Giorgio Morandi - Biography and Legacy
Italian Painter and Printmaker
Biography of Giorgio Morandi
Childhood and Education
Giorgio Morandi was the eldest of five children, born into a middle-class family in Bologna, Italy. His only brother died in childhood. Morandi developed an interest in art from an early age, displeasing his father who wanted his son to join him in his export business; Morandi attempted this unsuccessfully in 1906 before enrolling at the Bologna Academy of Fine Arts in 1907. His pursuit of art as a career is owed in part to his failure at his father's company, his resistance to changing his focus on art despite his father's best efforts, and because of his mother's belief that her son should follow his dreams.
Although his father's unexpected death in 1908 left him to care for his mother and three younger sisters, Morandi continued with his studies with the support of his mother. It was during this study that he was first exposed to Futurism and Cubism, which influenced his earliest work. Morandi also studied the Old Masters, explaining in his 1928 autobiography that "only an understanding of the most vital achievements in painting over the past centuries could help me find my way." He graduated in 1913, but extended his education with travel throughout Italy, including a trip to the Venice Biennale. These trips would later prove important, since after the 1920s, Morandi rarely traveled internationally; most of his subsequent exposure to artists came through art books. In particular, he studied the work of the Impressionists such as Claude Monet, and later greats like Paul Cézanne and Georges Seurat. He also did travel within Italy, primarily to visit museums and exhibitions, and was much more travelled than some historical accounts make him out to be.
Morandi's early career was interrupted when he was drafted into the Italian army during World War I. As a highly private individual, communal army life did not agree with him. Shortly after he had a breakdown that resulted in a quick discharge from the service and forced a slowing of his artistic output during the following years.
Beginning in 1916, Morandi briefly worked in the style of the Metaphysical School and participated in group exhibitions focused on this movement. This was the first time his art was recognized on the international stage and it has been argued that this period gave him the confidence to experiment further. Yet, despite his association with leading artists of that school, including close relations with Carlo Carra and Giorgio de Chirico, he later denied the influence of this style on his future work and stated that he never painted anything that he could not see with his own eyes. Even if history is hard to trace here, as in much of his life, art historians have placed much importance on pittura metafisica as a milestone in Morandi's development. Also important are the artist's early encounters with modern ideas through contemporary artists, for instance Carlo Carra's 1910 statement "artistic creation demands a vigilant, diligent, attentive willpower and requires a constant effort not to lose the apparitions, which are nothing more than lightning bolts of ordinary things that when they illuminate create the essentials that are so precious to us modern artists." This idea seems to echo powerfully throughout Morandi's artistic exploration.
Soon after, Morandi moved towards the modernist style for which he is best-known, featuring simple, quietly elegant still lifes of everyday domestic objects such as bottles and jars or landscapes depicting his immediate environment. In his still life works, he developed a serial style where he depicted groups of objects with only the slightest variations in spacing or positioning. While most of these works were paintings, Morandi often also turned to etchings to capture these objects in the limited palette of black and white.
For many years Morandi preserved a quiet, daily routine. Most of his painting took place in his studio, a small room in an apartment shared with his three sisters and his mother (he lived his whole life with his 3 unwed sisters). Despite its size, the room was well-lit and provided a view from his window of the surrounding landscape, one of two scenes he repeatedly depicted. (The other landscape was based on views in the mountain town of Grizzana where Morandi often spent the summer months with his family and where he would eventually build a vacation home and studio.) His monastic lifestyle is further crystallized by the dust that settled on the many bottles and objects Morandi used in his still lifes. For example, historian John Rewald wrote after a visit to the artist's studio: "No skylight, no vast expanses; an ordinary room of a middle-class apartment lit by two ordinary windows. But the rest was extraordinary: on the floor, on the shelves, on a table, everywhere, boxes, bottles, vases, all kinds of containers in all kinds of shapes... On the surfaces of the shelves or tables, as well as on the flat tops of boxes, cans or similar receptacles, there was a thick layer of dust. It was a dense, gray, velvety dust, like a soft coat of felt, its color and texture seemingly providing the unifying element for these tall boxes and deep bowls, old pitchers and coffee pots, quaint vases and tin boxes."
In 1922, Giorgio de Chirico said Morandi was "trying to rediscover and create everything by himself." This could be the key insight to understanding the stubborn quest that Morandi took upon himself that would occupy the whole of his life. He saw value to the process of study and technical preparation and criticized contemporaries who disdained these traditions; much later in life, when Morandi saw the works of the Abstract Expressionists, he reflected that Jackson Pollock "just jumps in before he knows how to swim."
