The art of Giorgio Morandi exalts the contemplation of objects, usually bottles and containers of the most ordinary, mundane kind, for their interest as volumetric form and color, one shape in relation to the others, moreover for the emotional nuances that the artist appeared to associate with certain long-held, familiar things. Morandi shared with the finest, master practitioners of the still-life genre—painters such as Chardin, Courbet, and Cézanne—the ability to analyze, describe, and reveal, within these closely focused parameters, how we view and perceive the presence and weight of objects as they exist under light, in the openness of space.
Compared to an artist treating the figure or a landscape, subjects in which the possibilities for overtly expressive—indeed, expressionistic—representation are manifold and often irresistible, the quiet still-life painter, for whom the word “still” is the defining demeanor, is the pacifist, the conscientious objector among his more vehement, excitable colleagues. In 1941, when Morandi painted in his Bologna studio—which was also his bedroom—this wide-view array of four bottles, a slender china vase dotted with small floral motifs, a cylindrical jug, and two smaller vessels, a crisis was at hand. The course of European history lay in the balance—an entire continent had descended into a state of total war.
The row of bottles and containers on Morandi’s studio table are that which they are, but also suggest a stalwart phalanx, a Roman legion’s front-rank shield-wall, a last-ditch barricade of resistance to the barbarian horde rampaging down the street. These objects constitute a totemic, defensive line that Morandi erected between the inner life of the creative, feeling individual and the collective madness that had come to prevail all around outside.
These vessels moreover carry within them, invisibly, the ideas and values that the artist was seeking to preserve and protect: a peaceable, orderly environment, free from menace and threat, in which the artist’s state-of-mind, of sober, sure, and steady presence, might remain as these objects themselves—centered, integrated, and whole. These tempered, conciliatory qualities would prove most comforting in the years that immediately followed.
Giorgio Bassani, author of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1962), was in his mid-20s during the war. Born and schooled in Bologna, he was teaching in Ferrara where by 1938 he had become a clandestine activist in the anti-fascist resistance. Arrested in May 1943, he was released two months later, following Mussolini’s ouster and confinement. “Morandi’s still lifes held a moral lesson for some young people of my generation,” he wrote. “For in a period of lies and rhetoric, he was the least rhetorical of anyone; his work was a lesson for us in artistic integrity” (quoted in J. Abramowicz, Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence, New Haven, 2004, p. xiv).
The unrhetorical, non-belligerent nature of Morandi’s work could indeed provide a welcome balm for the troubled spirit, as the critic Giuseppi Marchiori affirmed in 1963: “During the tragedy of conflict and oppression we were consoled in our sorrow by the thought of the man in a room on the Via Fondazza… Morandi was in all probability painting a picture of bottles, lamps and dusty boxes. Amid the clamor of war his silent and lonely steadfastness was a bulwark; it was a noble protest of the man [who was] ‘the most out of step’ in the world” (quoted in ibid., p. 165).
Like the many Italian writers, composers, and artists who refrained from outwardly protesting Mussolini’s fascist state, Morandi benefited from the government’s extensive patronage of the arts. In 1930 his growing reputation as a painter and printmaker won him the professor’s chair in etching at the Bologna Accademia di Belle Arti, a position he held until his retirement in 1956. The artist exhibited paintings in the Venice Biennales of 1930 and 1934, as well as in the Rome Quadriennales of 1931 and 1935. He was given a personal room to show fifty works in the 1939 Quadriennale, where he won the second prize for painting.
The Ministry of Education, Morandi’s official employer, included him in their large inaugural exhibition of contemporary art held in 1941, intended to advertise the “eternal vitality of the genius of our Italian race” (quoted in ibid., p. 177). In his review of the show, Attilio Crespi lauded Morandi’s “aristocratic reserve, his ability to ennoble the most humble and silent of models…giving a solemn dignity to his paintings of objects that Morandi elevated to the stature of symbols” (quoted in ibid.).
This award drew criticism from Mussolini’s National Fascist Party; Morandi’s prosaic still-life subjects and his seemingly withdrawn, private stance did not suit its program of La Romanità—the chest-beating emulation of ancient Rome—nor the image of Il Duce’s “The New Man” and other stridently promulgated public ideals. Morandi was accused in the press of overlooking nationalistic values while continuing to allow corrupting foreign influences into his work—the artist would always proudly attest to his admiration for the Frenchman Cézanne. The critic Giovanni Scheiwiller, in his monograph on Morandi published in 1943, responded in the artist’s defense: “A still life can move us because of its intrinsic qualities, for its emotional intensity and for inexplicable mysterious reasons… His works document the triumph of the spirit over materialism… Morandi is one of the few privileged [artists] with the capacity to produce paintings of pure poetry” (quoted in ibid., p. 176).
Morandi had close friends who were involved in the Resistenzà. After a postcard he had sent was discovered in the possession of the critic Carlo Ragghianti, who had been arrested for anti-fascist activity, agents of OUVRA, the secret police, showed up at Morandi’s door on 23 May 1943 and carted him off to prison—around the same time that Bassani was detained in Ferrara. No incriminating evidence, however, was found in Morandi’s home—he had been careful to dispose of any compromising correspondence the previous year. Because Morandi was an esteemed professor at the Accademia, friends with connections high in the Ministry of Education managed to obtain the artist’s release within a week.
An important railway hub in northern Italy, Bologna suffered heavy Allied bombing later in 1943, after the German military reinstated Mussolini and took control of the country. The artist sought safety in the countryside at Grizzana, where he occupied himself by painting some of the finest landscapes of his career, while taking care to avoid falling shrapnel from German anti-aircraft fire.
Morandi’s response to the war was to paint. The sensitive interiorization of his experiences inflected the tone of his painting and prints during 1940-1945, lending a special gravitas to his expression. “Some of the works that Morandi painted during the war are among the most beautiful of his career,” Abramowicz has written (ibid., p. 168). Notwithstanding all those factors that impinged upon his private world in the studio, Morandi painted steadily and with increasing productivity as the conflict wore on, completing nearly 20 pictures in 1940, 46 in 1941, and 67 in 1943, numbers that fell off substantially only when he returned from Grizzana to Nazi-occupied Bologna in June 1944.
A bloody, popular uprising and approaching Allied armies finally forced the Germans to surrender control of Bologna in April 1945, a few weeks before the unconditional capitulation of the Third Reich ended the war. When Roberto Longhi organized a show of Morandi’s paintings in Florence during early 1945 (that city had been liberated in April 1944), the artist was cut off and unreachable in Bologna, alive and well, although his fate remained unknown to friends until the war was over.