An Italian painter's impact on British artists

Giorgio Morandi's immediate influence on contemporary artists is apparent - and not so apparent.

It is a simple fact that artists influence artists. But an artist overwhelmed by another's influence is far less interesting than one who makes use of the first artist's influences to develop his own individuality.

Looking at this issue is "Morandi's Legacy: Influences on British Art," an exhibition at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in London until June 18. It takes a quiet master of 20th-century art, Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), and places his oils and etchings - still lifes and landscapes - next to more recent works of notable originality that may be connected in various ways with Morandi. These works are by British artists, and one of the points made by Paul Coldwell, the initiator of the show and its thought-provoking catalog, is that this Italian artist's work has had particular appeal in Britain - and, he argues, continues to do so.

"From these shores," Coldwell observes, "[Morandi] can be regarded as the lonely Protestant, one who has intellectually stripped down experience to its basics and represents a world of dignified simplicity."

None of the British artists on view, however, display animmediate and obvious Morandi influence. At the same time, it is clear that his work was a challenge and inspiration in its insistence on transforming - without resorting to drama, manifesto, or shock tactics - the banality of the ordinary into a deeply pondered, sensitive, and affectionate vision. Its very lack of pretension attracts like-minded artists investigating forms and formalities rather than extravagant emotion.

The objects in his still lifes are themselves unexceptional bottles, boxes, and containers, but, taking their place - grouped or isolated, joined or separated - in his paintings, they become subtle metaphors for people and places, for spaces and presences, and for tranquil relationships and introverted disjunctions.

Morandi's works seem more traditional than they actually are. They extend Cézanne's obstinate uncertainties and struggles with the ambiguous nature of physical perception into a realm of even greater concentration and privacy than that admired master's.

They also explore a central concern of Modernism in the first half of the 20th century - the confrontation of the figurative and the abstract. Several of the British painters whose work "references" (to use the current parlance for "is influenced by") Morandi's are fascinated by abstraction. But they have also found it impossible - or pointless - to abandon depiction of the recognizable world.

William Scott is one example. However minimally he reduced pots and pans to mere shapes, they are still familiar objects. Like Morandi's repertoire of ordinary objects, however, Scott's become extraordinary by becoming so indelibly his own visual language. The direct influence of Morandi on Scott is by no means overt - any more than Cézanne's unquestionable influence on Morandi is immediately evident.

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