The Stillest of Lives

Jan 13, 2023 | Review

Masterpieces from the Magnani-Rocca Foundation. Estorick Collection.

Giorgio Morandi

Masterpieces from the Magnani – Rocca Foundation,
Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, January 6 – April 30.


I have the good fortune to live in a great city. Right now, London is a city besieged by public sector strikes and terrible cost of living crises, but miraculously there are still things to do which cost nothing, or very little. After the pandemic, cultural life has resumed its old shape and in the last month, since my own Covid- postponed exhibition of paintings ended, I have been treating myself to exhibitions of artists that I love, and whose work matters deeply to me.

My studio is a quiet, wintry place right now. Raw canvases are stacked up against the walls. My paints lie in rows, tidy in their pristine boxes. My palettes are wiped clean. The floor is mopped. My plan chest is sorted. The art books are back in alphabetical order. The walls are empty. My mind is empty. So a deep dive into the various dramas of Cézanne at Tate Modern, Lucien Freud at the National Gallery, and Käthe Kollwitz and Paula Modersohn-Becker at the Royal Academy has been simultaneously overwhelming and a tonic.

Grand painters, grand voices, grand museums.

Natura Morta, 1936                                                    Natura Morta, 1953

Today, at the Estorick, on this dark grey January day of the new year, standing in the elegant spaces of this lovely, small, but perfectly formed museum, in front of the paintings and etchings of the Bolognese painter Giorgio Morandi, I was reminded that not all painting is about grand drama. Small dramas are just as interesting and compelling as big dramas in the right hands, and the way a fluted vase nudges up against its companions in a Morandi still life can be just as compelling as a widescreen ecstatic vista of Mont Sainte-Victoire in a Cézanne, a monumental nude by Freud, or a tender drawing of a child by Kollwitz or Modersohn-Becker. All these artists invoke a recognition of our fragile mortality. All these artists remind us of the frailty of our too too solid flesh. Great art can be very quiet. This does not mean that it is mute.

Giorgio Morandi (1890 – 1964) is a strange figure in the history of modern Italian painting. He hardly travelled away from his native Bologna, where he lived quietly his whole life with his three spinster sisters. He taught printmaking at the university – and is a lovely printmaker himself – but his correspondence with his collector Luigi Magnani, whose collection is the focus of this show, illustrates a reticence about the demands of teaching. Exchanges with students must have been an unwelcome distraction from his almost monastic commitment to his singular vision, for Morandi’s subject matter is almost completely still life. Vases, flowers, cups and more vases. And the still lives are preternaturally still. Stiller than most things in this turning world. Cézanne’s vases tilt and lean and seem to be on the edge of falling over. They are kinetic. Morandi’s vases seem to evaporate in the cloudy air that presses down upon them.

It is hard to imagine how this quiet and rather timid man coped with being arrested and imprisoned by the Fascists in 1943. His work is so far from being “degenerate”. But in some ways the singularity of his vision and practice could be construed as subversive in its dedication to a kind of unfashionable minimalism. His figurative paintings are almost abstractions, but they are steeped in a great love of early Italian Renaissance painting. The great debt to Giotto, Masaccio and Piero della Francesca is clear in his use of colour. Smoky blues, blanched creams, smudgy greys, tenebrous umbers, and faded pinks have the chalky quality of fresco painting. His palette is highly reduced. His subject matter is reduced. His technique is reduced. But this very reduction is paradoxical. The paintings are very small but are sort of huge at the same time. They have an underwater quality that is deeply mysterious and metaphysical. Nothing is straight, nothing is solid. They seem to be made of air. His paintings grow in the looking at them.

Walt Whitman’s lines in Leaves of Grass come to mind; “I am large. I contain multitudes”.

Morandi’s paintings are small but they contain multitudes.


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