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.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mr. Fesh and the Meaning of Life

Yesterday afternoon I read at a Barnes & Noble book store in Danbury, Connecticut, a few miles from the town where I grew up and lived for eighteen years. A beautiful autumn day, sunny, breezy and cool (as the forecasters like to say). On the drive up from the Bronx my companion and I marveled at the fiery displays of bright colors in the trees along the Saw Mill Parkway. This is my favorite time of year, when the leaves begin to fall, when the sky rains dry flecks of yellow and the earth wears a bright-colored quilt of red and golden leaves. I wondered, on such a beautiful day, who would want to spend an hour indoors listening to someone read from a book?

To my surprise—quite a few people, many of them strangers, and many more familiar. My proud mother invited many of her friends, and there were faces I recognized from my undergraduate year at Western Connecticut State University, and even a few faces of people I'd gone to high school with in Bethel. One friend, Mark, had driven down from Vermont with his new family, a beautiful wife and two equally beautiful boys, one still at his mother's breast. Mark and I had been in touch but hadn't seen each other in years (Mark looked good—a little huskier, his hair gone completely white, but otherwise unchanged, and with a fixed smile that spoke eloquently of the pleasures of fatherhood and family).

But of all the faces familiar and unfamiliar one touched me more deeply than any other. I was speaking to Mark's wife when I looked up and saw a man approaching. He wore a white windbreaker and a baseball cap—Yankees, I think. He was tall, broad-shouldered. It took me only a moment or two to recognize him despite his being out of the narrow focal range of my nearsighted eyes; and even after I had recognized him, still, there was a moment of confusion, since I was unprepared to believe what my eyes told me, and what seemed a little too much like a dream. For here was my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Fesh, come to check on his pupil.

"I know this man," I said to myself and out loud as he approached, a smile already spreading itself across my face.

In forty years he hadn't changed that much. He was still tall, still good-looking (from what I could see under the shadowy visor of the baseball cap). I recognized his deep voice. "Mr. Selgin," he said—the same form of address he had used in sixth grade. I didn't say, "Mr. Fesh!" I didn't have to; my smile spoke for me. 

We shook hands, but that wouldn't do: I had to give him a hug. 

In sixth grade I had a crush on him. Not a homosexual crush, but the crush of a sixth-grader ripe for role-models. My father, after all, was much older than most fathers a I knew, and though I loved him dearly I found him lacking in certain physical respects (he detested all sports and refused to jump into water). And here was this teacher, a man—the first male teacher I'd ever had—handsome, tall (my father was handsome but already gray, half-bald, and with a paunch, and not tall), scarcely twenty-four years old. He looked like Paul Newman. 

Back then, Mr. Fesh still had all of his hair and didn't need the baseball cap. He wore spiffy blazers, pale blue oxford cloth shirts, and sharp red and blue neckties with silver tie pins. I remember going to the local Caldor department store and searching among the racks for ties and blazers like the ones Mr. Fesh wore, and gleaming tie clips to go with them. I had no reason to where such garments and no place to wear them to, but still, I wanted them, because I wanted to be like Mr. Fesh. He wore shiny brown wing-tips; I begged my mother for a pair. 

I think Mr. Fesh must have known that I had a crush on him—a teacher's pet crush. I suspect he enjoyed it (I'm a teacher now and wouldn't mind thinking that one or two of my students look up to me that way, though I don't imagine any of them do; but they are older undergraduates, children of a more cynical time, and much less inclined to look up to their teachers). 

I remember one evening my mother invited Mr. Fesh and his wife for dinner. What an exciting night! For me it was like having the Pope or the Beatles over for supper. About that evening I remember nothing but my excitement. Mr. Fesh drove a red convertible Mustang: the perfect car for a male role-model. I remember watching through the window and seeing it come up the driveway, the feeling of unreality that accompanied this spectacle, the sense that the impossible was happening, that miracles existed in the world.

Having taught sixth grade for a year or two, Mr. Fesh went on to become a phys ed instructor. His son—one of his sons—had a brief baseball career and played in the major leagues for several seasons (I forget what team) until an injury of some sort cut his career short. I imagine that this was a huge blow to his father, a kind of death. Mr. Fesh, meanwhile, became a baseball scout. I learned these things through the grape vine over the years.

Now here was Mr. Fesh, my sixth grade teacher, alive and looking well. Retired, he told me. I asked if he would stay for the reading. "Nah," he said, shaking his head. "I don't think so. Too boring." And then I recognized that glint in his eye, and remembered his dead-pan delivery. "Now there's someone I need to say hello to," he sad, and I followed the trajectory of his eyes as they took in my eighty year-old mother. I remembered how he and my mother used to flirt with each other, how several times on school field trips they had sat together on the bus until someone warned Mr. Fesh, "You'd better stop sitting next to that lady; people are starting to talk." My mother and I both had a crush on Mr. Fesh. But hers was reciprocated.

While I read, I saw no sign of Mr. Fesh in the audience; perhaps he had left, after all. But when I had finished he appeared again, off to the side, giving me the thumbs-up. "I'm proud of you," he said. If my dead father had risen from the grave to say the same words to me I wouldn't have been more pleased. 

If over the years I've had reasons to wonder if it's all been worth it, if all the rejection, all the struggle, all the disappointments and despairand disillusionment  have served up any purpose, if there's been a meaning to all that I've done or tried to do over the last forty years. Most of all I've wondered if the sacrifices (money, children, sound sleep, peace of mind) have been worth it. Yesterday afternoon when Mr. Fesh gave me the thumbs-up I had my answer and the answer was a resounding "Yes."

Sometimes, if only for a moment or two, life really does mean something.

Thanks, Mr. Fesh.