Monday, March 4, 2013


One of the joys of my life is that people send me stuff. Joys and banes as I rarely have time to do the blog/book/film/insight/poem/song/youtube justice.

One work I've recently loved, though, is a collection of essays by reader Morgan J. Meis called Ruins. (Morgan is married to Stefany Anne Golberg, whose reflection on the emotional life of plants you may remember from  last year). His subjects range from Moby Dick to Francis Bacon to David Foster Wallace to the Katyn Massacre

Walking the deserted trails of Pittsburgh's Schenley Park last week was a perfect opportunity to mull over Morgan's reflection on Italian painter Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964). He's graciously allowed me to publish it, so to whet your appetite for Ruins, here it is:

By the time Giorgio Morandi discovered himself as an artist he had reduced his universe to a handful of things. These were primarily bottles, tins, jugs, vases, and a few bowls. In a pinch, Morandi was perfectly happy with two tins and a vase. He would arrange the three things and then paint them. Generally he stuck to a muted palate: grays and beige, an overall preponderance of brown. Even when Morandi used brighter colors it still seemed like brown dressing up in drag for the occasion. His paintings do the opposite of pop. They simmer. They wait for you to come to them.

If Morandi painted his two tins and vase in one arrangement one day, he would move the vase a few inches and paint them anew the next day. These minute transformations amazed Morandi. He didn't need anything more. A slight change in the light, a subtle shift in direction, and his world of three things was forever fresh and new.

By all rights, these ought to be the most boring paintings in history. Nothing happens in them. They aren't quite abstract and so do not have the formal freedom to impress us with proportion and color like Mondrian or a wildness in pure movement and action like Pollock. They aren't full-bodied realism either and so cannot show us the richness of fruits and flowers and so forth from traditional still lives nor the striking still life deconstructions by someone like Cezanne. Morandi is content to do as close to nothing as a painter can do. He sits at his easel, year after year, shifts his two tins and the one damn vase, and then paints the scene in his own special vision of muted brownness.

Yet, these are extraordinarily beautiful and moving paintings.

That's the shock of it. How did this homely and private Italian man pull it off? People who like to make a distinction between those who merely paint and those who are "painter's painters" like to brag about Morandi and his monkish dedication to the study of light and space and color. Well, he was monkish and unworldly and he loved nothing more than the act of painting, the physical process by which a human being applies a wet, colored substance to a canvas using strokes from a brush. People also like to point out that Morandi studied the paintings of Renaissance masters, particularly Piero della Francesca and Caravaggio. Morandi did learn from these painters, and he carried a certain Renaissance detachment to his studies of objects and the way that they look.

Being a painter's painter is fine, but it doesn't explain the broader appeal of Morandi's work. The results of these paintings are compelling beyond the lessons that they provide for those who think deeply about the practice of painting. The same is true of the Renaissance. It is possible to be excited by Morandi's canvases without seeing them as continuing a tradition of the Quattro and Cinquecento.

Morandi himself never provided much of a roadmap. His most famous comment regarding his own work is, "nothing is more abstract than reality." It's a nicely gnomic utterance and interpreters have jumped all over it. Truly, late Morandi landscapes like Paesaggio (1962)—essentially a couple of blocks of white surrounded by fluffy gray-green spirals and a few hints of pink—are as close to abstraction as any realist painter would dare to get. When Morandi looked at a landscape he looked at it as areas of shape and color counterposed against other areas of shape and color.

But another famous Morandi quote reveals a rather straightforward naturalism. He said, "What interests me most is expressing what's in nature, in the visible world, that is." That's a commitment to representing the world as we actually encounter it. When you put these two things together you don't get a contradiction exactly, but you do get a certain amount of confusion. The two quotes lead us directly to a third: " Everything is a mystery, ourselves, and all things both simple and humble."

