13 May 2017


Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta, 1956.

Morandi is the great, passionate, seductive, obsessional thinker about what light means, about what it is to make an object, put it down in space and paint it again and again as the light and the shadows change. Morandi is the painter – who thinks about these things so passionately, so cogently, lucidly, beautifully, seductively. Morandi is for me the serious painter who remakes still life, thinks about how objects can really be in the world. And I am a potter. I make the damn things! That’s been my life for the last forty-five years.

– Edmund de Waal

Life is matter and is earth, what is and what is not. Two artists separated in time by a mere eighty-four days, the passing of the painter and the birth of the potter in 1964, are finally on view together until early autumn at the light and airy (and oddly named) gallery space Artipelag out in the ravishing Stockholm archipelago. “Morandi is such a powerful, continuing presence in my life, and for almost forty years the artist I return to. He is an artist of return,” says the compassionate and polite British ceramist Edmund de Waal who is also the author of the bestselling (well over one million copies) The Hare with Amber Eyes, published in 2010, de Waal’s ardent family chronicle as a descendant of the super wealthy Ephrussi family and its banking dynasty in the nasty old Europe of The Thin White Duke and the yesterday world of Stefan Zweig.

Morandi/Edmund de Waal is Museum Director Bo Nilsson’s very personal coagulation of Giorgio Morandi and de Waal at Artipelag. The exhibition stresses a number of things they have in common like the obsessional nature, the seriality, the single-mindedness and the emotional quality of their work, a certain spirited-awayness with ordinary, quite extraordinary and always empty vessels dissolved beyond the world at hand. Fair enough.

In his review in The New York Times (September 18, 2008) of the great Morandi exhibition at The Met, Holland Cutter argued that one may regard all Morandi’s allegorical still lifes “as stanzas of a single poem, a kind of Divine Comedy of the tabletop, with epic but miniature heights and hells”: “Despite their small size and plain components – bottles, jars, boxes, bowls, seashells – the paintings are emotionally audacious. This isn’t because of what they say outright about desire or fear, but because of what they don’t say; because they are so evidently shaped by self-restraint, and the passions that produced it.”

Morandi painted 1,400 of these everlastingly fascinating still lifes during his lifetime (1890–1964) and he invariably titled them Natura morta – each a periodic table of homely, wobbly objects; unassuming utensils in an unsettled shadowy plot that remains elusive yet carries a strong element of cure. In his 1955 essay “The Metaphysician of Bologna”, John Berger noted how Morandi’s “pictures have the inconsequence of margin notes but they embody true observation”. And then we have the fireworks of Morandi’s restrained poetry. The way he grouped and depicted these vessels – paintings as the most perfect vehicles – makes it very easy to conclude who’s the artist in this boat.

Edmund de Waal is like a vessel himself of proper Englishness. A warm hello, a big-hand handshake, and off he is to Morandiland. His glowing praise for Morandi is wonderful to listen to because he means every bit of it and more. He has a lot of things to say and there is arguably great knowledge and a rare kind of love for the world in all this, as long as he stays with the painter: “Things can possess and hold emotion, which of course is exactly what Morandi believes. Morandi believes that all objects are metaphysical, they say something else about the world.” Like Morandi, he likes the idea of bringing a few objects together “and seeing what synergies, energies are happening between them”: “What I care about is when I make objects I put them down in the world, put them next to each other, begin to make groups, begin to make still lifes, begin to make installation, begin to make sculpture out of porcelain vessels.”

Still lifes? Installation? Sculpture? Meh. What on earth turned this master potter into an art world invitee and then, after 2010, a late labourer of faux Minimalism? The Hare with Amber Eyes, aha. Sam Anderson wrote in The New York Times Magazine (November 25, 2015) that de Waal’s “prose style is like his pot style: he gets drunk on simplicity, on repetition”. The same goes for his arty groupings of cylindrical lighter-than-air ceramics with personal seal marks and things that sometimes go over the edges in monotone cadences boosted by slabs of alabaster, graphite, steel and wood, and here and there some porcelain tiles and shards. These units are sealed in annoyingly egotistical vitrines with over-literary titles written in lowercase letters.

