I first saw Various Objects on a Table (1931) at the Tate Gallery in 1991. It made a profound impression and Giorgio Morandi has remained a great influence on me ever since. No work seems to me more apt for considering how we picture the invisible.
In the years just after World War I, Morandi, along with Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà, was one of the avant-garde Italian “metaphysical painters” exploring internal visions. But he quickly moved on, developing a personal pictorial language that centred on landscapes (predominantly those surrounding his summer house in Grizzana), and on still lifes of everyday objects such as pots, bottles and vases, made in his small apartment studio in Bologna. Though regarded as reclusive, he has had an impact on artists ranging from early modernists such as Ben Nicholson, to 1960s painters such as Wayne Thiebaud and David Hockney, and later sculptors, including Rachel Whiteread and Tony Cragg.
There is a reductive austerity in Morandi’s compositions: shape, interval and tonal modulation distill an image to its essence. Morandi was both a painter and printmaker, and is widely regarded as one of the finest etchers since Rembrandt, an artist Morandi held in great regard. And it is in his etchings that one can see most clearly Morandi’s desire to capture the invisible and give it pictorial form. While Cezanne’s still lifes question the edges of perception through shifting marks and quivering edges, Morandi’s question the very materiality of their objects. In the exquisite Various Objects on a Table, which measures just 175 by 194 mm, Morandi works to conjure the scene before him while simultaneously doubting its existence. The image hovers between material reality and dissolution.
Morandi simulates tone through freely drawn, crosshatched lines. These lines produce the delicate web through which we discern the image, while offering a continuous reminder that this is a flat image, a construct. Teasingly, he invites us to draw back, as if on a promise that the picture will come into focus, and also to lean in close, with the expectation of a secret that will be revealed. Neither position results in a fixed resolution. The image remains fluid, alternating between absence and presence; each patch of tone tempts us to configure it into a pot or a bottle, while nonetheless refusing to be pinned down.
Even the distinction between objects and the space around them is questioned, the intervals rendered as palpably as the objects themselves. The presumed hierarchy of subject over background is interrogated and found wanting. His view, I would suggest, is that the value of things is not fixed, but lies in their relationships to things outside themselves—the shadow is as concrete as the object that cast it. Importance is not intrinsic, it is a function of a role within the composition.
Morandi’s subjects are things one can find in any bric-a-brac store, and most were collected in Bolognese shops. They carry none of the allegorical freight of other still life traditions—of luxurious Dutch 17th-century groaning tables, or of memento mori with their lexicon of skulls and snuffed candles. Morandi’s still lifes have the banal, deadpan quality associated with photography. Indeed, many suggest family portraits—objects stiffly posed, inviting the viewer to search for likeness and difference amongst the assembled characters.
The viewer attempts to separate them, catching their individuality in fleeting movements before they dissolve into the whole an instant later. The image presents itself and remains invisible, always out of reach, much in the manner that a Giacometti sculpture always seems to maintain a discreet distance, no matter how close up the viewer gets.
In etching, Morandi was a master of acid—using test strips to ascertain its strength, much like photographers once tested exposure times. In a print as exquisitely delicate as Various Objects on a Table the timing of the acid bath is critical. Too little and it will lack definition, too long and the lines melt together, disrupting the screen through which the image emerges.
There is another aspect to these still lifes, a further nudge to the invisible. Morandi was born and spent his whole life in Bologna, a city characterized by two architectural features: the towers built by wealthy families to assert their social status, and the colonnades that allow one to crisscross the city, protected from both sun and rain. This vertical imprint of Bologna can be sensed within Morandi’s work, as if memories of the city have filtered into the work subliminally. “I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. We know that all we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it.”1
Picturing the invisible has been a theme in my work for decades. My starting point is often a collection or a location: in the house at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, I invented evidence of daily life that I felt had been edited out; in Temporarily Accessioned, a project with the Freud Museums in Vienna and London, the great doctor’s absence is made manifest in a full-scale print from X-rays of the coat he wore on his migration from Austria to Britain. For the Sir John Soane Museum, with its remarkable collection of architectural models, I focused on the “invisible” part of Soane’s house—the below-stairs lives of the servants, whom I imagined building their own architectural ruins from sugar cubes. The resulting laser-cut woodcuts show the influence of Morandi, not only in the marriage of grandeur and banality, but in my use of pixelated dots to disrupt clear reading, suggesting that the image is in a state of flux, much as the ruins themselves are gradually collapsing.
- Giorgio Morandi, interview, Voice of America, 25 April 1957.