- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2009

Italian artist Giorgio Morandi, who created small paintings of bottles, bowls and boxes, is enjoying a burst of curatorial attention. A major retrospective of his career was held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in fall, after a 2001 survey at the Tate Modern in London.

A more modest exhibition of works by Mr. Morandi (1890-1964) opened Saturday at the Phillips Collection, where his paintings were last displayed in 1957. Why is so much attention being paid to this reclusive artist from Bologna who chose to represent the dullest of objects over and over again?

Dorothy Kosinski, director of the Phillips, says the “lapidary serenity” of Mr. Morandi’s meditative canvases offers a respite from the hyperconnectivity of our times. “When you get hundreds of e-mails and everyone wants an instant answer, these paintings are such a break from that speed,” she says. “They insist you slow down.”

The predictable “Master of Modern Still Life” drags in its visual monotony and absence of new insights into the artist’s career. This exhibit of 50 paintings (six were displayed in the Met show) and 10 etchings casts the artist in the usual light, as an ascetic “painter’s painter” who used the still-life genre to investigate color, light and form.

Related through wall text is Mr. Morandi’s uneventful biography: He lived in the same house with his mother and three sisters, rarely traveled, and painted in a corner of his bedroom. The exhibit plays into the Morandi myth of a monkish artist unsullied by ideology and rhetoric, when in reality, he was in touch with the art world, controlled his image and became involved in the fascist politics of his day.

The exhibit’s biggest surprise is a smattering of early work from the 1910s and 1920s. These busy paintings of flowers and landscapes counter the austerity of Mr. Morandi’s more familiar work.

One of his rare self-portraits is on view, but its shadowed face offers no clues as to the artist’s personality except as a man of mystery — an image, no doubt, intended.

Mr. Morandi’s early experiments in cubism, futurism and metaphysical art reveal his interest in the avant-garde movements of his day. Yet he came to embrace the stodgiest of genres, the still life.

Was this an act of defiance during the growing modernism of the 1900s or a return to the safety of tradition? The exhibit suggests the latter in revealing how Mr. Morandi came to represent household objects he could control and study in his studio.

His initial inspiration came from the past, through the work of French artists Paul Cezanne and Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, both masters of the still life.

Italian fascism came to influence Mr. Morandi, too, as revealed in recent scholarship. However, the exhibit glaringly omits mention of the artist’s participation in the authoritarian movement to play up the formalist beauty of his paintings, as if they were created in a vacuum.

For all his self-imposed isolation and dedication to art, Mr. Morandi was no saint. During the 1920s, he joined a cultural offshoot of fascism known as strapaese. This movement rejected machine-inspired “degenerate” art in favor of a rural, regionalist aesthetic.

Mr. Morandi’s vignettes of humble objects, painted in the warm, muted colors of Italian villages, reflected the strapaese interest in indigenous traditions. Far from being apolitical as the exhibit suggests, these seemingly benign pictures were rooted in the fascists’ anti-modern viewpoint.

Mr. Morandi’s support of the regime led by Benito Mussolini, who purchased a couple of his paintings, led to a job teaching printmaking at Bologna’s fine arts academy. The artist was briefly imprisoned during World War II for his alliance with anti-fascists, but his early roots in the authoritarian movement can’t be denied.

Politics aside, Mr. Morandi’s provincialism — he rarely set foot outside Italy — and keen interest in art of the past indicate an outlook far more conservative than suggested by the usual interpretation of his work as proto-minimalist. His diminutive paintings were initially ignored by collectors of modern paintings for good reason — they were neither abstract nor heroic.

The etchings in the exhibit provide more evidence of Mr. Morandi’s traditionalism in their cross-hatched arrangements of vases, bottles and orbs. More representational than the paintings in their details, the images are often framed within circles like the tondos — round paintings — of the Italian Renaissance so admired by the artist on his day trips to Florence.

Fame only came to Mr. Morandi after the war when his fascist past was brushed aside. In 1948, he won the top prize for painting at the Venice Biennale and the following year his work was shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Movie director Federico Fellini included his paintings in his 1960 film “La Dolce Vita” (to be screened at the Phillips on March 7).

American artists, including Wayne Thiebaud, Sean Scully and Robert Irwin, soon discovered Mr. Morandi and the Italian painter came to attract a following on this side of the Atlantic, culminating in the recent exhibitions.

At the Phillips, it is easy to understand why so many in the art world admire his narrowly focused work. There is such a rigor and consistency to these paintings of the same vases, decanters and bottles that they seem like stanzas in one long poem.

Within some of the canvases — nearly all are titled “Still Life” — the vessels are arranged side by side to recall the solidarity of a military platoon. In others, they overlap like figures huddled for warmth or stretch vertically to assume the monumentality of skyscrapers.

Midway through the show, photographs reveal how Mr. Morandi often painted the containers to eliminate reflections on their surfaces and play up their geometric shapes rather than their materials.

This glimpse into the room where the artist painted and slept provides the only evidence of the life that shaped his canvases. Otherwise, the exhibit falls short of relating a fuller story that would enrich the view of the painter’s repetitive work.

WHAT: “Morandi: Master of Modern Still Life”

WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, until 8:30 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, through May 24

ADMISSION: Adults $12; students and visitors 62 and older $10; members, and visitors 18 and younger, free

PHONE: 202/387-2151

WEB SITE: www.phillipscollection.org

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