The Metaphysician of Bologna: John Berger on Giorgio Morandi, in 1955

Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta (Still Life), 1956, oil on canvas. ©2015 ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/SIAE, ROME/PRIVATE COLLECTION, SWITZERLAND

Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta (Still Life), 1956, oil on canvas.


Giorgio Morandi’s spare still lifes usually feature only a few objects, many of which tend to be in shades of beige or off-white, and prefigure the work of the Minimalists and Light and Space artists, who would look to him in the 1960s and ’70s for inspiration. A show at David Zwirner that opened today focuses on paintings that the Italian artist, who lived from 1890 to 1964, made in the last two decades of his life. Writing for the February 1955 issue of ARTnews, the future art historian John Berger picked up on the experiential aspect of Morandi’s work, calling it “monastic” for its restraint. Berger’s full essay follows below.

“Morandi the metaphysician of Bologna”
By John Berger

Italy is steeped in history. A platitude if ever there was one. Yet I mean it in a special way. It is not only the obvious and the obscure monuments in Italy that create a sense of history; it is also the Italian light and weather. In other climates ancient buildings collapse or become overgrown; in Italy the process of aging and erosion is very much slower and purer—barring bombs.

The typical Italian light by which one sees a landscape, a house, a town, seems to emphasize the age, the comparative durability, the almost unchanging construction of the scene. The heat forms a slight haze which takes the edge off temporary, superficial details, but at the same time the constant clarity of the light exaggerates the apparently permanent identity of every object.

In England, by contrast, the dramatically changing light lends to every scene a sense of movement and flux—think of Constable or Turner. In other Northern countries the light seems to fence in the scene, giving it either a domestic character, or else—outside the fence—a wild, mysterious one. Only in the Mediterranean and particularly in Italy is one made visually aware of the gradual, impersonal, open, passing of time—the days falling like single grains of sand in an hourglass.

Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta (Still Life), 1962, oil on canvas. ©2015 ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/SIAE, ROME/PRIVATE COLLECTION, SWITZERLAND

Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta (Still Life), 1962, oil on canvas.


I don’t want to make too much of this observation. It could easily become over-subjective. But I can think of no other way of describing how peculiarly Italian Giorgio Morandi’s art is. His work contains no obviously Roman or Renaissance echoes. Nor does it express the conventional energy and zest of the Italian temperament. His work is specifically Italian only because his paintings and etchings evoke so precisely this particular quality of light—the same quality, though interpreted in a very different way, that one finds in the work of, say, Piero della Francesca or Giovanni Bellini.

Morandi’s subject-matter is peculiarly limited: undramatic landscapes, flower-pieces of paper roses, still-lifes of bottles. Yet in any ordinary international exhibition the definite character of his work would stand out. It has the character which art that springs from a profound respect for a particular environment always seems to have. And in an age in which a pretentious internationalism of style encourages every artist to feel that he is a potential World Figure, such quiet, parochial humility as Morandi’s is rare and dignified.

Morandi was born in 1890. He is now considered one of the Grand Old Men of Italian painting—though considering the extreme tentativeness of his art, the word “grand” is perhaps inappropriate. He has never been outside Italy. His home is Bologna. The development of his art has been slow, consistent and unambitious. As a young man he experimented, like Carrà and de Chirico, with the idea of Metaphysical painting, producing still-lifes of bottles and bowls, oppressive with a wooden, deliberately meaningless solidity. But he was never, like his two compatriots, a didactic theorist, and he quickly developed a less literary, more personal style in which he has continued working ever since, concentrating only on greater and greater subtlety.

It would be easy to dismiss Morandi as an artist whose sensibility is so delicate it can only be considered anemic. His outlines are shaky, his colors are pale and powdery, his use of tone reminds one of an old woman wrapping up porcelain ornaments in tissue paper, his choice of subject matter is repetitive and utterly lacks all initiative. But to do so would be too easy. Morandi’s unpretentious acceptance of his own limitations forces one to accept them oneself. If one looks into one of his landscapes—a foreground of pale, bleached grass, a few poplar trees or a cypress, a biscuit-colored house, a blue sky made soft with white dust—one begins to see that within its excessively delicate vision it contains very precise and sharp observation. His pictures have the inconsequence of margin notes but they embody true observation. Light never convinces unless it has space to fill: Morandi’s subjects exist in space. However frayed, worked, muted the objects in his pictures may be, warm air surrounds them, the ground plane on which they stand comes forward, distances increase, and when one form comes to the front of another, one can calculate the exact number of inches or yards between them. His famous still-lifes of bottles have the same passive precision as his landscapes. One suspects that the bottles only contain a little water for sprinkling on the floor or eau-de-cologne for cooling the forehead—certainly nothing as strong as wine. Yet they convince—one suspends belief in the clamorous life outside the secluded room in which they stand—because of the accuracy of the contemplation that lies behind them: a contemplation so exclusive and silent that one is convinced that nothing else except Morandi’s cherished light could possibly fall on the table or shelf—not even another speck of dust.

Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta (Still Life), 1952, oil on canvas. ©2015 ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/SIAE, ROME/PRIVATE COLLECTION

Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta (Still Life), 1952, oil on canvas.


In his etchings Morandi uses stronger tonal contrasts than in his paintings. But their subject-matter is the same and they imply the same aloofness and the same sense of the objects portrayed beings cherished relics of some sort. Technically they are masterly. Again in contrast to so many of his contemporaries, Morandi refuses to rely on rhetoric. There is no “epic” struggle with the copper and acid: the medium winning some rounds and the artist others. Every square centimeter of the plate is bitten according to plan. The gradation of the cross-hatching from a tone of grey muslin to deep black is flawless; the white dots and lines between the “grid” of the cross-hatching are never blurred or fouled. They are made—these etchings—in the spirit with which a few old women can make lace.

Yet having said all this, one must beware of exaggerating. Vitale Bloch wrote in the catalogue of Morandi’s recent exhibition in Holland and London that his work has “an incomparable moral impact” and sounds “a sombre note of a rappel à l’ordre.” This is to see Morandi out of all historical and social perspective. If ever there was an artist in an ivory tower it is Morandi and for that very reason he can have very little moral impact of any sort. Indeed Bloch really admits this himself when he says earlier in the same essay that Morandi’s studio and home “seem to belong to another era, an era which has come to a standstill at the Via Fondazza in Bologna.”

As for a recall to order, again that can only mean something if the example set derives from a new assimilation of experience. Morandi’s work derives from rejection: it is monastic.

The true significance of Morandi’s work is rather different. The crisis of Western art today is due to the isolation, the over-specialization and, above all, the inflated sense of individuality of the artist. Morandi’s example cannot in the least alter the truth of this, but it can remind us that there is such a thing as a genuine recluse who can still belong to—and not sabotage—the humanist tradition. I defend Morandi’s work because for an artist inhabiting an ivory tower he is remarkably humble; or, to put it another way, because he allows the same light to fall on his few precious, eccentric possessions as falls on Italy outside.

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