A Fellow painter's view of Giorgio Morandi

Wayne Thiebaud, The New York Times, November 15, 1981

The Italian painter Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) has long been regarded as a painters' painter - an artist passionately admired by other artists, but little known to the public. Of Morandi, the American painter and critic Fairfield Porter once wrote: ''More than any contemporary Italian painter's, his work has a quiet commanding authority. It is as though Cezanne had mellowed into a simplified serenity.''

On the occasion of the Morandi retrospective opening Friday at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Friday, The Times invited one of Morandi's artist-admirers to comment on his work. Mr. Thiebaud's own work has recently been the subject of a retrospective exhibition organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which is currently at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art.

Whenever Giorgio Morandi's name is mentioned in the community of painters throughout the world, deep admiration and stunning tributes are expressed. What characteristics are responsible for a phenomenon of this dimension? The challenge to understand why is an opportunity for a personal reflection.

Wayne Thiebaud, Various cakes, 1981, oil on canvas


Shortly after World War II, in an art world richly celebrating iconoclasm, Morandi had the personal courage to embrace gnosticism, the alternative movement in religious thought which searched for substantial meaning in the world through inferences. Realizing the advantage of limitation as a means toward self-liberation, he turned to work in his bedroom-studio. Year after year that followed, on small rectangles and squares of canvas and paper, he painted and drew still lifes and landscapes. Slowly and carefully he began to externalize proof of his meditative skills. Modestly tracking his brushes with dirts and oils and hugging his rag (Morandi tended to use the rag as much as the brush in forming his configurations), he wove a kind of painted prayer rug. Illustrating his private flights through metaphysical speculations, he gave an intimate view of his deepest thoughts. We watched him inquiring after the devilish questions of essences and substance. Could they be expressed in painting? Morandi's capacity as a practiced and traditional disciplinarian allowed him to eloquently address questions of what makes poetry in painting.

Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta, 1950, oil on canvas


Pedantically, this schoolteacher-painter showed us what it is to believe in painting as a way of life, to love its tattletale evidence of our humanness. Through an admixture of visual grammar and language his pictures reveal startling insights: what happens when gracefulness is juxtaposed against awkwardness? Is human ineptitude thereby understood, tolerated or ennobled? He juggles disproportionate but equal things and develops exquisite tensions. And how gently he can indicate tremendous vice-like pressures of an open space against a group of crowded forms. Adroit distinctions between size and scale is constantly tested by his choices of relationships, reflecting classic Platonic yearnings. In these grand little smearings, he plays with compositional orchestrations in a search for energetic geometrical models. In more lyrical works, a highlight may float and/or become porcelain. Often he makes a complex analysis of the simultaneity of form. That is, when a single colored slab or patch of paint, variously and at the same time, becomes the side of an object, its cast shadow, a table edge and the front of another bottle.

Wayne Thiebaud, Orange Grove, 1966, oil on canvas
With ritualistic care this omnipotent manufacturer delivers ineffable micro worlds. He urges us to peek into these alternative universes with glowing, dusty atmospheres, suggesting both atavistic and modern yearnings. He knows about the magic of contradictions. Of course, his alchemy is a bit silly but his constancy and overriding seriousness become evident. We love these little works representing such pure research, his anxious reflections on what and where things are in relation to ourselves: are they real, surreal, concrete, abstract, or, finally, an evaporating sensual daydream? He will present no absolute answers, for he is aware of Malraux's twilight. For students of painting he continues to question, allowing us through painted palimpsests to see him in the act of deciding. In spite of a natural reclusive inclination, he exposes his process. In one completed painting exists a layering of faltering probes: passage over passage of stutterings, mutings, bumblings, corrections, slaps and sludges which finally slouch towards a homemade hand-hewn idealization. This is a stirring and captivating demonstration of how to labor a painting through to a life of its own. It is as if the actual birth process of a painting has been anthologized.
Giorgio Morandi, Paesaggio, 1942, oil on canvas, detail
Traditional formal concerns, however, are only a part of this extraordinary Italian's work. For he cannot resist, however slyly, to flirt with the anecdotal. On his simple ''stages'' objects are cast in various roles. Tableaux and friezes in scene after scene infer arresting little dramas. Elegant tall bottles portray royal Venetian courtesans in an attitude of stately imperiousness. Dark worlds, ominous Machiavellian intrigues, may be suggested. Sometimes shadowy forms describe an ambiguous underworld. Yet in another picture the bright fresh light of Bologna sets a morning scene. There are fat clay clowns, wooden soldiers, China virgins, pompous cardinals, copper freaks and caricatures of many kinds. These are mimetic charades that explore devices of the classic, the mystical, the erotic, realistic or absurd human sensibilities. What a rich array of evocative powers through such seemingly simple means!
 Wayne Thiebaud, River intersection, 2010, oil on canvas
Like the Existentialism of Kirkegaard, Morandi's ''tales'' are told and retold in order to test the faith. And with Pirandello he presents characters in search of an author. We must write the plays ourselves. It is the little things for the limited audience that he is willing to produce. A tiny miracle. It is not big show business. No one will throw roses and there will be no curtain calls. Instead Giorgio will point us through his open windows on the world, admonishing us to keep the faith. Thus, he indicates one way of regaining very dear and precious things. Since art is not concerned with fashion, wise decisions such as Morandi's are more impressive than smart choices. Finally, Morandi suggests we are all single in this world, hoping for independent repose. But our best opportunity, for a community of excellence, depends upon a collection of enlightened individuals.
 Giorgio Morandi, Paesaggio, 1943, oil on canvas
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