I think Morandi is exciting because he is sneaky and he's 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, draw you in to his Circean web. Once you're drawn in, Morandi has you. He takes you through a nearly infinite set of examples of how much control he has over the very objects that normally mark our limits as human beings. Every day we are impinged upon. Every day we serve the mute indifference of things, stuff that we cannot control.

Morandi pared his universe down to just a few of those things. He took away the background and the foreground. He shifted everything into a color spectrum of his own choosing. You can actually watch him do it. In the still lives from the late 30's, there's still a sense of menace in some of the objects. An uncomfortable contrast in white and black and red makes the vases and bottles project outright menace. Natura morta (1937, V. 221) and natura morta (1938, V. 225) are chaotic and threatening works; the objects are not under any direct artistic control. By the early 40s, Morandi has figured things out, literally. He has decided how he wants things to be. Things, objects, are going to play by his rules.

Thus the obsessiveness of Morandi's last two decades. He knew what he was up against and he knew what he had to do. He had to make 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. For twenty-five 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. Always, he was able to overcome these variables and make the objects look as he wanted them to look. Take a painting like natura morta (1954, V. 906). This is a vase and three tins not as they are found on an actual kitchen table, but as Morandi would have them. 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 a handful of objects upon it—and he waged a war on all those material things that resist our attempts to understand them. We may never understand them, say Morandi's paintings, but we can make of them something grand, something brown, and something completely our own.


  1. I am an ardent admirer of Morandi thanks for sharing and your insights. Although I am a painter (mostly icons/some conceptual work, and I have been trying my hand at landscapes, I am thinking of following Morandi and challenging myself with some still-lifes. Blessings and much obliged.

  2. The park paintings capture the atmosphere of Schenley Park. I grew up in Pittsburgh and spent a lot of my childhood running around those places. Thanks for this post.

  3. Fascinating story, wonderful art. But...nothing beats your photo of the broken steps. Without your photography, I wouldn't notice those steps unless I tripped on them. Which, of course, I likely would.

  4. I think you're dead on about Morandi's art being a manifestation of egoism... and this is exactly the reason why it holds power that can either illuminate or destroy. His mundane paintings communicate a message of human control, and I think such a message might just shock us into an understanding that when we attempt to control the objective world around us, it looses its luster. The fuller the power we exercise over something or someone else, the more the colors fade. In this sense, I don't think it's an accident that Morandi's art is, actually, dull. It represents the world as perceived by an egoist.

  5. oops, Lydia, I just tried to hit "Publish" on my phone and accidentally deleted your comment which was, folks, "Sorry to be dense but is that a a photo or a painting of Schenley Park?"

    I'm thinking you mean the top image which is a photo. They're all photos except the middle Morandi paintings and the very last image, also Morandi, a landscape.

  6. Heather, you write more beautiful stuff than I can possibly keep up with. From this random reader, who sometimes feels sad that he knows few people for whom Bresson is a patron saint (or who would know what that means): thank you for all that you do.

    I am writing, too, because I don't know if you saw a piece called "You Will Become Catholic" by Joe Hoover, SJ, at the blog The Jesuit Post?

    You may like it. It's full of truth and reminded me of something you wrote at the beginning of Lent. I often pass your work along to my Jesuit friends, so maybe this is an opportunity to return the favor.

    God bless,

  7. Nicholas, LOVED THE JOE HOOVER POST! omg. Laughed, cried, and identified straight down the line. Even though I don't have kids I just know if I did, I'd be sitting on their beds thinking Where did I go wrong? Did I not take them fishing? Did I not tell them my best jokes...

    He captures the whole bizarre inexplicable phenomenon (if that's even the word) of why we become and/or stay Catholics...

    Anyway, I even left a comment, and passed him on to a Catholic friend (also sports/politics junkie) who lives in the Madison WI area, and I'm sure I'll link to the post myself at some point.

    Thank you and thanks for your kind words about Shirt of Flame..


I WELCOME your comments!!!