Despite his humble and secluded lifestyle, Morandi was quickly recognized as a notable and influential modern artist. Flying in the face of contemporary painting in the vein of Surrealism or abstraction, his mastery of a formal vocabulary of color, light, and composition began to draw attention. In 1934, Roberto Longhi, the newly appointed chair of the University of Bologna's art history department, declared that Morandi was "one of the best painters living." The statement was rather surprising because Morandi was locally known primarily as an unassuming professor of etching, not the master to be mentioned in the tradition of Carracci and other Bolognese greats. Mirroring his aesthetic devotion to technique and formal experimentation, teaching art was an important part of Morandi's life; he taught drawing in the local elementary schools for years before joining the faculty of his alma mater, the Bologna Academy of Fine Arts as Professor of Etchings in 1930. He would remain with the Academy for decades, even as he gained international renown, preferring the peace and stability of a regular position, away from the major artistic centers of Europe.
Morandi's politics remain uncertain. The Italian art historian Lionello Venturi, who was forced to leave Italy for his anti-Fascist views, argued that Morandi's insistence upon simple, unassuming objects held political implications as an ironic refusal of more grandiose aesthetics under Mussolini. A more recent 2004 publication by Morandi's assistant Janet Abramowicz, claimed that he was friendly with the early Fascist regime, and was the beneficiary of employment, exhibitions, sales, and overall wider acclaim because of his connections to the government during these years.
Regardless of how Morandi may have collaborated with Mussolini's regime in the early years, by the time World War II approached, the artist appears to have separated himself from politics and escaped into neutrality. In 1943, Morandi was arrested and jailed for about a week under suspicion of participating in resistance movements, although it is more likely that he was brought in as part of a general sweep of the creative personalities of the time. Following the incarceration, the Morandi family moved to Grizzana to escape the chance of further trouble with Bolognese authorities and to allow him to continue his work in a serene setting.
Many world events passed by, but Morandi stubbornly continued to focus on mostly still life, working with a small range of similar compositions to mature his technique and form over the decades. It may be inferred that Morandi fell in love with the simple objects he bought at second-hand shops, he stared and analyzed their forms day and night - such passion may help explain his deep devotion to his select subjects.
His few landscapes reflected the increasing modernity of the world around him; the wires and antennae that were now part of the view from his studio window began to appear, albeit abstractly, in his 1950s paintings. For 26 years, Morandi retained his post as a professor of etching at the Academy, only leaving in 1956 to pursue artmaking full-time as a well-established painter, finally financially secure from selling his work. (Prior to that, he and his family struggled financially, and he fought with his dealers over sales and proper representation.)
The majority of his critical triumph occurred in the last 15 years of his life: he won a major prize at the 1948 Venice Biennale and at the 1957 Sao Paulo Biennale. He was also heralded for his work in contrast to the modern "isms" at Documenta 2 in Kassel in 1959.
Yet, even in his late years, Morandi preferred to concentrate on his work rather than focus on exhibitions and international esteem. He once declined an invitation to be exhibited because he found the organizers too insistent: "They really want to deprive me of that small measure of calm that is necessary for my work." Still, his fame grew; Morandi's art even found its way into Italian popular culture near the end of his life when Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini included a scene in which actor Marcello Mastroianni discusses a work by Morandi in his 1960 film La dolce vita.
Morandi passed away in 1964 from lung cancer. He was seldom seen without a cigarette most of his life and supposedly smoked each one to the tip, just short of burning his hands. In his final months, he joked in a letter "Can you imagine that for three days I haven't had a cigarette".
The Legacy of Giorgio Morandi
The famous Italian writer Umberto Eco gave a 1993 speech inaugurating the Morandi Museum in Bologna including this excerpt: "How can you tell such different stories by depicting not a nativity or a storm at sea, a sunset on a lake or the birth of spring, but an array of objects from a junk shop? You have to love the world and the things that are in the world, even the humblest, the light and shadow gladdening or saddening them, and the very dust that chokes them. Morandi reaches the peak of his spirituality as a poet of matter."
Focusing on formal rhythms and subtle palette modulations, Morandi modernized still life painting with an attention to color, form, and composition that declared these traditional components to be meaningful. The subtleties of his palette, light, and brushstroke are vital to a fuller understanding of his lifelong project, and his influence on later artists, yet his work suffers in reproduction and remains excruciatingly difficult to describe on the written page; they are sensual experiences that resist concrete language.
Still, he remains a model for many generations of artists. His resistance to abstraction provided an important model for later generations in various stylistic movements, including representational painters of the Pop style and the 1980s. He was also influential to the Minimalists, who admired his attention to simple physicality, medium-specificity and sparse forms. Additionally, his work inspired assemblage artists such as Joseph Cornell and Louise Nevelson, who also created sculptures based on careful combinations of ordinary objects.