The truth of the matter

The meaning of what we say is not in words alone. It springs too from the circumstances and the timing of our choice of words. This is true of things we say inwardly as well as of what we say aloud. So, we can't just say anything we please, regardless of what else is happening, and expect our words to ring true.

Perhaps poets know this better than most artists, for they work directly at forging contexts within which the truth of elusive perceptions can sound. But many visual artists are also aware of their opportunities to prepare the way for truthful observations on our part. This is the fact which hostile critics misconstrue when they aver that most modern art has been made for the sake of what may be said about it. (Art's interaction with publicity in the 20th century has certainly confused the issue.) There is a better way to state the fact: much modern art has been made the way it has, so that, in looking at it, we will hear ourselves, or someone else, say things that otherwise might never have been said. Behind the provocative activities of many modern artists lies the conviction that too many stunning aspects of our common experience go unremarked , that we accept too passively the stupefying character of our time.

Giorgio Morandi was a modern artist who shunned the provocative tactics of his contemporaries, yet he seems to have understood better than most the need for the truth about life to be spoken and heard. His art attests to the fact that he was not caught up in the melee of the historical moment, as were so many of his fellow European artists. Living through the decades of Italian Fascism, he certainly knew that every sort of propaganda was rife in his time. Yet he deliberately kept himself from responding to timely events through his art.

Almost every commentator remarks upon the tranquility, the implicit silence in Morandi's still lifes. He seldom painted anything but still lifes, and you don't have to see many of them to be convinced that the stillness of the little groups of objects he assembled mattered more to him than almost anything else about them. One way to say why Morandi's art seems out of step with modernism is to point out that his work does not look like it has been made to arouse comment. On the contrary, it seems to have been made to induce silence, or a pause in the prattle of consciousness that will lead us to hear our thoughts more keenly.

We can easily imagine that the still life drawing shown here might have been made with no inward ruminations on the artist's part, that making such a drawing may have been Morandi's way of silencing inner voices. As in virtually all of his still life images, Morandi describes nothing we associate with sound. (Traditional still life pictures often included things that sound, such as a horn, a drum, or a firearm.) Only the marks themselves imply the soft scratch of graphite on paper, and a quiet in which it might be heard.

When we try to describe the way Morandi has manipulated the visual space of the page, we realize how unconsidered is the language with which we try to render everyday experiences. (For example, see what a different impression you have of the empty spaces above and below the ''table's edge'' in this drawing.) Morandi seems to have insisted, with tireless patience, that we have not earned the language in which to speak the truth of our experience, and that, until we do, we should not be so quick to speak, for speaking is judging.

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