Arts & Culture

Metaphysical Modernists, Italian: Morandi, Carrà, Sironi


Charles Molesworth

      One enters into a Morandi still life. Slowly. There is a harmony of parts, a unity of intention. The space contains the objects, the forms. As in Renaissance paradoxes, much that is offered arrives through negation: the shapes of the bottles and vessels take forms from, and surrender them to, the others. Colors work hard—are worked—for the sake of harmony, yet all seems placid. Muted combinations of tints and hues intensify; the paint strokes pass gently yet add a solidity of purpose. Curves and cavities make a music of tactility. The plain blank background holds its own; the vessels create a space that is neither crowded nor empty. The ecstasy of the various parts calls out for ekphrasis. The artist allows himself to be quoted: “The only interest the visible world awakens in me concerns space, light, color, and form.” Yet, even as these isolated elements are taken to an extreme, they also look to cohere. Unity of form, by a formalism of thought and feeling, is poised between the aspect and the center. These are beautiful objects that repay thought. Recall the incident when Sartre was agitated at the new approach to philosophy, when Raymond Aron told him that with phenomenology you could philosophize about anything, even the coffee cup sitting there in front of him.


      The acronym for one of New York’s smaller but valuable galleries is CIMA, the Center for Italian Modern Art. Two years ago they offered a major showing of the works of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), one of modernism’s great, perhaps greatest, still life painters. Unfortunately I missed the exhibit, for I wasn’t fully aware of CIMA’s existence.1 But their 2019 show, “Metaphysical Masterpieces 1916-1920,” revitalized my pleasure in modernism, especially of the Italian variety. CIMA has limited space, but ne curatorial taste in how to gather and display their exhibitions. This excellent recent exhibit has only three artists, but one of them - Morandi - would always be enough to command a deeper look. However, beyond his own stature, Morandi can in a way be seen more clearly in the context of other Italian modernists. CIMA has chosen two artists—Carlo Carrà and Mario Sironi—who worked with Morandi and demonstrated accomplishments of their own. Before looking closer at Morandi, some context can be teased out from these other two Italian modernists.

Sironi’s offering in the CIMA show included two loosely matched paintings from 1919, just after the end of the war. Both these pictures have an agitated surface imagery. Most agitated is “Composition with Propel- ler,” a work in tempera and collage on board. The visual idioms combine playful and somber tones and effects that are drawn from the “tradition of the new,” exempli ed in this instance by futurism, Italy’s singular contribution to modernism. The propeller is the giveaway, so to speak, as Sironi works his own changes on the mechano-morphic items and dark tones that convey a metallized energy, as a disassembled machine is both revealed by, and hidden from, the expected sense of a uni ed composition normally achieved through balance. But of course the balancing takes place throughout the intersections of pictorial space, seemingly with no sure outline or centering object or point of view. Sironi’s other painting, called “A Workshop of Wonders” (1917), echoes the propeller painting with a rendition of what might be called a higher jumble. Drawing from the distant motif of the artist in his studio, Sironi darkens the rendered space by virtually eliminating any lively contrast of colors while making the depiction of objects nearly a blur. For most viewers I would guess the painting beams too darkly and the depiction of unassembled machine parts has more the mark of riot than of grace. Confronted with such chaotic subjects Sironi appears to have pushed beyond the programmatic artistic rules that insist on movement at all costs. Futurism is at the end of its tether.

The work of Carlo Carrà is represented by two paintings—“Her- maphroditic Idol”(1917) and “The Western Knight”(1917)—that help to clarify somewhat the meaning of the term “Metaphysical.” Stripping the painting of details, the metaphysical artist seeks to uncover persisting ele- ments and relationships, thereby freeing both emotion and thought. Taken together, Carrà’s paintings are perhaps a commentary on the absence of heroism in the modern world. At the least, they eliminate detail and sen- timent in order to un-cloud the viewing experience and banish an easy or sentimental humanism. (Marinetti, who coined the term metafisica for a species of avant-garde art, would gladly have eliminated humanism.) Both Carrà paintings feature a solitary image, one showing a barren sculpture at once frozen by or within an assembled skin, the other a horse and rider made from hammered steel-like plates. Carrà, though, is no simplistic conveyor of satirical images. The texture of the main subject in each case gives us what appears to be a manufactured creature, graceful only as it seems to be struggling toward life-likeness.

Unlike Sironi, who seems nally too dark, Carrà paints drily, with only occasional brightness, as in one roseate panel in the body of “The Western Knight,” a stif y rendered gure with just a touch of equine grace. But without being members of a rigid group of followers, these “other two” appear to divide their subjects between Sirone’s industrial machinery and Carrà’s symbolic animals. The two painters are thus useful foils for Morandi’s art, which is at once more disciplined and yet more free than that of his two countrymen. Where Sironi can be seen as busily seeking to humanize the machine, Carrà simpli es the human by stripping it down to its functional aspects.


      Morandi’s project is at once more programmatic, even rigid, in its visual discipline and freer in its response to the modern. Morandi worked by reconciling opposite forces. An analysis of the rich simplicity of his style from the late 1940’s summed it up in the paradox of concordia discors: “the composition of two gurative modes that seemed opposed, one of them turned to volumetric and architectonic construction, the other meant to reabsorb all the spatial relations via color and light.”2 These two modes of seeing might produce astigmatism in some viewers, but Morandi, even before his third decade, had learned how form energized “all the spatial relations.”

