Giorgio Morandi

Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), widely acknowledged as a major Italian painter of the 20th century, built a reputation based especially on his sensitive still-life subjects.

Giorgio Morandi attained stature as one of the most prominent Italian painters of the 20th century, though he lived humbly and developed his art outside the mainstream of Modernism. Born in Bologna on July 20, 1890, he remained closely attached to that city for his entire life. In 1907, after having spent nearly a year working in his father's export office, the teenaged Morandi enrolled at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Bologna, where he studied until 1913.

While at the academy Morandi became interested in 19th-century artists as well as Renaissance masters, showing particular respect for Paul Cezanne and Piero della Francesca. Unfortunately he destroyed most of his youthful work. His earliest extant picture, a landscape in part influenced by Macchiaioli painting, an Italian version of Impressionism, dates from 1910. In 1914 he was appointed a drawing teacher in the Bolognese elementary schools. In the same year Morandi found himself swayed by the Futurists, a group of Italian artists, including Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni, and Giacomo Balla, who exalted the dynamism of the machine in their radical ideas on art. Morandi's interest in the Futurists was fleeting, and though he showed at the Espozione Libera Futurista Internazionale (1914) his pictures at this time displayed the controlled brushstrokes of Cezanne, as well as the angular forms and cool palette of Cubism.

Morandi's artistic seclusion did not prevent him from joining stylistic trends, yet he arrived at his solutions independently. This was the case with his connection to the "scuola metafisica" (metaphysical school) founded by Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrá (formerly a Futurist) at Ferrara in 1917. Metaphysical painting encompassed stylistic affinities rather than spawning a school in the literal sense. It concerned itself with the symbolic role of objects set within "unreal" arrangements. In 1915 Morandi served briefly in the military until he was discharged as a result of a serious illness. He developed a taste in the following year for still-life and landscape, often presented in a spare, geometric language. Morandi didn't meet de Chirico until 1919 in Rome, yet his paintings anticipated de Chirico's mysterious lyrical qualities.

Morandi's art was most aligned with de Chirico's shortly after their first encounter. His Still Life (1919) has a hard-edged quality that departs from his usual painterliness in its depiction of an odd assortment of objects, including the ambiguous silhouette of a table-clock. In 1918 he had his first work reproduced—a 1915 etching which appeared in La Racolta, a modest arts journal that promoted the development of the metaphysical school. Even more important for Morandi was the support he received in 1919 from Mario Broglio, editor of Valori Plastici, an influential publication devoted to the international arts scene. Broglio arranged for Morandi's first one-man exhibition, in Rome, and bought nearly all the paintings.

The scuola metafisica was a short-lived movement, and when its practitioners went their separate ways in the early 1920s Morandi created still-lifes with a poetry and luminosity to rival the 18th-century French master Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. Although Morandi showed with the "Novecento" (20th century) in 1926, he didn't subscribe to that group's reactionary tenets, and his modest pictures did not reflect its grand pictorial rhetoric. The same year he was appointed schools inspector in Reggio Emilia and Modena.

A brief flirtation with the rustic outlook cultivated by the "strapaese" artists led Morandi to evoke 19th-century rural values in scenes of the Bolognese landscape. However, by 1929 he discarded such nostalgic associations and embarked on a series of still-lifes whose formal rigor—often bordering on pure abstraction—would establish his reputation for posterity. Figure painting occupied only a minute portion of his work, and of his 1,300 paintings fewer than a dozen were portraits. Even in the face of Fascism he resisted propagandistic pressure and pursued his own course.

In 1930 Morandi was named professor of Intaglio at the Bolognese academy, a post he held until 1956, though curiously he produced few etchings of his own after 1933. Morandi's etchings complement his paintings and are equally exquisite. He worked carefully, experimenting with technique, and often employed antique papers for their subtle texture. Though he worked in black and white his forceful use of cross-hatching created a colorism that enhances his tranquil still-life compositions. The etchings received early critical acclaim, and several made during the 1940s were planned for use as illustrations in monographs on the artist. Morandi's craftsmanship in this medium may have played a part in the widespread revival of print workshops at mid-century in Italy and elsewhere.

In his late years, as Morandi honed his "cast of characters"—the bottles and crockery of his still-lifes—his work defied aesthetic categorization. His pictures wavered between reverence for objects and dilution of their forms. The soft pastel colors recall Piero della Francesca, and he composed with the intellectual rigor of a classicist. Though he was fond of early Renaissance masters, Morandi's subtle formal manipulations and steady individualism set him apart as modern. His efforts were rewarded in 1948 with the first prize for Italian painting at the Venice Biennial and membership in the Accademia di San Luca. He also won the top award for international painting at the Sao Paolo Biennial in 1957. An exhibition of his work in Winterthur, Switzerland, as well as a Cezanne exhibition in Zurich, lured Morandi from his homeland in 1956, the only occasion on which he left Italy. In 1963 Morandi was given the gold medal of Bologna, and on June 18, 1964, he died in the city of his birth. Often referred to as a "painter's painter," Morandi had proceeded with a self-discipline that brought him lasting respect.


Further Reading on Giorgio Morandi

Morandi's place in Italian art is discussed in James Thrall Soby and Alfred Barr, Twentieth Century Italian Art (1949). A fine recent exhibition catalogue is Giorgio Morandi, the Des Moines Art Center, with a preface by James T. Demetrion and essays by Luigi Magnani, Joan M. Lukach, Kenneth Baker, and Amy Namowitz Worthen (1981). This catalogue includes historical and critical analyses of his paintings and etchings. Lamberto Vitali published a general catalogue raisonnéof Morandi's work in Italian in 1977.