It’s this Tweedledum-and-Tweedledee battle all over again ­– always in doubtful health – between two completely different aspects of life. As the ceramist told The Guardian (October 18, 2015): “I am also making things in a highly complicated art world of oligarchical people. So what am I doing? It’s a proper thing to ask yourself.” Please, go ahead.

“To describe objects as homeless, like creatures in search of a context and meaning, is typical of de Waal. Anyone who has read his book The Hare with Amber Eyes will recognise this,” notes Jorunn Veiteberg in the exhibition catalogue regarding de Waal’s strategy to ensconce his objects and how he sometimes also blurs them out behind milky glass. “Since the provision of shelter and protection are so crucial here, it makes sense to highlight these functions when talking about the vitrines and display cases that have over the years become such a central aspect of de Waal’s installations.”

His father Victor, who was the Dean of Canterbury from 1976 to 1988, never revealed anything about the family past, how Gestapo stormed the Palais Ephrussi in Vienna during the Anschluss in March 1938 and put an end to the hundred-year-old dynasty. The Ephrussis were beaten up and deprived of everything but managed to flee continental Europe. A black piece from 2016 in the exhibition is called The Reader (in small letters) and it is a eulogy for de Waal’s grandfather Viktor Ephrussi, a Jewish scholar with “an incredible library. He ended up as a refugee. With no books.” A maid named Anna managed to rescue a full collection of a few hundred netsuke figurines in her apron and then in the mattress as the looting went on. It was when de Waal inherited these 264 little carved sculptures – one of them an ivory hare with amber eyes – that he found himself in an obsessional track-and-trace hunt for his history.

In Canterbury the young de Waal studied pottery in Geoffrey Whiting’s studio. Here he learned everything about classic – brown – earthenware production. White porcelain was, as de Waal told Christina Patterson in The Sunday Times Magazine (September 13, 2015), “unavailable” because his teacher thought it “was crookery, it was Stoke-on-Trent, it was standardisation, it was all these things that were to be rejected and reviled”. de Waal studied English literature in Cambridge and learned to speak Nihongo during a stay in Tokyo in the early 1990s. Japan made him realise that he did not really like the great influence of Bernard Leach and published his own book about the father figure of British pottery in 1997 (de Waal’s first of several books on pottery).

“The book undertakes a critical reassessment, based on a consideration of Leach’s ideas and works in the Japanese and British contexts,” writes Veiteberg in the catalogue. “de Waal clearly demonstrates the significant extent to which Leach and other similarly charismatic men have shaped the language we use about ceramics and thereby influenced our understanding of the medium. Not only have they obscured oriental ceramics, they have also ‘drastically, heedlessly, dogmatically, reduced the creative possibilities open to potters who drew their inspiration from this source’. de Waal has made it part of his mission to confront dogmas of this kind, and to trace different links between East and West.”

In her peculiar book The Artificial Kingdom, Celeste Olalquiaga writes how “the age of wonder was greatly impulsed by those events that marked the beginning of the modern era in the 15th and 16th centuries: the voyages of discovery, the colonisation of America and the rebirth of a classical past that had been forgotten for almost a thousand years. A time when the universe was still – if residually – alive with magic feelings, every creature and thing the source of infinite amazement, the age of wonder indicated in its childlike openness the beginning of a new cultural era. It was a moment when the West perceived the world as an object of contemplation and spectatorial delight while readying its mercantile profitability and intellectual consumption […] The arcades acted as urban greenhouses for this cultural development to take place, enabling fantasies and memories, then and forever the most sought-after experiences, to flourish side by side and in full view. Trapped between houses and streets as much as between epochs, Parisian glass-covered arcades were truly, as their name in French reflects, passages, places of transit where, nonetheless, time got stuck.”

