Still Life (Natura morta), 1920
“My only source of instruction has always been the study of works, whether of the past or contemporary artists, which can offer us an answer to our questions if we formulate these properly” .
Giorgio Morandi (b. 1890, Bologna, Italy–d. 1964, Bologna, Italy) had a long career as an artist lasting more than 40 years. As a teenager, after briefly working in the same company as his father, he was educated in the Fine Arts Academy of Bologna. While he was a student, he travelled to Florence, where he was able to see the works of early Renaissance painters like Giotto and Masaccio, whose austerity and simplicity struck a deep chord. At first, he followed the Futurist artists, but his work soon began to be heavily influenced by Giorgio de Chirico, the founder of metaphysical painting, who was interested in capturing the imagined inner life of everyday objects. With this goal in mind, he tended to depict them out of context and without any apparent relationship amongst each other, an idea that Morandi revisited in his Still Life (1920). From metaphysical painting, the artist took a focus on the simplicity of everyday things, meant as a way of striving to find a purer and more hidden state of being, as well as the stillness of the spaces, which may seem controlled and enclosed, yet nonetheless have a certain aura of mystery about them.
There are two aspects which make this Still Life particularly noteworthy: it is one of the few works that the painter made on a wooden board, and its rectangular shape is unusual in his output. This Still Life shows four objects carefully lined up on a flat surface, prompting a sense of serenity and harmony. Furthermore, the dim, diffuse light, which enters from the right, casts very dark shadows that reinforce the presence and volume of the four objects in the composition. In terms of the colors, despite the fact that it looks monochromatic, this work actually contains a palette ranging from cream to dark brown. All the tones are opaque and solid, and the painter applied them quite densely, thus giving the figures body—almost volume.
In his studio, which was also his home, Morandi organized and reorganized the same everyday objects into different compositions again and again, finding infinite possible ways to depict these banal household items. Kitchen items like glasses, bottles, or bowls were always an essential part of his iconography and became the main subject matter of his paintings.
In 1920, the year when this Still Life was painted, Morandi participated in several exhibitions held by the aesthetic and ideological movement called Valori plastici , which sought to devise a classicist language in art by interplaying the traditional and the modern. This group’s essential mission revolved around promoting a return to the Italian classical tradition of naturalism and restoring the national values, while also levelling a critique of the European avant-garde movements precisely because they were turning their backs on that tradition. In this sense, the artistic depiction of the shapes in this Still Life accurately reflects the group’s poetics, since the four objects meticulously arranged and depicted on the flat picture plane take on a striking geometric appearance which harks back to earlier times. Valori plastici is also associated with a magazine of the same name which supported the “back to order” movement, which in turn sparked a shift in the direction of art by rejecting what it regarded as extreme avant-gardism and drawing inspiration from traditional art, including a clear return to the classical figurative sources.
Morandi was a passionate student of art history, and the themes that interested him included Spanish painting and the 17th-century tradition of the still life. One of its practitioners was Francisco de Zurbarán, a painter particularly famous for his mastery of chiaroscuro and for his use of light to evince form, aspects that Morandi tried to transfer to his works.
Look carefully at the Giorgio Morandi work Still Life and list the four objects that appear in it. What might they have in common? Why do you think he chose to paint these objects? What would you use each of these objects for separately? And what do you think you could do with them all at the same time?
Notice that there is a certain distance between the objects. Why do you think this is? In reality, we can see that they are together, comprising a scene, yet they are also clearly separate at the same time. If you look carefully, the tallest objects are in the middle and the shorter ones are on either side. Can you imagine why he placed them like this? What kind of geometric shape could frame the entire composition?
In terms of the painting’s chromatism, why do you think he painted it using this color palette? What could you relate it to? How would the composition change if it were in other tones, such as a greenish or reddish shade range? Now try to imagine the same still life, but in electric or neon colors; how would this change your vision of the scene?
Now look at the shadows cast by the objects. Where do you think the light source that illuminates them is? Do you think it is natural or artificial light? In terms of the space, where do you think these objects are? Explain your answers.
Following the metaphysical painters, Morandi tried to explore the “imagined inner life of everyday objects,” and he even gave them individual attention by depicting them with space between them and fantasizing about the secret dialogue they might be having. In this painting specifically, what do you imagine they may be saying to each other? If you had to associate a kind of personality with each of these objects, how would you define them?
The Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico described Morandi’s works from this period as the “metaphysics of the most common objects.” Bearing in mind that metaphysical painting focused on depicting idealizations, dreams, impossible spaces, juxtapositions of objects, visionary worlds, and scenes that seem to spring directly from the unconscious and go beyond our physical reality, why do you think he might have said this while looking at Morandi’s Still Life?
We can see that stillness and darkness are key elements in this painting. If you had to associate a kind of music or sound with this scene, what would it be? What would it sound like?