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Morandi and the Still-Life Tradition

Morandi’s enthusiasm for Spanish Golden Age art coincided with the rediscovery in Italy of its principal masters. The critic and art historian Roberto Longhi, whom Morandi admired and later befriended, had already drawn attention in his writings to Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán. In 1930, Longhi curated the exhibition Gli antichi pittori spagnoli della collezione Contini-Bonacossi at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome. The Contini-Bonacossi Old Master collection, the largest in Italy, included a magnificent set of Spanish pictures by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Velázquez, and Zurbarán. In his introduction to the catalogue, Longhi stressed the particular importance of the exhibition for contemporary artists, which explained the decision to hold it at Italy’s leading modern art museum, and he described Zurbarán as the “greatest constructor of forms with light, following Caravaggio and anticipating Cézanne,” declaring him a “proto-modern” artist.

Although he never mentioned any Spaniards among those who had influenced his work, Morandi’s interest in Spanish Golden Age painters was evidenced by a revealing episode centered on El Greco that took place in 1918 or 1919. The literary critic Giuseppe Raimondi recalled paying a visit to Morandi’s home, where the artist had a small book on El Greco open. Pointing to a reproduction of an Assumption or an Annunciation the size of a postage stamp, he indicated some flowers at the feet of the angels and the saints, saying: “No modern painter has painted flowers like these. Perhaps only Renoir.” As epitomes of the modern, Morandi found the Spanish masters to be kindred spirits.

Morandi: A New Incamminato

When the art historian Roberto Longhi began teaching at the University of Bologna in 1934, he designed a general course on the history of the Bologna school from the Middle Ages to the present day. The following year, he published that history with the title Momenti della pittura Bolognese. Longhi maintained that the dominant characteristic of Bolognese painting was the immediacy and expressiveness of its interpretation of naturalism. According to his history, the heroes of Bolognese art were the three Carracci brothers, Agostino, Annibale, and Ludovico. The Carracci—Baroque painters active toward the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries—were the leaders of a modern pictorial style constructed on the basis of established artistic traditions. It is significant that he should have concluded his analysis with Giorgio Morandi, describing his work as that of a new incamminato, or one who is advancing along a path. Longhi stressed the fact that Morandi explored the past to find his path through the “most troublesome droughts” of modern painting.

Morandi never explicitly praised the art of his native city. Nevertheless, he did pay close attention to his Baroque precursors and other later influences. The Bolognese Seicento focused on daily life and represented its most humble aspects, and it was fundamental to the development of genre painting in Italy between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. While Morandi’s work should arguably not be classified as genre painting, since he eliminated picturesque elements from his images in a quest for a deeper understanding of the objects themselves, the artist seems to have responded to this Italian tradition in his representation of everyday scenes. This speaks to the important role artists from Bologna as well as Northern Italy played in Morandi’s painting. Shown in this room are a selection of such artworks from his personal collection. 

Space and Matière: Chardin and Morandi

Among the Old Masters, Morandi openly revered and applauded the French genre painter Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin. When first studying Chardin, Morandi could well have encountered the article published in 1911 by the art critic Henri des Pruraux in the avant-garde journal La Voce, in which the author claimed that Chardin had invented the modern self-referential still life. In 1932, the periodical Valori Plastici distributed André de Ridder’s amply illustrated monograph in Italy. Morandi tacked reproductions from this book on the walls of his studio so as to have them constantly in sight as examples. These illustrations allowed Morandi to gain insight into Chardin’s artistic process. The French master worked in series with different variations, and he recycled objects he owned in his artworks. Morandi also adopted these strategies, returning time and again to the same jugs, bowls, bottles, and boxes, making slight alterations to their arrangements.

Chardin continued to resound throughout Morandi’s career. In his 1960 interview with the critic Edouard Roditi, the artist described him as “the greatest painter of still life” because “he never relied on trompe-l’oeil effects. On the contrary, with his pigments, forms, sense of space, and what the French critics call his matière, he managed to suggest a world that interested him personally.” In Chardin, Morandi found someone in history who was a true equivalent, concerned with the same issues: the first artist to tackle the question of painting in itself through a specific genre—the still life—with the goal of understanding its full potential.

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