Some people say it with flowers, but Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) only ever needed the vase. He did depict blooms, of roses or zinnias, but they seem to have drooped and withered somewhat under the undoubted hours of intense scrutiny, while his assembled bottles, jars and sugar pots stand proud and permanent like miniature modern skyscrapers or ancient architectural wonders.
The small Italian institution in Islington has marked the fifteenth anniversary of its founding by showing an Italian artist known almost exclusively for such singularly specific and small arrangements of still lifes. It’s at pains to point out that Morandi also studied and absorbed the futurism and cubism of his contemporaries, before setting off on his lonely, object-strewn path. Yet his anomalous response to the feverish rush of twentieth century society is what sets him apart and what we celebrate him for. Morandi’s subdued palette and subject matter is probably also what makes him so phenomenally popular – he’s a tasteful, unchallenging antidote to the messy struggles of modern art.
All of which still does Morandi a disservice. Fellow artist Giorgio de Chirico described his friend’s work as encapsulating ‘the metaphysics of the commonplace’ and much, again unhelpfully, has been written on the unfathomable and mysterious nature of Morandi’s art. Focusing on his prints and drawings, as this show does, allows a closer look at what really makes Morandi special.
Even from the earliest landscapes of his native Bologna, it’s clear Morandi was on a mission to narrow down and hone his vision to ever-smaller target areas. Views of a bridge or a hillside soon give way to a single house, a tennis court or a clutch of chimneys. His tabletops also veer between near overpopulation, with half a dozen vessels struggling to hold their spot, to the later, more sparse compositions of only two or three cups or pitchers.
This abridgement had a practical reason, in that the painstaking cross-hatching became too hard for the ageing etcher’s arm, but it also reveals an artist who managed to coax incredible richness from progressively fewer and simpler objects. He seemed to prefer the moment when the lines began to waver into one another, when the certainty of their forms gave way to abstraction and atmosphere. For further proof, don’t leave this gem-like display without seeing the one oil work on long-term loan to the collection upstairs. It’s a 1962 milk jug seemingly morphed with two coffee cups to create a cave, a body or a face. Morandi wasn’t so much a man of mystery or monastic dedication, as an alchemist, spinning gold from clay or making heroic the dowdiest of water pitchers and wine bottles.