When Max Richter composed The Blue Notebooks in 2004, he scored the beauty and the mourning and the loss of old Europe with a gravity that de Waal could only dream of to validate in his work. All I can detect in this innocuous monotony is a glacial quality – ice masquerading as fire if you will – and it’s like he is just objectifying the idea of what art is or might be. There are a lot of works in this exhibition where there is light from within and truths from the highest ground and they are all by Morandi.

Edmund de Waal’s new fame and his old love for the colour white led him to curate a smaller show at the Royal Academy in his hometown in late 2015 titled White (in small letters). It included many of his favourite white things – paintings by Morandi and Robert Ryman, Malevich’s suprematist teapot, the white page from Tristram Shandy, Turner’s porcelain palette, some photographs by Fox Talbot, an unprinted elephant folio, masks of Royal Academicians and a corbel head from the Roman Empire – a selection so cunning that Bo Nilsson knew that he had found the person he’d been looking for to pair up with Morandi.

There are two groups of de Waal’s works at Artipelag and they are threading their way in the exhibition. The ones that aren’t boxed in whiteness are his black elegies, like the piece for the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who went insane and died in December 1938 in transit to Stalin’s gulag, and these seven vitrines “have fragments, broken pieces of porcelain, broken pieces of gold. And they are an attempt which is very important to me, and which I keep coming back to in my work, which is: how do you think about memory? How do you remember things? How do you move around the world with these fragmentary apprehensions of the past, of people, of poetry, or a song?”

Surrounding his other works is a singled-out Natura morta from 1963 with three vessels (one is an object that could have been turned by de Waal) on a vibrant tabletop tinged with grey. de Waal says that he hopes that his works have some of the qualities “of this incredibly beautiful, singular Morandi I brought into the space. When you look at this remarkable painting, you see three objects and the shadows they cast. You see this extraordinary, lucid, passionate white object. You see two strong shadows as well, and this is the kind of index for me, for Morandi, for the works that I have made and scattered around.”

An Italian dinner table becomes the centre of drama, tension and cellphones in Paolo Genovese’s flowingly intelligent black comedy Perfect Strangers (2016) when seven (not so) dependable friends and lovers leave their most intimate vessels of communication open for each other’s reviews while a new reality of secrets and lies unfolds with a Buñuelian snap. The failure and inanity of relationships is also the story of Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960): “The world will be wonderful, they say. From what point of view – when a phone call can announce the end of the world,” Steiner utters, more to himself than to Marcello.

“One should live outside of passions, beyond emotions, in that harmony you find in completed artworks, in that enchanted order. We should learn to love each other so much, to live outside of time, detached. Detached.” Before he shoots himself and his children, Steiner explains his love for the two tabletop compositions by Morandi that he owns, one on the wall and the other on an easel: “The objects are flooded with a wistful light, and yet painted with such detachment, precision, rigour that makes them almost tangible. You can say it’s an art where nothing is coincidental.”

Giorgio Morandi lived a sequestered, sexless life in a colonnaded building at Via Fondazza 36 in Bologna together with his mother (until her death in 1950) and his three unmarried sisters. (The place is a museum-by-appointment today.) Bo Nilsson tells me that you can see by the way the shadows fall in his paintings if they were made in Bologna or in the family’s holiday house in Grizzana – since 1985 Grizzana Morandi in honour of the great artist – thirty-five kilometres southwest of Bologna. At home, for some reason, he had to go through one of his sisters’ bedroom to reach the small studio where he kept his large collection of hollow utensils, which he modified with paint from time to time, and the three tables of different heights that he used to create his effulgent still lifes, with three or four or more vessels in slight distortion against a straight or contorted horizon and the sluggish, dreamy sideways light.

Bo Nilsson claims that he “wanted to nick Morandi from the Italians and make him a little more Nordic”. That is a very good thing to bring along as you enter Morandiland at Artipelag with the works on paper – watercolours, drawings and his great crosshatched etchings (a few of each) – that Nilsson regards as the helpers or “squires to his still life paintings”: “The first room is a sort of library/archive, or that is the feeling we have liked to create just to calm things down. We want to facilitate some reading, and in addition we hope that our visitors would like to write something about their recollections because much of the exhibition is in different ways about remembering. And we would like to have an interaction with the visitors.” I could so much do without the makeshift library and the disturbing row of green lamps – but who am I to complain, surrounded by fifty works by Morandi the Magnificent?

