" Giorgio Morandi: 1890-1964," the enthralling exhibition of 110 paintings, drawings and prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a bit of a surprise, but not for revealing an overlooked master. The show, as the first Morandi retrospective ever mounted in the United States, was in fact guaranteed to be loved. It includes some landscapes and a couple of dry self-portraits, but his spare still-life paintings, with their pale, sensuously brushed forms, reliably send a shiver down the art public's spine.
The painter lived if not a monastic then certainly a scholastic life, seldom leaving the ancient university town of Bologna, Italy, except for summer getaways in the cool Apennines. (He taught etching at the city's Fine Arts Academy.) Morandi had critical success internationally during his career, but he is not an artist whose name is guaranteed to attract the public.
What's the surprise? Until now, it hadn't occurred to me just how much a great still-life painting by the Italian Modernist deviates from common expectations.
Typically, still life paintings come in one of two kinds. They either picture natural objects -- flowers, fruits, insects, food, plants -- or else they gather diverse domestic items, such as books, musical instruments, a lady's fan, a gentleman's pipe, letters, coins, candles and cups. Often they combine the two -- Jean-Siméon Chardin's kitchen tables, with little silver and copper utensils and shellfish; Raphael Peale's luxurious accumulations of strawberries and fine china; or, launching the Modern era, Paul Cézanne's monumental apples, dispersed amid mountain peaks made from a crumpled tablecloth.
But not Morandi. Most of his still lifes, and almost all of the greatest ones, don't conform.
His still life pictures show cups, vases, bowls, pitchers, compotes, bottles, biscuit tins, cigar boxes, flowerpots, decanters, goblets, coffeepots, jugs, urns, chalices -- containers all, of virtually any type of you might name. Some vessels turn up repeatedly over decades, including a white fluted bottle, eccentrically shaped, and a wide-mouthed pitcher with a looping handle. Morandi kept them on hand in his studio, a sort of inert repertory company of working vessels that he could rearrange as he pleased.
Once in a while there's a tight little bunch of roses, which speaks to the painter's interest in the chromatic effects achieved by Renoir's Impressionism. Now and then an apple turns up, signaling the high esteem in which Morandi held Cézanne. (He studied Cézanne's paintings perhaps more closely than any other artist, including his favored countryman, the Renaissance muralist Piero della Francesca.)
But nature is rarely represented among the objects the Italian painted. He titled almost all his pictures "Natura Morta," the usual name for "still life" that is a literal translation for "dead nature." But nature was not depicted.
Domestic items didn't much interest him either -- except, that is, for one certain category of object. Forget books, candles or musical instruments. Morandi painted vessels, and almost nothing but.
In the 1940s, as war raged across Europe, he added seashells to the inventory. He had first used shells in some drawings and etchings in the 1920s, when he became enamored of Rembrandt's masterful way with the dark inks of a copper etching plate as a contradictory means to convey the power of light. Morandi's introduction of seashells is thought to have come from the 17th century Dutchman.
Shells are, of course, another type of vessel -- a protective container for a soft and vulnerable mollusk. The motif resonates against the deadly trauma and brutal destruction of World War II.
Morandi's emphasis on vessels is intriguing. To me, it represents a way of thinking about his activity as an artist -- a way of thinking about what a painting is. Morandi's aesthetic was pretty much defined by the mid-1930s, and this retrospective indicates that for him, painting is a vessel.
Modern sculpture was busily shedding its primary historical role as a representation of the human figure in favor of the dynamic engagement of physical form in real space. And painting was shedding its established reliance on the power of illusionism -- the picture plane as a window or a mirror, through which one saw the world.
Morandi articulated painting as its own subject matter. Rather than a misleading image, a Morandi still life chronicles the complex creation of a domestic object, one that in essence is a container for visual illumination.
The palette is usually muted -- sand, grays, tans, pale yellow -- which glows with an inner light that is occasionally set off by a blast of cerulean, russet or gold. The function of deep brown or black shifts from creating a line around the contour of a bottle or box to the articulation of a surface and the evocation of a fleeting shadow. Empty volume oscillates with solid form.
Morandi's compositions regard the surface of a table and a wall as something unsettled, as mutable shapes that can be arranged in a painting as easily as the vases, cups and biscuit tins can. If a white bottle at one side needs to be surrounded by a tone that is different from the one surrounding the dark cigar box at the opposite end of the picture, so be it. He's more than happy to alter the color of the table or the wall from one end to the other, to make the balance work.
An especially glorious group of pictures from the mid-1950s lines up the top edges of the vessels with the rear edge of the table. Visually, it's hard to sort out where a depicted vessel ends and the space around it begins. The entire spatial volume of the painting becomes dynamic. (Morandi sometimes applied paint to the actual vessels he set up in his studio so that he was painting painted objects.)
The slight gesture of brushing earthy pigment on canvas creates a subtle paradox -- a still life that bristles with quiet energy -- and the uncanny result is philosophical heft.
It's also interesting to think about Italy during the period Morandi's art came together -- an ancient land but a relatively new country cobbled together from a patchwork of medieval and Renaissance city-states. Morandi rejected the nationalist impulse that was partly driving the rise of Italian fascism, though he wasn't exactly hostile to Mussolini. He relished the veneer of stability it seemed to provide.
The complex tensions between the parts and the whole that animate his spellbound paintings were all around him. For us, the result is a profound exploration of visual perception.
Morandi didn't paint nature, but his vessels radiate natural truth.
christopher.knight@latimes .comCopyright © 2015, CT Now