Giorgio Morandi, the landscape painter with a telescope

Giorgio Morandi, Paesaggio, 1927 (Roma, Camera dei Deputati)

Giorgio Morandi, Paesaggio, 1927 (Roma, Camera dei Deputati)

by Giuseppe Frangi

The 47 kilometers between via Fondazza, Bologna, and Grizzana were Giorgio Morandi’s whole world: one of the 20th century’s great “universal” artists, he spent almost his entire life between his studio in Bologna and the small village where he retreated for the holidays. The painter had a rare dislike not only for trips, but also for all the distractions provided by the art scene: he never went to Paris, and crossed the Italian border only a couple of times to go so far as Switzerland. He knew every millimeter of the familiar landscape around him, yet never stopped searching for further details.

Grizzana is at the foot of Emilia’s Apennines, 540 meters above sea level, along the road that then goes towards Pistoia. It has now officially acquired the name of the painter who immortalized its sparse landscapes, becoming Grizzana Morandi: a quiet village that treasures its precious solitude. Morandi certainly appreciated this ideal setting for him to organize outstanding pictorial meditations, with the calm and clear-headedness he needed. Indeed, Morandi did not merely open the window and paint the landscape before his eyes: he followed a more complex and rational process. That is why it is always so difficult to pinpoint the exact slice of reality he framed: while he never altered or invented images, he focused on secondary details that sometimes prove almost impossible to find again in real life. Cesare Brandi, one of the critics closest to him, said he once saw Morandi paint what he could see through a telescope. He did not physically approach his “motif” (to use Cézanne’s expression for the section of landscape chosen for the canvas) but explored it from a distance, to be both freer and more respectful.

Morandi did not use the telescope to search for inspiration, but for a correspondence with the reproductions – often small and black-and-white – he had seen of works by Cézanne and Corot. Morandi’s attentive eye was always able to capture the secret formula underlying a painting’s composition, and then set out to find that same principle in nature. Only when he found the correspondence he was looking for, the  “motif” seemed powerful enough and worthy of being painted.

Thus Morandi’s landscapes are never the result of a simple transfer from reality to canvas: they required a long mental process. Morandi adored nature, its light and its colors, yet never was a naturalistic painter. Like the great masters of 15th-century art in Italy – first and foremost Piero della Francesca – he forced nature’s impressions through the principles of an organized composition, which allowed his works to be both faithful to reality and completely original.

One of Morandi’s most famous works dates back to 1927, and is now hung in the Italian Parliament’s Chamber of Deputies: it is a painting of the white wall of a house set against the blue sky, seen from below, in which Morandi clearly replicated Cézanne’s famous “La maison lézardée” (“The House with the Cracked Walls”), now at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Following his usual process, Morandi first found in Grizzana a house similar to the one portrayed by Cézanne, and then felt confident he could paint something “à la Cézanne”. Finally, he added an element that makes his work radically different: while the great French artist used the lower point of view to convey a powerful sense of spatial depth, Morandi completely erases the effect by creating a flattened image that resembles an abstract montage of colors.

Why did Morandi follow this process? Because he was convinced that art cannot be a reproduction of reality, but can be a reality in its own right. It is a place of accomplished experiences, an adventure for the eyes… if you are able to see the same familiar sights and discover something surprisingly new in them every time, without ever having to make anything up.

September 11, 2014