The hardest thing to see is what is in front of our eyes. “A true revelation, it seems to me, will only emerge from stubborn concentration on a solitary problem,” wrote the Italian anti-Fascist author Cesare Pavese. “I am not in league with inventors or adventurers, nor with travellers to exotic destinations. The surest – also the quickest – way to awake the sense of wonder in ourselves, is to look intently, undeterred, at a single object. Suddenly, miraculously, it will reveal itself as something we have never seen before.”

American Pop artist Wayne Thiebaud started from Morandi’s still lifes when he painted Three Sandwiches (1961) and many of his other early famous pieces, though the end results were always wonderfully brash melodramas contrary to Morandi’s sensuous and moody enterprise. In the video interview made for Museo Morandi in Bologna that accompanied his exhibition there in 2011 – with fifteen small works by Thiebaud and eleven by Morandi – he speaks with oceanic awe how Morandi “makes complete paintings, but they are not really finished paintings. You go to Morandi in a way to help him finish his paintings”:

“One of the reasons you have trouble with seeing Morandi is, I think, because he is difficult to look at. You have to give of yourself, you have to be willing to develop a very important sense of empathy, where you have to feel his ‘musculature’, irresolution as well as resolution, the ambiguity of his intention. The way he reduces the three primary colours to such a low resonance that they are unpersuasive in terms of spectral energy – they exist in this very quiet, beautiful moment of intimacy. And he creates this very curious shadowy, almost dusty, light.”

“I took from him very persuasive influences such as the way he develops pressures. If you look at his still lifes and you have this grouping of say five or six objects where there is not quite enough room for those objects to exist in that space, but it gives this marvellous tension like a vice has pushed them together. And as quiet as his paintings are, they are full of these tensions and pressures, and feelings about balance and unbalance, and interactions between relationships of planes and so on,” says Thiebaud in this interview.

There is a very strong sense of Ettore Scola’s Una giornata particolare (1977) in Morandi’s painted works – the film’s restrained colours, muffled sublimity and sorrowing state of mind and emotion – the little beauty of a life that begins and ends in just one day, May 8, 1938, the day when Hitler came to Rome by train. Franklin Einspruch writes of Morandi in The New Criterion (June 23, 2016) that, “Such was the misfortune of his being one of the finest painters in Italy at a time when it was being run by porcine brutes. (I like to think that Italians’ true feelings about Fascism were revealed when a crowd in Milan pelted Mussolini’s machine-gunned corpse with vegetables. And then shot it again.)” Truth of the matter is that Morandi played along so well in this Duce formicary from 1922 to 1943 that he was either a genius of survival or a Fascist himself. “Among the buyers of my work, it gives me great pleasure to recall His Excellency Benito Mussolini,” Morandi wrote in a Bolognese Fascist paper in 1928. “I have had much faith in Fascism since its first inklings, faith that has never ebbed, not even in the darkest and most tumultuous moments.”

“I am essentially a painter of the kind of still life composition that communicates a sense of tranquillity and privacy, moods which I have always valued above all else,” Morandi said in an interview in 1958. “When most Italian artists of my generation were afraid to be too ‘modern’ or ‘international’ and not ‘national’ or ‘imperial’ enough, I was left in peace perhaps because I demanded so little recognition. In the eyes of the Grand Inquisitors of Italian art, I remained but a provincial Professor of Etching at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Bologna.”

