edited by Ernst-Gerhard Güse and Franz Armin Morat.
Prestel, 168 pp., £29.95, May 1999, 3 7913 2086 6
Show More
Show More

Of all the gratifications painting offers, the pleasures which come by way of pictures of pots, bowls, fruit, game, bread, bottles and so forth are the least explicable in terms of other appetites. Still-lifes do not charm topographically, arouse erotically or excite physiognomicaily. They do not, despite often showing food, do as much as they might to make the mouth water. The greatest of them are celebrations of frugality. Cézanne’s apples, Chardin’s peaches and Morandi’s jugs rebuke the gleaming succulence of the lobsters and fish, the rich crumbling pies, even the crisp linen, which make the paintings of 17th-century Dutch masters the ancestors of photographic illustrations in cookery books – although, to be fair, those illustrations also find models in the work of painters who turned, not to the splendour of the feast, but to the coolness of the larder. The surfaces of the greatest still-lifes are more often floury or waxy than glazed; the objects are solidly there, sparingly translucent. They may glow, they do not glitter. Matisse had to have the real thing – girl or oyster – in front of him when he painted. And it had to be fresh: for one still-life he renewed his oysters every day and had a boy on hand to water the fish for another. The results are delicious, but only metaphorically mouthwatering.

It isn’t surprising that even in the 18th century Chardin’s still-lifes seemed more worthwhile than most pictures of love, terror, martyrdom, noble effort, sublime storms or sweet fading skies. Good bread is better than second-rate cake. It is, however, surprising when Diderot praises them in a way which makes you think he found them as serious, as memorable as even the best cake. It is easy now to say that the notion of higher genres, the idea that subject-matter sets limits on ambition, is nonsense. We have become used to pictures of the ordinary. We find a Degas woman washing herself easier to take than a saint in ecstasy.

But we still have hierarchies – although they are cruder – and other categories of picture rank above still-life. Size alone has a great effect on what we judge to be serious. The aesthetic of engulfment, achieved in pictures which almost fill the field of view, from Monet’s waterlilies through to Pollock and Rothko, rightly persuades us that big pictures have special qualities. Still-life, which is best in pictures that are quite small, has much the same problem getting serious attention now as it did when it was up against full-size gods and nymphs. Indeed, in the past still-life painting could convincingly rebuke less frugal genres. Like a puritan at the feast, it could make them seem too emotional, too playful, too expressive. Sometimes you can wish Chardin wasn’t there; the Quakerish probity of his jar of olives, his copper pans, his dead partridge makes you a little ashamed when you want to wipe a tear with Greuze or pat a bottom with Boucher.

Still-life reproaches high ambition, yet has immodest ambitions of its own. It outdoes all other kinds of painting in doing what belongs to painting alone. This has always been clear. In an ancient fable about competing artists, the contestants do not elicit tears of pity or shudders of fear with pictures of Dido or storm-shrouded hills. One paints fruit which looks so real that birds peck at it. The other responds with a picture covered by a curtain. When his rival reaches to pull it back he finds that the curtain is the picture. Forget the silly side to the story: painting hardly ever really tries to fool the eye. But note the acknowledgment that painting is, at heart, about painting, and that in all genres grand subjects are liable to serve less well than humble ones. Velázquez’s kings and queens seem to have engaged his skill less than his dwarves. The landscape of home – look at Constable, Cotman or Cézanne – has produced better pictures than the landscape of travel. Even Turner was better, or at least more original, in England than abroad. And the subjects of still-life, the objects used or eaten every day – they, too, are humble.

The very limitations of still-life allow a special kind of completeness. In Chardin’s case you could say of perfection, if that did not suggest a polish and a meeting of prescribed standards which are at odds with his originality. I can think of no other pictures in which the nature of oil paint, the effects of movement of the brush, the difference between thick and thin paint, the just equation of the mark to the seen shape, the relation of light and dark on the canvas to the light and dark registered by the retina are so well managed, so happily concerted.

Chardin can be thought of as an end: there was nothing more to be done in precisely that line; and of the new kinds of painting that followed – you can, if you like, read them as glosses, variations, sometimes caricatures of what he did – none combine truth to the nature of the physical world and skill in the art of painting to the same degree, but some are more powerful. Cézanne made still-life monumental at the expense of Chardin’s kind of natural solemnity; Soutine made passionate, ugly comedy out of the dead animals about which Chardin is elegiac (although the grinning ray and snarling cat of his first Salon piece suggest he could have come close to matching the brutal truthfulness about dead meat you get in Goya’s picture of a calf’s head). Morandi simplified and coarsened the surface of pictures so that the story the paint tells about itself and the story it tells about the surface of the jug or bottle are further separated – he swaps representational information for painterly texture.

