EST. 2009

January 17, 2018

Those Subtle Stills

IN THE 17TH CENTURY, STILL LIFE WAS RANKED LOWEST in the hierarchy of figurative art. The hierarchy, decided by the French Académie de peinture et de sculpture, ranked art genres in terms of prestige and cultural value, and deemed still life inferior because it did not involve human subject matter.

Still life is a genre of painting or drawing that features both man-made and natural objects. It spans anything that does not move, including dead forms and figures. As such, skulls, bones, dead fish and game fall within still life, although they are not automatically associated with the genre today.

Flowers, fruits, bowls, bottles, and vases are likelier subjects to be associated with still life. Perhaps most responsible for this link is Giorgio Morandi, an Italian painter and printmaker who worked with these objects over and over throughout his career. The paintings are easily identifiable by their repetitive subjects, rendered with minimal variation in color and arrangement.

In spite of the repetition, Morandi was a master of different techniques. He drew, engraved, and painted his fruits, bowls, and bottles in oil or watercolor, giving them subtly varying atmospheres. Morandi valued what each technique had to offer, experimenting with their nuances.

Critics of Morandi's work noted how his representation of objects revealed his monastic habits. Morandi lived his entire lifetime in Bologna, sharing a small apartment with his three unmarried sisters. He seldom traveled, claiming that "One can travel this world and see nothing. To achieve understanding it is necessary not to see many things, but to look hard at what you do see."

And what Morandi did see was poetry in still objects. His clean lines and subtle palettes exhibited a modern vision that preceded, even inspired, the minimalist aesthetic. It was a an exercise in devotion, perhaps even a lesson in love, to not only sustain interest in a chosen subject, but to study and romance it for a lifetime. Inferior though the genre might have been, Morandi elevated still life by treating ordinary objects with affection.

Paintings by Giorgio Morandi. Images from