An art of understated complexity

Ordinary objects. Jars, containers, vessels, or bottles grouped (often unusually) on a table. These things, mute and inanimate, are so persistently and intently the imagery of Giorgio Morandi's paintings that what they are has little significance. Instead, they have become his profoundly subjective language - his syntax.

Many people are still intrigued and moved by the undemonstrative still lifes of this mid-20th-century Italian painter. A show of his work at London's Tate Modern includes in its catalog comments by a range of today's fashionable artists and architects, although their art may be quite unlike his.

His art concentrates. It reduces to essences. But this does not mean simplicity. By looking only at certain aspects of the outside (objective) world - which he paints as his own inside (subjective) world - he sees, and makes viewers see, surprising complexities.

He did not aim to imitate the material his objects were made of. He even painted the actual surfaces of some of his objects to reduce their shine or translucency. He removed all identifying labels. He was no "realist." Instead, he transmuted his objects into undisguised paint. What truly signifies is the tactility of his paint, its crucial shifts, its tones and hues. Method is message.

But, paradoxically, he also observes. His paint describes the fall and reflections of light and shadow and the way they make rounded or flattened forms visible; subtle interplay of space and solid; tonal merge of objects with close neighbors or background; edges, crevices, profiles, and boundaries that occur as shadows tighten into dark intervals or lines.

His intensity prevents us from taking such aspects for granted. We are persuaded; we see as his eyes see. His objects become our subjectivity, too.

'Giorgio Morandi' will be in London until Aug. 12. It will be at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Oct. 4 to Jan. 6, 2002.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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