the silence, scorn and faint praise of critics and curators. 

Even for a man who cherished his privacy as Morandi did (in his lifetime he granted only two published interviews), such contempt and neglect couldn't have been easily born. Swept aside by the whirlwinds of Picasso, DeKooning, Dali and Pollack—his quiet little paintings shoved into a dusty corner of art history, and the artist himself treated like a shy boy among shouting drunken louts: that's how I think of Morandi. As a drab diffident among colorful brutes. 

One thinks Morandi and one thinks "bottles." Yes, there are paintings of bottles—bottles and vases. But to see only bottles is to miss the point. Really they are paintings of silence. Of silence, of patience, of devotion, of acceptance and even of resignation: the paintings of a man who has had a glimpse of the larger world and rejected it, who has said first to himself and then to the world through his work: this is mine; this is enough. His are devotional paintings; paintings as prayer painted with the colors of earth: sand, mud, sepia, flesh, chalk, stone, clay, soil, dust and ashes.

As the term "still life" (natura morta) suggests, they are dead, these paintings, both in their silence and in the cadaver-like range of their hues; not subdued, as some might have you think, but absolutely, resolutely dead—drained of color and life, embalmed in silence and stillness. This sounds like an insult, but isn't meant to be: I mean it as high praise. To capture the stillness of death isn't easy. And when I say "death" I mean the death that implies eternity, for only through death is eternity achieved. Morandi knew this. Or at any rate his paintings know it.

So tentative, so meek: such diffidence is rarely known in art. To approach it one needs to look to such paintings as one finds occasionally in flea markets, or jammed into the corner of a junk shop—paintings of unknown amateurs whose modesties are entirely accidental, the result of amateurishness. But theirs are small, inconsequential modesties as compared with Morandi's monumental modesty—a modesty arrived at through years of hard study and work; a modesty held in place by the armature of an enormous, unflinching ego. That quivering pencil line, those tentative brushstrokes, the tenuous forms verging on (and often spilling into) amorphousness—to paint like that one must be one of two things: a complete amateur or a genius. As Picasso is said to have responded to a man who remarked of one of his paintings, "My six year old could have done that!" 

"True, but could he do it at my age?"

But more than their forms and outlines I'm drawn to Morandi's colors—drawn to them as one is drawn to the smell of leaf smoke in autumn, or to the yawning shells of abandoned buildings. Morandi's palette is so low-key you need a spectrometer to distinguish one hue from the next, but not really: the attentive eye will do. The ochres and pale pinks and browns remind me of the crumbling walls of the Bologna where he lived. Desert colors: cream and sand, butter and dust, butterscotch and clay, terra-cotta and dried blood.

To choose a favorite among Morandi's paintings is impossible, since they are all the same painting, essentially, rendered in colors so subtle they do not even yield a whisper but stand mute as the stars in heaven, humble as the walls over which they hang. These paintings are so modest you see the struggle of the framer to select a frame that will not overwhelm the masterpiece, a struggle lost in every instance, for even the most modest of cornices cannot fail to compete with and overwhelm Morandi's supreme modesty. 

One thinks of the martial artist who defeats his opponent by doing less, by doing nothing, by simply holding his ground, conserving energy as his adversary exhausts himself. In this sense Morandi's paintings are great conservators of energy. No wonder Morandi's dusty bottles have survived so well for so long. Through two World Wars they emerge dusty as ever but without a chip or a crack. The dust is that of decades. It is the dust raised by wars and by other artists of great broiling aggression—a dust that has at last settled to cloak Morandi's paintings in an ever more perfect and enduring silence. One walks out of this exhibit into the halls of modern art as from a cloister into Times Square. 

What sort of man paints himself into such a silence? A man who preferred empty vessels to his fellow creatures—as wed to his dusty bottles as a monk to God. I doubt I would have liked him. I don't for a minute imagine him charming, like Picasso. A misanthrope, perhaps. But if so this misanthrope has left us a great gift—the great gift of peace. He has, with his brushes and paints, grabbed hold of eternity and framed it forever.

Or should I say: he has poured a measure of eternity into his dusty bottles that we may sip from them in appreciative silence.

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