Morandi’s case is special because he leads us to question the instinct which insists that still-life is marginal and moribund, which would only be true if the dialogue between appearance and representation which gave energy to Western European painting during much of its history had ceased – which maybe it has. Oriental painting has always been willing to trade appearance for information. Things behind things, things in shadow, things which in real life we interpolate from the fragmentary information we get from our eyes are shown clearly in an Indian miniature or a Japanese print. European painters turned to such sources (and to earlier parts of the European tradition) when the art in which the painter, like a judo wrestler, makes use of the weight of our interpretative instincts to throw us into a position where we see reality in blobs and scumbles, seemed stale and dishonest. It is possible that representation in the Western tradition as it existed before Cubism, say, is now only available for ironic quotation – the casserole or bunch of roses which appear like fridge magnets on Patrick Caulfield’s canvases.

But Morandi was not an ironist. Astonishingly, up to and beyond the middle of the 20th century, he painted pictures which play the game of representation as though it had just been invented. No stale tricks. On a map where every continent had been claimed, he found a small uncolonised province and settled there. He painted still-lifes and landscapes, made wonderful pictures out of the simplest ingredients.

Morandi offers useful essays on the paintings, drawings and etchings and a selection of reproductions, slightly skewed towards the later years. The chronology is dotted with photographs of the artist and the rooms in which he worked, offering visual testimony to a simplicity one infers from the work. The small but representative sample on show at the Estorick Collection allows us to follow the progress of a man carefully testing the ground of the old painting, seeing if it will hold his weight, always aware of the danger of sinking into the bog of academic convention. Not that he started in that exploratory way. The earliest picture here, a Cubist/Futurist jug-on-table, is from 1912, when he was 22, and seems to signal the end of the old still-life, the final fragmentation of the picture of things seen from one point of view. The impression it gives is of a representation about to fly apart in painted shards in order to clear the way for pure abstraction. Morandi tried other out-of-the-head styles before he became a champion of things as they are seen. In 1914 he exhibited with the Futurists and there was a de Chirico-like ‘metaphysical’ phase. In 1920 he saw his first substantial Cézanne exhibition at the Biennale in Venice. You feel he needed Cézanne because through him he could find his path to a new way of painting which did not depend on the other new ways he had already worked in.

His life, viewed from without, is as simple as his pictures. He never married and hardly ever left his native Bologna. During the Twenties he worked as a peripatetic art teacher in schools. In 1930 he got a job teaching etching at the Bologna Academy, from which he retired in 1956. He lived with his three sisters in a flat in Bologna and, in the summer, in his house in the nearby village of Grizzana. Even when he became successful he turned down big exhibitions. The first was not held until 1965, after his death.

Two paintings from 1928 – which are only a little further off from optical exactness than Cézanne’s – show him on the track he would follow for the rest of his life. He even has a representative cast of the objects – tall bottles, jugs, little vases, unidentifiable containers – which appear in later paintings and can still be seen on shelves in photographs of his studio (now a museum). One of these 1928 pictures shows a bit of crumpled cloth; it is not something he often painted, and you can see why: it doesn’t work for him as it did for Cézanne, who could build grand landscapes out of rumpled tablecloths. The other 1928 picture is browner and hotter than later ones. The colours he came to make his own were pale beige-brown, dusty pinks and greens, cream which has a hint of skimmed-milk blue in it. There is sometimes just a little black. They are the colours (or what used to be the colours) of women’s underwear. In the 1928 still-life the tops of objects are pale; it might be that light is striking them there: it seems equally possible that dust has settled. There is no freshness in Morandi. Chardin’s fruit is ripe, his game birds ready for plucking, but Morandi’s flowers are nearly all artificial: you can spot his faded roses in recent photographs of his studio, still stuffed into the vases you see in the paintings.

