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is giorgio morandi any good?

Post #64 • July 21, 2003, 10:09 AM

There’s a discussion going on Terry Teachout’s About Last Night regarding whether Giorgio Morandi is good. His reader asks,

Ask yourself - is this really beautiful? Exquisite? As good as Leo Da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks (London version)? I submit it is not. If it is not as beautiful, why should I care about it? Why is it worth my time or eyesight?

This is a discussion that I have had a few times already. The answer, in my opinion, is that Morandi is consummately good, but describing why is vexing.

Painting before Impressionism took it for granted that the world exists and that assumptions could be made about it. This is what allowed the Madonna of the Rocks to come into existence. Artists worked like stage directors, re-imagining the visual world as a world of geometry, arranging objects in a space according to the laws of perspective, and applying principles of light to the entire scene.

That was undone by Impressionism, which sought to capture the true colors of light as they reflected off surfaces. This approach treats the world as a sea of luminosity, and objects as imperfect mirrors tinted one color or another.

By attempting to put “bones” back into Impressionism, as Cezanne claimed he wanted to do, he turned his self-criticism to the perception of space. At this point, all hell broke loose. Form itself could be seen as a relativistic event, changing at the whim of circumstances of light, position, time, and texture. This is what analytical cubism drew out of Cezanne.

Morandi is heir to this doubt-filled tradition.

Lucien Freud said that he once thought that scrutiny alone could force life into pictures, but was forced to concede in the end that art derives from other art. This may be true, but Morandi is the exception – Morandi was able to force life into his paintings by his powers of scrutiny. He was able to perceive every gap between two bottles as an event (a holiday, even), and the energy he put into the process of seeing causes his paintings to ring with life.

Was he a superb draftsman like Leonardo? A colorist like Monet? A composer like Gericault? No, no, and no. His work is like the people in the stories of Chuang-tzu who are praised for being full of inner virtue with no outward sign of it.

In Wei, there was an ugly man by the name of Ai Tai To. Yet the men around him thought so much of him, the could never leave him. When young ladies saw him, they told their parents that they would rather be his concubines than other men’s wives. – Gai-Fu Feng, Chuang Tsu, Inner Chapters

Morandi’s work is like that. A still life of three bottles and a dusty candy dish seems to be loaded with with color even though the most intense one is milky terra cotta. The lines waver, but that only makes the air around the objects more present. They hum with energy, even though nothing happens in them. Their goodness is hard to pin down because it seems to be nowhere, yet it can be felt.

Museo Morandi

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