Giorgio Morandi’s Beloved Still Lifes Have Unsettling Ties to 20th-Century Fascism

Alina Cohen
Oct 22, 2018 6:33PM

A nubby canvas supports creamy pastel brushstrokes that coalesce into the rippling edges of bowls, a vase,a folded yellow cloth, and a jar in Giorgio Morandi’s Natura morta (Still Life) (1952), a representative work from his larger, decades-long series of still lifes. The lushly textured props, positioned atop a brown surface that looks more like unformed clay than a table, bump against one another in the center of the painting. The background is a monochromatic tan, while two lines—a thin brown one dividing the painting in half horizontally, and a thicker, gray-brown strip at the bottom—suggests the table’s edges. The setting is hazy, veering into abstraction; color, shape, and mood interested Morandi more than realistic renderings of objects and places. This painting, like much of the artist’s oeuvre, allows a temporary escape into a delectably quiet, timeless aesthetic environment.

Giorgio Morandi
Natura morta, 1950
Galleria d'Arte Maggiore G.A.M.

Morandi is famous for transforming simple cups, jars, and bottles into objects of reverence. Spending most of his life (1890–1964) in Bologna, the artist returned to his studio day after day for decades, reconfiguring and repainting the same mundane tokens of domestic life. Morandi looked at only a few unexceptional objects throughout his career, but found infinite permutations and perspectives to depict them. The artist’s humble yet masterful practice argues for the importance of small, poetic gestures in lieu of large, flashy statements. “In my ideal world,” Peter Schjeldahl once wrote, “the home of everyone who loves art would come equipped with a painting by Giorgio Morandi, as a gymnasium for daily exercise of the eye, mind, and soul.”

Portrait of Giorgio Morandi, via Wikimedia Commons.

Giorgio Morandi
Via Fondazza Courtyard, 1963
Robilant + Voena

The Italian artist’s paintings have their own soft mystique, but varying accounts of his biography offer a more complicated story. “For art history, as codified in textbooks, and galleries and museums, Morandi has remained an outsider, alienated from the great movements that created modern art,” wrote Laura Mattioli, founder and president of the Center for Italian Modern Art, in Giorgio Morandi: Late Paintings (2017). Yet the artist has influenced art world heavyweights, suggesting more of an aesthetic lineage, perhaps, than the typical art history course proposes. Mattioli has noted that Morandi’s serial production of one similar canvas after the next places him “at the center of the most innovative artistic debates of the fifties and sixties.” She likened Morandi’s still lifes to Andy Warhol’s oft-repeated “Flowers” (ca. 1964–70) and Josef Albers’s iterative series “Homage to the Square” (ca. 1950–75).

Schjeldahl has also suggested a connection to the impastoed work of midcentury painter Philip Guston. Similarly, Wayne Thiebaud’s depictions of cakes from the 1960s, which employ thick dabs of paint as a baker might use frosting, literalize the sumptuous application of paint that Morandi seemed to advocate. More recently, artists like Sean Scully and Vija Celmins have written about Morandi’s effect on their practices. Contemporary artists’ overall admiration for Morandi’s technique has led to his reputation as a “painter’s painter,” though his work is also easy on the uninitiated eye.

Morandi arrived at his career-defining style in the mid-1920s. He attended Bologna’s Accademia di Belle Arti from 1907 to 1913, studying the work of artists ranging from Early Renaissance master Piero della Francesca to French still-life aficionado Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin to modernist forerunner Paul Cézanne. He also considered the nascent Cubist movement and engaged with fellow Italian Giorgio de Chirico’s Metaphysical School, which promoted artmaking that looked beyond lived experience to the supernatural realm. Over the next few years, Morandi experimented with landscapes, self-portraits, and still lifes with a more angular style. Before long, however, the artist turned inward, settling into the simple subject matter at hand in his studio.

Scholars still debate whether Morandi was quite as reclusive as much of the mythology about him suggests. “There seem to be two stories, the first of which—the life of St. Giorgio the Hermit—is the more popular,” wrote Holland Cotter in the New York Times. In the second story, “a shy but cosmopolitan painter socializes regularly with fellow artists and keeps up, through books and magazines, with art developments in the larger world.” The latter narrative suggests that the artist traveled within Italy and engaged in the country’s politics. The truth, Cotter suggested, lies somewhere in between.

Associating Morandi with the politics of his time chips away at the artist’s perceived saintliness: “In the first years of Mussolini’s dictatorship, Morandi was a full-blown Fascist,” Blake Gopnik asserted in the Washington Post. The infamous dictator, in fact, once purchased Morandi’s work.

In 1928, Il Sevaggio magazine founder Mino Maccari wrote that Morandi’s work had “italianissima” and “deep roots in our most genuine tradition…nourished by the same vital sap that gave us the world and can only return it to us.” In other words, the journalist connected Morandi’s muted artworks and cloistered lifestyle to a larger fascistic nationalist project that lionized rural Italian life and rejected worldliness and global engagement. In a 2013 article, art historian Mariana Aguirre argued that Morandi embraced a program of regionalism that linked his practice with the day’s political currents. Aguirre wrote that the artist imitated the hues and textures of Renaissance frescoes, connecting his work to a centuries-old national tradition instead of to any contemporary fad.

Even more damning, perhaps, is Aguirre’s assertion that Morandi’s fascist connections aided his career. In 1930, members of the Strapaese (“Supercountry”) aesthetic movement, which aligned itself with Mussolini’s right-wing politics, helped Morandi receive an appointment at the Accademia, teaching etching. “Though his still lifes and landscapes look like mere formal exercises when taken out of context,” Aguirre wrote, “they participated in the creation of a fascist visual language that elevated the purity of Italian provincial life and values at the expense of cosmopolitanism and formal exploration.”

The more palatable story—of a monastic painter who devoted himself to his practice, free of worldly concerns—turns out, per usual, to be a product of dubious mythmaking and artistic fetishization. While they might appear subdued, Morandi’s canvases are singularly gorgeous. Yet his ambiguously political biography creates a fraught tension in the works. Perhaps Morandi’s own artwork offers a guide to reconciling these seemingly at-odds conditions: If we look ever more closely at the same details from different perspectives, maybe we can finally arrive at some kind of truth.

Alina Cohen
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019