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Giorgio Morandi leafing through a art publication [detail]. Photo: Libero Grandi. © Giorgio Morandi, VEGAP, Bilbao, 2019

BILBAO.- The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao presents A Backward Glance: Giorgio Morandi and the Old Masters . This survey of a great 20th-century Italian painter explores the relationships between his still lifes and some of his main art historical sources. This exhibition brings together, for the first time, an extensive selection of Morandi’s exceptional paintings and works by the Old Masters who impacted his artistic practice, which spanned over four decades, from post-World War I to the early 1960s. 

I felt that only an understanding of the most vital works that painting had produced through the past centuries could guide me in finding my own way.” Giorgio Morandi 

Morandi was an insightful student of art history who had multiple referents in mind when developing his artistic practice. The exhibition explores historical influences, all of which precede the 19th century, from three different European countries: 17th-century Spanish painting and the tradition of the bodegón; the Bolognese school of painting from the late 16th to early 18th centuries; and the 18th-century, French painter Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin. Each section examines a feature prominent in Morandi’s works: the theatricality of the Spaniards, the naturalism of the Italian S eicento , and the intimacy and geometry of Chardin. 

Beginning in 1920 Giorgio Morandi (b. 1890, Bologna; d. 1964) devoted himself to the analysis of objects (bottles, flower vases, boxes, tins) and landscapes, which he reduced to their essential forms. The artist rendered his favorite objects again and again arranging them in subtly different ways, focusing on the infinite pictorial possibilities these trivial, domestic items provided. His figurative works stand out from other 20th-century paintings for their unique intensity, beauty, and timelessness. Representing the most mundane objects, Morandi’s still lifes, which are extraordinarily personal in terms of composition and the use of color and light, reveal the artist’s pursuit of pure and concentrated forms. 

Throughout his career, Morandi looked to several European schools of painting. The still lifes that he created between the 1920s and the early 1960s evidence the power of the art he studied. However, Morandi only saw a few of the actual paintings that inspired him in person at museums or in exhibitions. Primarily, he discovered Old Master works through reproductions in books and journals or through art historical scholarship.

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Giorgio Morandi, Still Life, 1920Oil on canvas, 30.5 x 44.5 cm, Istituzione Bologna Musei | Museo Morand © Giorgio Morandi, VEGAP, Bilbao, 2019

Gallery 305. Morandi and the Still-life Tradition 
Morandi’s awareness of Spanish Golden Age painters dovetails with the rediscovery of these masters in Italy. Morandi’s friend, the art historian and critic Roberto Longhi drew attention to Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán in his writings. In the early 1910s, Florentine artist and critic Ardengo Soffici revived Zurbarán, describing him as avant-garde in an article published in his modernist magazine La Voce , a publication that Morandi read. In 1930, Longhi curated the exhibition Gli antichi pittori spagnoli della collezione Contini - Bonacossi at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome, the largest collection of Spanish Old Masters in Italy; this included an impressive group of paintings by El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Velázquez, and Zurbarán. The location of the exhibition was important, since the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna was the leading Italian museum of 19th- and 20th-century art. Thus, presenting these paintings there automatically characterized them as “avant-garde.” In the introduction to the Contini-Bonacossi exhibition catalogue, Longhi stressed the importance of the presentation for contemporary artists, and he stated that Zurbarán was the “greatest builder of form with light, after Caravaggio and before Cézanne,” describing him as a proto-modernist artist. 

A particularly illuminating episode regarding El Greco, which occurred in ca. 1918–19, testifies to Morandi’s interest in Spanish Golden Age art. Morandi’s friend, the literary critic Giuseppe Raimondi, recalled a visit he made to the painter’s house, where he saw a small book on El Greco. Pointing to a reproduction of an Assumption or an Annunciation the size of a postage stamp, Morandi directed his friend’s attention to the flowers at the feet of the angels and stated: “No modern painter has painted flowers like these. Perhaps only Renoir…” The attention he paid to El Greco’s flowers is evident in some of his own flower paintings. In the first gallery, Morandi’s vases are juxtaposed to a 17th-century copy of El Greco that evidences the Old Master’s virtuosity in depicting plants, ivy in this particular case. This gallery also includes some of Morandi’s still lifes, which echo the harmonious compositions by painters such as Zurbarán and Meléndez. 

 

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Giorgio Morandi, Still Life (Natura morta), 1931. Oil on canvas, 54 x 64 cm, Fondation Mattioli Rossi, Switzerland. © Giorgio Morandi, VEGAP, Bilbao, 2019

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Francisco de Zurbarán, The Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist (La Virgen con el Niño Jesús y San Juan Bautista niño), 1662. Oil on canvas, 169 x 127 cm, Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. © Giorgio Morandi, VEGAP, Bilbao, 2019

Gallery 306. Morandi. A New I ncamminato 
In 1935, Robert Longhi published a history of the Bolognese School entitled Momenti della pittura bolognese . He articulated that the overarching characteristic of Bolognese painting was an immediate expressive interpretation of naturalism. Significantly, he concluded his account with Giorgio Morandi, describing his work as that of a new “incamminato” (someone on the right path). According to Longhi’s narrative, after the T recento and the anticlassical, expressionistic art Vitale da Bologna created, the “heroes” were the three Carracci brothers, Annibale, Agostino, and Ludovico, Baroque painters active in the late 1500s and early 1600s. The Carraccis’ tenets lived on in the art school they founded around 1582, the “Accademia degli Incamminati,” where they taught a modern pictorial style grounded in established artistic traditions. Likewise, Longhi noted that Morandi mined the past to find his way through the “most troublesome droughts” of modern painting. 

Morandi paid attention to his Baroque forerunners and subsequent influences, although he focused on very specific elements within these images. Art historian Francesco Arcangeli, another friend of the artist, recalled a visit to the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna. When viewing Guido Reni’s masterpiece Madonna and Child in Glory with the Patron Saints of Bologna (also known as the Pala della Peste or the Altarpiece of the Bubonic Plague , 1630), Morandi concentrated on a small, trivial detail at the bottom of the painting: a depiction of the city of Bologna, the treatment of which he related to his own compositional concerns. Even more telling is the presence in Morandi’s private collection of four small paintings by the Bolognese Giuseppe Maria Crespi. Longhi had addressed Crespi’s brilliance in his Momenti della pittura bolognese . Crespi’s genre scenes often feature still lifes. In the second gallery, the Crespi paintings are shown in dialogue with Morandi’s still lifes. 

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Giuseppe Maria Crespi, Women whispering (Donne che bisbigliano), 1735–40. Oil on canvas, 26.5 x 19 cm, Istituzione Bologna Musei | Casa Morandi© Giorgio Morandi, VEGAP, Bilbao, 2019.

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Giorgio Morandi, Still Life (Natura morta), 1931. Oil on canvas, 42 x 42 cm, Fondation Mattioli Rossi, Switzerland © Giorgio Morandi, VEGAP, Bilbao, 2019.

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Giorgio Morandi, Still Life, 1949Oil on canvas, 30 x 45 cm, Nahmad Collection. © Giorgio Morandi, VEGAP, Bilbao, 2019.

The third gallery presents a selection of Morandi’s still lifes together with a Chardin still life containing similar elements, such as a cloth cascading off a table. Even more instructive are Chardin’s works of a boy building a house of cards. Morandi emulated the geometric forms of the houses of cards in his arrangements of boxes visible in many works on view in this gallery.