A Modernist of a Different Stripe

Italian painter Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) defied the major 20th-century art trends with his persistently inventive but quiet and small-scaled explorations of abstraction, now collected in a handsome exhibition touring Europe and Japan.

NOBODY can accuse the people of Bologna, Italy - or some of them, at least - of forgetting one of their native sons. Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), painter and engraver, has a Center of Studies there devoted to him. The Gallery of Modern Art in Bologna has a special section for its collection of Morandi's works, and it has recently taken on Morandi's name.

Now, as the 1990 centenary of Morandi's birth approaches, a sizable traveling retrospective of his work - oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, and engravings - is being circulated in Europe and Japan before returning to Bologna in time for the celebrations next summer.

Already seen in Finland, Leningrad, Moscow, and, most recently, here in London at the fine new gallery of the Accademia Italiana, it is currently in Locarno, Switzerland, at the Civici Musei, Casa Rusca (through Aug. 20). Later it will be seen in T"ubingen and D"usseldorf, West Germany.

Morandi stood for shyness in a 20th-century art world of increasing self-promotion. He stood for consistent dedication to a few basic but profoundly explorable ideas in an art world where styles and notions changed with the unpredictability of weather.

He was content to stay put (while, by contrast, his art traveled widely) - not going outside Italy until 1956 and working either in Bologna or in the village of Grizzana in the Bolognese Apennines - while the rest of the world went frantic with travel and communications. He had a few select friends and contacts, living simply with his sisters, happy to let the dust settle on his bottles and containers, the endlessly re-arrangeable motifs of his paintings in oil or watercolor, his drawings, and engravings.

His admirers claim that Morandi's international reputation has never been held higher than at present. The detailed biographical notes in the exhibition catalog suggest that, during the 1970s and '80s, ``the general opinion'' of Morandi ``was of an isolated, provincial figure, too modest, coherent and traditional compared with the turbulent controversies which lacerated the international artistic milieu.''

For many years, the notes continue, his work was ``acknowledged but not discussed.'' But in the last 10 years it seems there has been a change, and Morandi has now been afforded ``definitive recognition in the pantheon of 20th-century masters.'' This has occurred partly because of ``the subdued cultural climate which is again fascinated by painting.''

Well - maybe. The fact is that Morandi's art, throughout his long career, did achieve continuous attention and admiration, both in Italy and abroad. He was valued for his difference, for his separateness, while he was nevertheless acutely aware of many of the concerns and divisions of modern art.

He was frequently exhibited all over Europe and in the United States. He was avidly collected by private and public collectors. A large number of people wrote about his work. Extraordinary respect and devotion were his, even though his work was unpretentious, small in scale, and ordinary in subject matter - a few objects arranged on a table, some barns and bushes on a hillside. Even so, it was early seen that Morandi's painting had about it something tranquil and sensitive, determined and ineffable.

IT also managed to be modern without ignoring some of the age-old problems of painting - the relationship of space to solid, the exploration of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface, the balance between ``picture'' and ``subject,'' between what the artist sees and how he sees it, and between how he sees it and the way his hand, with candor and openness, depicts it.

Morandi's contemplative, yet direct, art is narrow, concentrated, spare. But within its reduced limits, it is persistently inventive, rich in light, color, tone, and expressive brushwork - an amazing combination of the unadventurous and the adventurous.

Today, Giorgio Morandi is an artist ripe for mythmaking. And in this decade, now that we are supposed to be ``interested in painting again,'' Morandi's art is also ripe for ever more philosophical, analytical, psychological, and art-critical comment.

This exhibition's catalog has a bunch of essays that only too clearly illustrate what I mean. In pointed contrast to the accessibility of the paintings and prints themselves, the wordy knots into which these writers have twisted themselves in their admiration for Morandi have to be read to be believed. The briefest example I can find is this sentence by Flaminio Gualdoni in his contribution on ``The Last Morandi'': ``Morandi tests to the extremities of a painting of subjects that do not value a certification of reality of sensible contingency.''

What does he mean? One should allow that there may be problems because of translation from the Italian, but such statements surely do little to make Morandi's paintings understandable.

Of course, it's true that, like all worthwhile art, Morandi's works are not nearly as ``simple'' as they at first seem. But they are the images of a man using eye and thought and hand, not a word-spinner. His own words seem to have been as economical and to the point as his painting is.

It is with relief that in two of the essays the reader encounters Morandi's own brief paradox: ``There is nothing more abstract than the visible world.'' That says in a nutshell everything the viewer needs to consider about the relationship of a Morandi painting to its subject:

He sees his subject in abstract terms. Those abstract terms - shape, space, line, edge, profile, color, solid-and-void, brush movement, substance of pigment, thinness or thickness of paint, arrangement within the rectangle of the canvas or paper, grouping or dispersal of forms, balance, interval - are the language of his paintings. They are painting-language, rather than subject-language. The painting is paramount. By these ``abstract'' means he hints or communicates - and this is the intriguing wonder of his art - unseen emotions and thoughts. Words can't explain.

In the verbiage spilled in support of this admirable show, occasional fragmentary phrases or quotations, sudden moments of clarity, stick in the mind.

Giuliano Briganti, discussing ``Morandi's Landscapes,'' writes tellingly of ``a synthesis of meditation and immediacy.'' And - best of all - he says:

``Nobody to my knowledge has ever seen Morandi paint.''

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