Morandi: life in a bottle. Italian painter's vision was bigger than it seems

It's not wholly accurate to say that Bolognese painter Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) devoted his life to the depiction of bottles. But, as the admirable Morandi survey at the H^otel de Ville here shows, they did play a prominent role in his works. Bottles - as well as boxes, cans, pitchers, bowls and other ``still-life'' vessels and containers - were to a remarkably restricted degree the staple subject-matter of his small, restrained works: oils, watercolors, drawings in pencil and etchings.

As his chosen motifs, they were sufficient in form, color, shape, and arrangement to preoccupy him for years. They were, minimally, about all he needed of the outside world on which to base the individual vision of his quiet, intense art.

It is not, however, irrelevant that he also painted and etched images of landscape. In fact, there are revealing interconnections between these and his still lifes. Both subjects offered Morandi the possibility of investigating subtle ambiguities of form and space. For him, the ``negative-positive'' double reading of the solid and the hollow - where spaces between objects can be given at least as much substance as the objects themselves - was an enrichment, rather than a hazard. Sometimes his objects (whether hills or biscuit tins) are what is left over when the spaces between them have been painted with fullness and relish. At times such ambiguity so absorbs him that the still life or landscape becomes little more than a pretext for painterly tensions.

As one of the century's more contemplative, concentrated artists, Morandi is habitually characterized as ``serene.'' It's true that there is a remoteness and privacy to his works that separates them from the fragmented, extroverted excitements of many of his contemporaries. But the one thing they are not is bland.

He restricted not only his subject-matter, but his tonal range as well - as though the world, like his bottles, was covered with a layer of grey dust that he had no intention of disturbing. This narrow tonal range means that the slightest contrasts become expressive. Acute sensitivity is evident in the least touch or tremble of brush or pencil. Contours waver as in a heat mirage. Sudden areas of richer color stand out strongly - a tomato red, or a poison-bottle blue.

His awareness of interval, placement, and balance is crucial and surprising. He delights in strange coincidences: a dark, tall vase as a background silhouetting the neck of a white bottle immediately in front of it, the lip of a jug touching the rim of a ewer. Just as often, he concentrates on no spaces at all: in the flattening of forms so that they become merging shapes, huddled together on the wide, bare landscape of the table-top, like a a dreamer's vision of a group of frightened people seeking security in closeness. This also does not suggest serenity. Nor does his sense of scale, which enables him to identify the small ingredients of his still lifes, in the smallest formats, with giant figures and large buildings and landscape masses.

Morandi never forsook an early allegiance to Cezanne, whose art so paradoxically built paintings of massive certainties and unnerved tentativeness. Both artists were classically sure - and as unsure as any true modernist should be.

Morandi cannot be called a die-hard traditionalist at work in a century of change and experiment. He was well aware of Cubism, of Futurism, and subscribed briefly to the notion of ``metaphysical'' painting. He was equally conscious of the potency of the achievements of the early Renaissance.

But the vitality and mystique of his celebrations of light and shadow, of dream and reality, of tone and color, of space and solid, are uniquely his own - the determined investigations of an individualistic 20th-century artist.

Through Aug. 20.

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