Still life, 1956, oil on canvas
Still life, 1956, oil on canvas

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If the folks at the Phillips Collection are looking to project a more contemporary image for their museum these days, surely they must realize that Giorgio Morandi isn’t the guy for the job. “Morandi: Master of Modern Still Life” pays tribute to an Italian painter who was hellbent on being the consummate ascetic modernist, so detached from the lives of people around him—and so driven to pursue the same subject in the same manner, over and over again—as to appear like an otherworldly, monomaniacal shut-in.

Morandi stayed away from the capitals of the art world, choosing to live out his entire life in his modest childhood home in Bologna, keeping close quarters with his mother and three sisters. In so doing, he seems to have followed the example of French painters like Edouard Vuillard and Paul Cézanne. Neither of them really left home for the sake of their art, either; both, at the height of their powers, were absorbed in domestic life, leisure time, and the collision of sensorium and memory—all typical late-19th-century obsessions in fine art.

Vuillard painted his maman sitting, sewing, or reading the newspaper (“My mother is my greatest muse!” he proclaimed), Cézanne rendered view after view of Montagne Sainte Victoire, the backdrop of his family’s home in Aix-en-Provence. Morandi went further than either of these predecessors in his withdrawal from the noise of the world.

There were some landscapes, and he attempted exactly seven self-portraits over the course of his life. But dusty bottles, vases, and teapots, rendered on canvases usually no more than 14-by-18-inches, remained the artist’s obsession through two world wars, up until his death in 1964. Morandi devoted decades to rendering small groups of these receptacles, all neatly configured in the center of a small table against a blank backdrop. Trips to Florence, a day’s travel away from his hometown, satisfied what little wanderlust the artist did have; he famously applied for his first passport at the age of 66. It’s hard to imagine any successful artist living in so disconnected a fashion in our über-interconnected present-day world.

Of course, exhibition schedules for museums are determined years in advance, so the Morandi show wasn’t planned with the museum’s new mission in mind.

New-ish director Dorothy Kosinski, who recently appointed Vesela Sretenovic as modern and contemporary art curator, has stated her intent to contextualize the Phillips’ fine modern collection with art of the present moment—which in general includes such un-Morandian tendencies as political engagement, cultural promiscuity, and working across various disciplines.

The show’s timing still seems puzzling, though, considering the far more exhaustive survey that was recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. That show, organized by the Met and the Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna, included more than 100 paintings by the reclusive Italian modernist. The Phillips show, by contrast, was organized with Elisabetta Barisoni, curator for the Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, and has a modest 47 objects total (including two exquisite Morandis from Duncan Phillips’ own collection). Only six pieces from the Met show turn up here.

Mind you, the Phillips has its own close ties to Morandi: In the late 1950s, a retrospective of some 60 pieces traveled here from World House Galleries in New York. But given all of the trumpeting about the Met show as the first full Morandi survey on these shores, the historical connection may not resonate much. That the Phillips show is not the touring version of the Met show, yet comes directly on its heels—a fact barely mentioned in press materials—will probably confuse more than a few museumgoers.

Still, any exhibition of Morandi’s work is a welcome development for lovers of painting. Besides, with Morandi, less may really be more. The sameness of so many of his mature pieces—separated only by subtle shifts in light and viewpoint, and slight movements or subtractions of a single object in otherwise identical compositions—makes the prospect of spending a day with a hundred or so of them in one place seem a little daunting.

The show begins with Morandi wandering in wilderness, at least stylistically. Though the artist may not have been willing to venture far from his nest, he was no naive outsider. For the first few decades of his career, Morandi tried on different hats, learning what he could from cubists and post-impressionists before discarding their devices. Self-Portrait, 1924—the only painting in the entire show depicting a human—fittingly depicts the artist’s face as an indeterminate mass of gray shadow, practically blank, waiting to have its details filled in. It’s a nice metaphor for the variety of assumed styles that surround it.

Still life (Natura morta), 1914, takes its cues from cubism. Morandi depicts a box, a pitcher, two bottles, and some oddly tilting unnameable object. He reduces them to straight lines, curves, and hard-edged colliding planes of murky brownish-grays, clearly following Picasso’s earlier attempts to deconstruct the traditional syntax of painting by indicating an object’s volume without recourse to light.