Morandi was very open to all kinds of influences when he studied art at the Carracci’s Accademia between 1907 and 1913 – the Renaissance painters Piero della Francesca, Caravaggio and Giotto, and later Chardin and Cézanne were absolute favourites. Though he never liked program art, Morandi saw the first exhibition of Futurist painting in Florence in 1913, which had him leaning momentarily towards Pittura Metafisica and the standstill style of Carlo Carrà (who called Futurism a “tornado in a bedroom”) and de Chirico whose philosophy was that “Every object has two aspects, the common aspect, which is the one we generally see and the one which is seen by everyone, and the ghostly and metaphysical aspect, which only rare individuals see at moments of clairvoyance and metaphysical meditation.”

Wittgenstein wrote that “The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity” and Warhol urged, “Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?” The Morandi still lifes began in 1915 – the same year as he found himself conscripted to serve in the military but was hurriedly discharged – and as the decades passed they became more reduced and elegant but never abstract. “How can small paintings of small simple bottles and boxes be so irresistible? Why did Morandi return to these objects over and over, and without the gloss of routine ever dulling his art?” asks Arthur Dante in The Nation (December 3, 2008). “Morandi’s compositions certainly have a history of simultaneity. It is striking that the shadows in his paintings go this way or that, as if there were different sources of light, or as though the bottles were sundials casting shadows made at the different times of the day they were painted.”

John Berger touched on this in his Morandi essay in Art News (February 1955): “Only in the Mediterranean and particularly in Italy is one made visually aware of the gradual, impersonal, open, passing of time – the days falling like single grains of sand in an hourglass,” Berger wrote. “The typical Italian light by which one sees a landscape, a house, a town, seems to emphasise the age, the comparative durability, the almost unchanging construction of the scene. The heat forms a slight haze which takes the edge off temporary, superficial details, but at the same time the constant of the light exaggerates the apparently permanent identity of every object.”

In the late 1920s there were two art movements that looked for Il Duce’s approval. Both were low-key Modernism that defended national values with an identity of agrarian life: “Both Strapaese (Supervillage) and Novecento (20th Century) claimed to be the supreme interpreters of italianità [the Italian spirit] but held contrasting conceptions of the meaning of Italian modernity and national identity. Yet both movements expressed a desire to fashion an Italian mass culture that would meet the challenges posed by Americanisation,” explains Ruth Ben-Ghiat in Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922–1945. Morandi chimed with the Fascists who appointed him Professor of Etching at Accademia di Belle Arti in 1930, a post he held until 1956 when he could make a living out of his art.

“Morandi never really believed in Modernism’s idea of progress, and thus made no effort to ensure that his painting was moving forward according to some timeline. This is entirely in line with the collapse of faith in progress that World War I bore with it,” writes Bo Nilsson in his thoughtful essay in the catalogue. “Morandi’s still lifes do not typically have the grand perspective of historic still life painting, but rather a claustrophobic sense of enclosure that gives them an almost historic patina.”

I miss Morandi’s still lifes with the seashells that he painted during World War II, but you can’t have everything. As we enter the rooms with the paintings that are always either his still lifes or his landscapes, the latter painted from a window view of his two studios, Nilsson explains that “Morandi’s still lifes become more like landscapes while his landscapes become more and more like still lifes” in his last decades. (Morandi preferred watercolours in the 1960s.) “Still life was not just a motif category for him, but something very important because it gave him an opportunity to control the whole process, from arranging the subject to the most important, evaluating his painting, and the curiosity of how to look at things,” Nilsson elucidates. “Morandi is looking for something deeper, which is more fundamental in the tradition of painting. One could call it an essence, something that is not about how the light falls on the object but a knowledge of the object beyond the light.”

In Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) the telekinetic daughter is reading a black book of poetry, then rests her head on the table to set three glasses in motion. While working on the film, the director wrote in his diary: “What I am trying to do is to tear apart the way we look at the present day […] that today we are more obliged to live in a kind of fog. The film is about the existence of god in man, and about the death of spirituality as a result of possessing fake knowledge.”

More than ever now we need the enchanted order of these small Morandis to push us over the edge, and start again.

Edmund de Waal, Five Winter Songs (detail), 2016.

Morandi/Edmund de Waal at Artipelag outside Stockholm through October 1, 2017.