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Moving Still Lifes

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Morandi's Obsession with Ordinary Inspired Extraordinary Talent

To the average observer, jars, vases, bottles and silverware are plain-old everyday necessities. To Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), they were inspirational. The more Morandi studied the objects in his home, the more he admired them and sought to immortalize them in paint. And now, the “Morandi: Master of Modern Still Life” exhibit at the Phillips Collection gives us a chance to return the favor.

“His paintings are very peaceful, very contemplative, very quiet, and the more you look, the more you see,” said Eliza Rathbone, chief curator at the museum. “They’re quite extraordinary that way. They kind of draw you in.”

The retrospective — the first in more than 50 years — looks at an artist often called a recluse for obsessively secluding himself in his small Bologna studio, and a genius because of his talent for translating his obsessive observations into meditative still lifes.

In addition to these well-known still lifes, the 61 works in the exhibition include etchings, landscapes and self-portraits. A large portion of the pieces comes from collections in Italy and represents Morandi’s earlier years, while the rest was culled from collections in the United States.

In 1957, the Phillips was the first American museum to present the Italian artist’s work. Rathbone brought Morandi back for a simple reason: “He’s one of the great painters of the 20th century, a painter whose work really fits well in the Phillips,” she said. “Morandi drew for inspiration on artists who are in the collection here,” she noted, listing Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin and Paul Cézanne. “But he added his own modern vision to theirs. He’s a very original, unique artist.”

The Phillips collaborated with Italy’s Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto for the show. Rathbone selected the pieces “very carefully, very thoughtfully, just like Morandi, who was a very careful, thoughtful artist,” she said. “A lot of the works coming from Italy are earlier works — the majority — and so over on this side of the Atlantic, we looked for the best examples of later works to balance the exhibition.”

Compare two of Morandi’s floral works, for example, to see his evolution. His 1928 “Flowers” painting depicts a bunch of flowers lying loosely on a table. The color palette is dark, all browns and creams. His 1952 “Flowers” painting, however, is awash in light, with a few pink and white flowers arranged in a white vase with blue accents against a light brown table.

Although Rathbone said she has no single favorite Morandi work, she does prefer the 1953 “Still Life,” the first of two Morandi pieces purchased by Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection.

“It’s an absolute jewel,” she said. “It has very subtle tonalities and very gentle, soft shadows cast by the objects. They sit in a space which is not defined. It doesn’t say that this is a table that they rest on; it doesn’t say this is the background behind it or this is the edge of the table — none of that is even described. And they sit. They sit in a way that you completely believe in. And the yellow of a box that’s in the center of the composition, it seems like the most pure, the most true, the most refreshing yellow you’ve ever seen.”

Morandi clung to earth tones, creating serene browns, beiges, greens and pinks, though he sometimes used a shock of bright blue or orange in his works, too.

“People describe the colors he uses as unnamable,” Rathbone said. “His work is almost indescribable. His still lifes have a quality that is quite beyond simple description of simple objects. They are very visually beautiful, but they’re also very philosophical and very nuanced and very balanced in unexpected ways. He had a color sense that was extremely subtle and refined. They’re just so beautiful. They take your breath away.”

Photographs in the exhibit also offer a glimpse into Morandi’s studio, one of the rooms in his mother’s modest house from which the artist rarely strayed.

Morandi also didn’t stray too often from still lifes, and although he created a few self-portraits, he did not paint his mother or three unmarried sisters, with whom he lived.

“I think that he was so absorbed by what he was painting, that it was so infinitely fascinating to him, he had no need or interest” to paint them, Rathbone speculated. “He found unlimited fascination with the possibilities inherent in still lifes. He’s just one of those artists who by narrowing his focus, found he could go more and more deeply into what this subject had to offer him — and so he did.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 8, 2014