But the piece also reflects the dynamism of Italian futurism, of a world scattered by vectors and rays: The objects seem to stretch vertically, lifting themselves off of the small table on which they’re precariously resting. The table itself is a conundrum, shown in inverse perspective (getting larger as it recedes into space, rather than smaller) and sloping so far down into the bottom of the picture as to suggest that everything on it is about to slide right into the viewer’s lap. The painting shows Morandi both searching for the presentness of objects and pulling them apart with restless energy.

However, Still life, 1919 (they’re all titled this way), is a nearly complete about-face. Instead of dynamism, this picture is all about stasis: Hard, dark outlines encase every object. This echoes the stark empty piazzas in the pittura metafisica of fellow Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, under whose influence Morandi briefly worked. Unfortunately, it’s an undistinguished effort, betrayed by awkward ellipses and smooth, brown-tinted fruits—a weak sort of classicism.

Critics during Morandi’s lifetime wavered as to whether he was a classicist, walling himself in with tradition, or an abstractionist, on the verge of renouncing familiar objects and genres. In a mature Morandi painting, blatant artifice and unexpected naturalism keep uncomfortably close quarters and occasionally strafe one another.

The signature style at which the artist finally arrived is remarkable for the ways in which it rejects both of the poles in his early work—determined stillness or explosive energy—and for how it completely fails to telegraph artistic mastery. Showing slides of his mature work to students in painting or drawing courses can produce confusion and protests, as Morandi breaks so many basic rules of paint-handling, perspective, and color mixing. His paint is chalky, sometimes more like flat gouache or tempera than sumptuous oil, and it often looks hastily applied in an offhand manner. Morandi’s brush zigzagged across backgrounds almost indiscriminately, pushing around putty-colored skeins, leaving hints of gesso and canvas to peek out here and there.

In a painting like Still life, 1948–49, there are neither strong highlights nor deep shadows. Light seems to be mostly frontal, like a washed-out flash photo, so some dark gray clings to the edges of the objects and delineates the space between objects, but that’s all. While students know that dramatic light can help define objects and the space around them with strong shadows, Morandi at some point in the 1920s seems to have turned the lights off in his studio altogether.

Two white objects awkwardly lean leftward in the foreground, but this picture feels like it’s all foreground. The bottles in the back simply seem to be levitating, so that their tops are perfectly in line with the lip of the frontmost bottle. It’s almost impossible to imagine a more awkward composition, but Morandi made plenty more like this. In Still life, 1953–54, bottles and boxes are all shown in a row, and their tops all line up with the back edge of the table, just touching the place where it meets the wall. This seems horribly wrongheaded yet creates the sort of incredible visual tension that Morandi appears to hunger for.

Despite the wavering edges, the lack of particular details, the counterintuitive placement of objects, there is an uncanny sense of Morandi’s world physically pressing itself into the viewer’s space. In his limited range of tones, subtle modulations across surfaces take on terrific importance, and what appears simple or reductive occasionally flashes with moments of clarity.

These little paintings, like the best works of Cézanne, feel like the precipitation of a crisis, of paint trying to transcend itself—and failing to do so. Above all else, Morandi was acutely aware of the limitations of his medium, his genre, and his moment. He chose to inhabit those limitations completely and to remove everything from his paintings that didn’t make vivid the glaring disparities between what could be seen, what could be known, and what could be shown. Getting at those things required a narrowness of focus, a concentration that seems almost anti-human at times.

In this way, Morandi’s art was ultimately about subtracting himself from the world. This was one of the main threads of modernism: making the medium in which you work a subject unto itself and keeping things coolly impersonal. The subject in this kind of art was simply a pretext and was basically irrelevant. “Matter exists, of course,” Morandi once said, “but has no intrinsic meaning of its own.”

This show could lead someone to wonder why painting would even be thought of as desirable or fun—or why art could in any way be an agent of change, part of an active life. Morandi’s work has been described as poetic perhaps too many times, and poetry it certainly is, but of the bleakest, most abstruse sort. Spending all of one’s hours in solitude, studying a simple problem, spreading paints on a canvas, one might think this could be a source of great pleasure. Yet Morandi’s path involved removing every seductive part of oil painting: delight in color, perspectival construction, expressive brio, all of it. Only ghosts remain.