Oil Painting; Morandi: Painting and Appearance in the 20th Century

17 Oct 2008

John A. Parks examined the art of Giorgio Morandi in the December issue of American Artist. In one section, he asserted, "[His] paintings are a testimony to the act of something deeply contemplated. It is a kind of painting that has nothing to do with simply recording appearances." We asked Parks to expound upon this bold statement, and he responded with the following essay.

One of the most fascinating features of art is its ability to use subject matter from the real world to illuminate the sensibility of the artist. A painting doesn’t have to reconstitute the appearance of its ostensible subject—say, a view of hills or a bowl of oranges—in order to engage us. It might instead draw our attention to what is happening between the artist and his subject. Even a superficial glance at more or less any still life by Morandi will reveal that the work doesn’t really give a full account of how light and color move around various forms. Rather, the painting seems to be the result of a reverie about the objects conducted in paint. The artist makes numerous little nudges and shifts of the paint as he looks at his subject, endlessly simplifying and restating as his mind and eye coalesce around the various simple pots and jars. In other words, the painting is a record of an extended act of looking and thinking rather than an attempt to render the appearance of the subject.

Obviously the success of such a painting depends on how captivating and entrancing this process is for the viewer and how attractive the quality of the mind that it reveals. In the case of Morandi the process seems to release a sense of quiet poetry, as though we have been drawn into the artist’s state of reverie. Given the busy and noisy world that most of us inhabit, this is a pleasurable sensation, and it no doubt accounts for the enormous fame and wide popularity of the artist’s paintings.

Boucher’s Toilet of Venus

Toilet of Venus
by Francois Boucher, 1751, oil,
42 5/8 x 33 1/2.
Collection Metropolitan
Museum of Art,
New York, New York.

The idea that the subject of a painting might be the workings of the artist’s sensibility rather than the objects or figures represented in the work is largely a modern phenomenon. Almost all painting from the Renaissance until the late 19th century presented a window into an illusion of real space. Whether it was a Dutch interior by Vermeer with its carefully organized and restrained realism, or a ceiling by Tiepolo with its spiraling angels and clouds, or even a Rococo pleasure-fest like Boucher’s Toilet of Venus with its sensuous artificiality, the viewer was presented with a coherent space in which he might conceivably imagine himself entering and moving around. This applied even when the visions presented bore only a tenuous relationship to the normal world. A landscape by Poussin, for instance, is more ordered and organized than anything we ever come across in nature, just as Watteau’s Embarkation to Cythera transforms a landscape into something just short of the fantastic. Nonetheless, the space is coherent and we are invited to enter it, to enjoy its qualities and to consider its subject matter. Even when the Impressionists showed up and began to explore a radically different means of recreating natural light on a canvas, they were careful to present a coherent and unitary visual world.

All of this changed with the work of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906). Originally an Impressionist who studied with Camille Pissaro, Cézanne came to be obsessed with the very nature of perception. His work began to concentrate on the process of looking at a subject, and he started to use carefully placed marks arranged into shallow planes as he tried to record his experience of perceiving and locating objects in space. Moreover he tried to bring to his shifting perceptions the idea that nature might be broken down into a number of simple geometric forms, announcing that he intended to “treat nature by the cylinder, square, and the cone.” As he proceeded, his work also began to incorporate the experience of binocular vision so that he sometimes showed the position of the same object from the differing points of view of his right and left eye. The paintings, rather than being composed beforehand in the traditional manner, instead grew out of this searching process of looking, as the artist struggled to understand and relate his perceptual experience in front of the object. If we look at a painting like Quarry and Mont Sainte Victoire (1898), now in the Baltimore Museum of Art, we get a clear sense of the results. Unlike Impressionist painting, which is greatly concerned with color relationships, we can see that here the artist is content to allow the same set of color values appear all over the painting. The dark blue line with which planes are defined remains the same in the foreground as in the far distance. The same green-to-yellow color run is repeated through most of the trees. This results in a radical flattening of the space and the reduction of the scene to a motif. Within this we can see that individual elements, rather than being rendered, are merely hinted at with tentative and shifting strokes of the paint. The artist is literally figuring out where everything is right in front of our eyes. The result is that we enter the uncertainty of his state of mind and share the joys and woes of his struggle to reconstitute his experience of seeing. A strange new sense of clarity and resolution emerges as we feel the power of his mind at work and his ability to bring order to his world in a wholly new way.

Cezanne's Quarry and Mont Sainte-Victoire

Quarry and Mont Sainte-Victoire
by Paul Cézanne, 1898–1900, oil,
25 1/2 x 32. Collection Baltimore
Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland.

The work of Cézanne was among the first modern art that Morandi saw when he went to Florence in 1910. It clearly remained a strong influence. Cézanne, with his creation of a shallow space and multiple viewpoints, is generally heralded as a precursor of the Cubists. But his liberation of painting from its task of rendering also gave rise to other ventures. The very thoughtful and quiet paintings of the English artist Gwen John (1876–1939), while less radical than the later work of Morandi, share an approach in which the painting is built around the artist’s sensibility in front of the subject. This is much in evidence in a painting like Young Nun of 1915, now in the National Gallery in Scotland. Here a closely worked palette and thoughtful painterly brushwork function much the same way as Morandi’s approach. The same could be said of the later paintings of Eduard Vuillard (1868–1940), whose delicate and inventive paintings of interiors share a delight in understatement, suggestion and quietude.

The idea that a work of art might grow out of the following of a perceptual process is also greatly in evidence in the work of the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966). Giacometti began his professional career by making surrealist sculptures but became increasingly interested in what happened to his figurative images when he continued to try to define his experience of seeing. In his drawing and painting we can see him making endless attempts to locate his subject matter in space using a spindly, moving line. His works are full of partial erasures, second guesses, and sometimes heavy overworking. Rather than the quiet and beautiful ordering of Cezanne’s world, however, Giacometti’s endeavors resulted in a strangely distorted space in which figures and objects often seem to diminish bizarrely under the weight and pressure of the surrounding space. When it came to making sculptures, this process often resulted in figures or busts that are whittled down into grotesquely thin objects. The artist, overtaken by a quest that he continually experienced as impossible, would often go on to destroy his work in the process. He generally regarded all his efforts as unfinished and unsuccessful.

Some later 20th-century art took up the notion that art might be made by displaying a process rather than simply presenting a finished product. More usually, however, these were processes undertaken without the intense perceptual involvement of artists like Cezanne, Giacometti or Morandi. The mature work of Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) for instance, depends on the display of a mechanical means of swinging and dripping paint, but seems to connect with us as a powerful and highly theatrical statement. The influence of Pollock was in part responsible for the emergence of the Process Art Movement, first recognizable in the work of Robert Morris (1931–). In an essay for an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1968 he called for an art that grew out of process and time rather than involve itself in the production of what he called ‘static icons’. A whole generation of artists, including Robert Smithson, Eva Hesse, Bruce Naumann, and Richard Serra became interested in incorporating natural forces of rusting, staining, dripping, decay, natural growth, and weathering into their work. But at this point we have moved immeasurably far from the quiet poetry and carefully contained world of Giorgio Morandi.


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