Speaking generally, two famous images could be said to shape the bounds of spatial relations in Italian modernism: the empty piazza in Giorgio de Chirico’s “The Agony of Departure”(1912-13) and the dynamic bronze sculpture of Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” (1913). In one version of modernism, especially of the radical kind, the artist must rush headlong into the mass urban society of the future or retreat into a puzzling but comfortable past. Italian modernism had a life of its own, and it was yet varied enough to include a gure like Morandi, who stands out with his modesty of statement. This is more remarkable when seen in a large context. Italian nationalism was erce, dragging into the open not only social and political enmities but religious as well – after all, modernism is the term the Papacy used to mark off those who would not submit to ecclesiastical authority.

Morandi stands apart from this lineage of combative modernism; rather, he makes his artistic gamble by placing his bets on the lowliest of genres, the still life, while orchestrating his artistic style with the most distinctive renderings of brush strokes, colors and textures. The large main room in the CIMA show includes only fourteen paintings by Morandi, but in their range of line, color and sculpted shapes, a calm mastery pervades their richness. The adaptability of the still life can be registered in Mo- randi’s use of various classes of objects as the basis of his practice. The subjects of the fourteen paintings in the CIMA show can be grouped into a few quiet categories: hand-made bottles; small ceramic vases; modest owerpots (often with simple but textured plants); a plain table; and an empty background. Missing are the traditional subjects of still life – no fruit, no symbolic objects, no skull (or other memento mori), no lush blooms, no complex arrangements of exotica. Present as they are by echoes and variations, the traditional still-life stylizations of Chardin and Cezanne are completed by Morandi’s superb skill. The other missing element in Morandi is harder to specify. When de Chirico, who trumpeted Metaphysical painting, and Marinetti and Boccioni, who de ned futurism, thus became famous Italian modernists, many of the esthetic battle lines were drawn. The interwar period – with formulas such as “the return to order”, a reactionary postwar plea – was marked by furious ideological claims and nationalist ambitions, and also by heady aesthetic disputes. Sironi repudiated pittura metafisica, while other artists sought to bring their work in line with imperatives dictated by one or another of the dominant political factions. Morandi, for his part, apparently proceeded without fear or favor, going his own way, as if politics played no role at all in his thinking.

Of course, Morandi’s esthetic could be read as having a political or social dimension. The way he uses objects, which are often clearly hand-made, can be seen as a rejection of the mechano-morphism of Sironi. Likewise, the use of a bare, unadorned table and walls can register as a tribute to pre-industrial social values. Though some critics have seen the arrangements of the glass and ceramic objects on the unadorned table as suggesting a devotional symbolism, most see a secular order, celebrating simplicity with little or no echoes of the ritualistic. In any case, it is the long tradition –almost a version of classical esthetics – of the still life that asks for an allegorical or metaphoric reading. Another framework suggests itself – the erce modernist call for the simplifying act as the basis of art’s truest mission: to make less be more. This reduction to basics recapitulates Morandi’s life as a near recluse. But it is an exaggeration to call him a recluse. While it’s true he was born and died in Bologna, and never left Europe, in the second half of his life he enjoyed critical acclaim and of cial honors, in uencing his contemporaries and teaching university students the art of etching. The simpli cation of his line and palate soon produces a knotted paradox when considering the relations between his life and his work. He’s been quoted as saying that nothing is more abstract than reality.

As large and solid as Morandi’s reputation is, some of his fame must be put down to his longevity and what it means to his style. The CIMA exhibit performs a valuable service by showing Morandi in the beginning of his career. But in the meantime we must remember that his output includes over 1300 paintings and seven decades of a style that slowly but steadily intensi ed. Moreover, we should appreciate the intensi cation of his work as it began as part of Italy’s modernism and the many arguments and innovations to which it gave shape and energy. Morandi’s career – like that of Joseph Cornell, say - has a through line that can be best understood as a vivid triumph based on a complex attitude towards modesty.


      Italian modernism, as exempli ed by Marinetti and others, was a movement that resorted to the use of manifestos to question and challenge the traditional culture. Again, Morandi sets himself apart from most of his other contemporaries, preferring instead to avoid publicity and aggressive claims and postures. However, when he spoke about his own work it was with a sense of rmness. The most telling of his pronouncements was that quoted previously, in a letter to a friend: “The only interest that the visible world awakens in me concerns space, light, color and form.” The typical still life with its subtle variations rests on an invariable sureness, and it takes place under the banner of the individual work. Each still life seems to originate – and conclude with – the strictures of the genre.


      By concentrating on Morandi’s typical paintings, I have neglected two quite atypical works. Both are labeled as still-lifes, from 1918 and 1919 respectively. The earlier one is called “Still Life with Ball.” Its iconology recalls Joseph Cornell’s boxes and appears as a four-sided box with its sides askew. The later work, called simply “Still Life,” also has a box-like feel to it, and shows the cut-out of a back panel of a violin and other related objects. The 1919 painting is extremely hard to read, as sides become separate planks, and boxes seems to include and defy one another. It conveys a strong surrealistic sensibility and recalls the manic shifts in perspective from a Cocteau lm or a portion of a de Chirico vacancy. In both these works all the outlines are tightly drawn and the nish is rather polished. They are – in brief – most un-Morandi like. The triumph of his style was not achieved by a lock step approach.


1. The Center is on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, at 421 Broome Street, Fourth Floor.

2. The Italian art historian Cesare Brandi, in “Cammino di Morandi,” Le Arti, Febru- ary-March, 1939, p. 29.