Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On the Morandi Trail

The most famous artist to come from Bologna is probably Giorgio Morandi, a painter who lived from 1890 until 1964. For most of his life he lived with his sister in an apartment in a quiet neighborhood, not far from the center of the city. He rarely travelled. The paintings for which he is best known are still lifes of very ordinary objects posed in very intentional ways. Like many art students, including Bill, I was introduced to Morandi’s work in college. As an eighteen-year old art student who was ready to Change People’s Perceptions with my ten-foot tall paintings, I was bored to tears looking at his unflashy, deceptively simple paintings. I still cannot honestly say I love them, but I do think having those thirty years or so acquaintanceship with his work has increased my appreciation of them.

In Bologna there are two places to see the work of Morandi: the Morandi Museum in Piazza Maggiore and the Museo Morandi, Casa, his former apartment which is located not far from Porta San Stefano, an easy bus ride from our apartment. Saturday we spent the day with Morandi, hitting both places. One of my friends, a phrase maker and fish babysitter extraordinaire called this our Moranday.

Morandi’s still lifes were based on a group of vases and bowls that he used and reused during is his entire career. Every once and awhile he would throw in a seashell. This is the stuff I wanted to see, the reason I wanted to visit his studio. Through all my years of seeing his paintings I felt like I could walk right up to the peach colored liqueur bottle with the rectangular sides and say, “I’ve been a fan of yours for years.”

So, we took the bus to Via Fondazza, a quiet, narrow street of shops with apartments above. Number 36 was just past Piazzetta Morandi and except for the “Morandi” label on the doorbell, it looked like all the others. We rang and were buzzed up. The austere stairway was like plenty of others, including our own. Upon opening the door, my perception changed entirely. The first thing I was aware of was a portentious voice decribing Morandi’s life and times. A slide show was projected on a wall. It featured grainy photographs of Morandi at work. This isn’t at all what I expected. Where was the studio ? The kitchen ? The bedroom ? Eventually I discovered these rooms behind floor-to-ceiling plexiglass screens. As if the plexiglass wasn’t obtrusive enough, they were decorated with odd graphic shapes, presumably to keep visitors or wayward crows from bumping into them. The odd thing about all this is that Morandi was not wealthy and had very few precious objects. A discreet velvet cordon would have served purposes of security every bit as well as these huge plexiglass walls. After all, Ca’Rezzenico in Venice, a palazzo transformed into a decorative art museum full of priceless and extremely breakable objects does very well with this method. Actually, most of the time you can walk right up to everything in the Palazzo. I really think the Morandi Casa designers needed a little perspective !

The whole time I was there I kept thinking about a possible episode of the Andy Griffith Show (which is one of my favorite TV shows ever). I could just imagine Andy winning the Best Sheriff in the Mount Pilot Region Award. He goes to collect the award in Raleigh (because he always goes there for the big stuff) and when he returns he is shocked to discover that Barney has turned his house into a museum complete with docents (Gomer and Otis, I’m picturing) and all the familiar rooms sealed off from visitors. (Did they have plexiglass in 1962 ?) I can practically hear Don Knott’s high-pitched voice as he proclaims, ”This is the very kitchen where Sheriff Taylor drinks his coffee every morning before his day of crime fightin.’ He takes his eggs sunny-side up.”

Of course our visit wouldn’t have been complete if somebody hadn’t admonished Boris to stop leaning on the plexiglass. I guess the designers of the space didn’t consider all the energy that would now and forever be expended guarding the plexiglass and removing finger, nose and forehead prints from it.

There is definitely something wrong with a museum that hits you between the eyes with its Museumocity. The brochure brings into perfect clarity everything that is wrong with the place, and I don’t think the problem is a faulty translation. Here is an excerpt:

The projects starts from the concept of a “place of narration and memory” [I am assuming this quote is from the architect Iosa Ghini.] and thanks to the use of contemporary materials and technological equipment, aims at giving value to the different functions of the environments; some of them (studio, store-room, anteroom) came back to life according to a planned operation of symbolic restitution of a lost place. Thanks to a museographic setting exploiting the narrative opportunities contained in the different tools used, the visitor can experience the typical Morandian atmosphere in the smallest detail.

Well, it’s been awhile since I’ve read Artforum Magazine so I’m a little rusty with the art talk. I think the “different tools used” might be the still life objects, the easel, the paints. You know-- all the Morandian stuff. I guess we can’t just say "studio" or "store-room" and leave it at that can we ? No sireee. We have to call them “environments.” It’s so much more museographic that way. Bill figured out that the “symbolic restitution” phrase was an admission that the apartment was a recreation. This makes sense when you consider that there was a thirty year period between Morandi’s death and the opening of the museum when it was probably empty or perhaps a batchelor pad with beaded curtains and a waterbed.

Despite all the hubub of the documentary film and the fact that the museum guards outnumbered the visitors, it really was great to see the place where the paintings were made. I just couldn’t stop looking at the still life objects all crowded into a closet. They were amazingly ugly; exactly the same kind of vases and knick-knacks you get for free from the florist or win at carnivals; the ones that show up years later at yard sales. What did Morandi see when he looked at his collection of objects ? Their ordinariness ? Or did he see something beautiful in them before he even picked up his paintbrush ?

After our visit to the house we went to the “regular” Morandi Museum in Piazza Maggiore, which is an art gallery with room after room of his paintings, spanning his entire career. Besides the still lifes we could see a selection of landscapes. There were perhaps a dozen of these scattered throughout the museum, at least half of which were views into the courtyard from his studio window, the view we had just seen earlier in the day. I had never been wild about the landscapes in the past, but now I could see that the colors absolutely were those of Bologna: the warm red clay of the buildings, the sage green of the foliage. I appreciated the clever design elements of the museum: walls, paintings and benches. Best of all, there was no voiceover and visitors could move freely through the space.

I thought I might come back from our Moranday all primed to paint still lifes or at least a Bolognese landscape or two, but that didn’t happen. Apparently I’m still waiting to come up against my next source of ideas. I just hope I won’t have to bump into a plexiglass wall in the process.

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