There are pictures from the Thirties in which jugs and bottles are reduced to simple flat shapes; the paint is heavy, the brush-strokes emphasising their vertical outline. Space creeps in when highlights down the sides of objects put them in the round. A picture from 1938 has a coral-red pot in it: a kind of prettiness has arrived. You would not have guessed it was on the way. In a picture from 1951 blue-green appears (coral reds and pale blue-greens were colours Chardin accented pictures with); and in a frieze-like arrangement including two bowls, from 1953-54, highlights suggest that a duster has got to work and a little more light is being allowed in. Over the years the objects have been edging closer and closer together; in the end they are touching and the darkest accents in the pictures are the lines of shadow which separate one from another.

Alongside painting was etching. The subjects are the same as those of the paintings – still-life and landscape. Their spareness and repetitive simplicity are made even more parsimonious in the prints by the hard texture of cleanly-printed hatching (no Rembrandt games here with variable wiping or deep-scored dry point lines). They are even cooler, more inward-looking, more private than the paintings.

That it is possible to get deep pleasure from Morandi’s engagement with simple subject-matter is a sign of our times; we have our own reasons for appreciating even his clumsiness, his skilful lack of skill. Its effect on us is a function of the world we see it in: any magazine, hoarding, newspaper, or commercial break on television offers still-lifes which persuade us of the succulence of food, the prettiness of china, the desirability of all kinds of objects, thanks to techniques of lighting and arrangement which traduce memories of old still-lifes. The vegetable shelves of supermarkets are lit like chorus lines. Shops pump thousands of foot-candles into window displays which are brighter than the daylit world itself. Morandi offers a refuge from visual over-stimulation.

Morandi and Cézanne’s studios have been preserved. They are smallish rooms, and I guess Chardin’s was, too – he was secretive about his methods and would not let people watch him paint. From the paintings alone, however, you can work out quite a lot. Both Morandi and Chardin’s still-lifes usually put eye-level around the middle of the canvas, or a little above it. You do not see much of the tops of objects – the ellipses which stand for the rims of round ones and the trapeziums which stand for the tops of rectangular ones are squashed down almost flat. Nothing of them shows at all, of course, when they extend above eye-level. Because pictures are hung to be seen when you are standing up, what you get in a room of Morandi still-lifes are pictures of objects which seem to be on shelves rather than table tops. When a person is painted sitting at a table you look down on the table – steeply if the artist has stood close to the subject, as in some of Degas’s portraits. In the shelf-like space Morandi’s still-lifes create, you look straight at the objects, sometimes even up at them. This gives the pictures visual authority: they read almost as townscapes – the objects stand tall, are not dominated by a downward glance. When a painter sets up a still-life in this way the table top must be raised: photographs of Morandi’s studio show raised trays as well as a table, which suggests that he may sometimes have painted standing and brought the subject up to eye-level. Putting them in profile gives pots and jugs a presence. They are schematically not so far from Masaccio’s row of disciples or Piero’s angels: tall, sculptural, diffusely lit and closely spaced. The lines of the composition are solemnly vertical or horizontal – there are few oblique lines to convey movement or carry the eye around the picture. Composition alone brings its own solemnity.

Morandi’s still-lifes offer very little detailed information about the objects he paints. Why is this parsimony so effective? First because it is just the amount of information we get from ordinary, not careful, looking. If you pick up a cup and examine it closely from all sides you will have far more information than Morandi gives you. On the other hand, his shorthand transcriptions (in the drawings only a few delicate lines are used) have quite as much information as you pick up from ordinary looking – the kind you do when you reach for a cup. The painting, by making something permanent which is as economical with information as the passing glance, delays the eye, rewrites the restless jig of perception as a slow dance. If you try to look at a real cup this way, the elegantly minimal first impression is quickly swamped by detail. The eye is not prepared to be a slacker. Faced with the painting it not only takes in the fact that there is a cup shape there: it treats the painted surface itself as an object. Like words and music, image and surface are impossible to separate, but conceptually distinct.

Looking at Morandi’s paintings induces a quasi-philosophic calm. The French term ‘nature morte’ (the first use recorded in Robert is from 1752) and the English ‘still life’ (which was being used at the end of the 17th century) have different connotations despite being derived from the same Dutch word – stilleven. On the one hand, autumnal abundance, the fruits of the earth, caught at the moment when ripeness becomes death: the hare, the peaches, the game pie left too long will decay; time is passing, the next season – or at least the next meal – is creeping up on us. On the other hand, there are pictures like Morandi’s in which nothing lives. The life which is stilled is that of the too-busy brain and eye. Be calm, these pictures say, and you will see as you have not seen before.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences