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August 18, 2022

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How Italian artist’s mild colors dominate world of design

The Morandi color scheme has become an across-the-board fashion that now prevails in the world of design. Soft and sophisticated Morandi colors such as coral, salmon, champagne, pearl gray and eucharis are considered as apt choices for design of all kinds.

When darkened and unsaturated for a low-key look, they feel calm, fresh and comfortable to the modern taste. Of the whole scheme, sophisticated gray is the most favorite. It is actually a reference to the typical gray hand-picked from Morandi’s palette. When gripped by the fear of losing order and peace suddenly in the circumstances of uncertainty, people turn to mild colors as a source of solace.

Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) is a great Italian artist of the 20th century. He was devoted to still-life, with landscape as basically a sideline. His works hang in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, Pompidou Center in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

A few years ago, his artwork traveled to exhibitions in Shanghai and Beijing. This year, Shanghai Jiushi Museum of Art has hosted a bigger show, scheduled from July 9 through October 9. A total of 51 pieces have been brought on display, allowing visitors to see all categories the artist has engaged with — oil, etching, water color and pencil work.

Morandi was born in Bologna, a glamorous city in northern Italy, but he lived in seclusion like a recluse. He attended the University of Bologna, and went on to teach etching for a while after college. Unmarried his entire life, he stayed in town with his mother and three sisters in a middle-class apartment.

The tall artist didn’t enjoy more space than a single room used legitimately as both a studio and a bedroom. Behind the easel were clustered objects gleaned from junk shops. The bulk of them were kitchenware, including oil bottles, water jars, milk jugs and multipurpose tins. Chocolate boxes, fruit plates and ceramic vases apparently belong to his A-list collection. Similar to his simple life, the theme of simplicity clearly runs through his art.

Inspired by Cézanne, who enchanted Paris with mere apples, Morandi wanted to change the humblest into the most graceful. His special eye for the mundane stuff warranted his triumph. And modern art’s removal of each and every bit of story, character and detail allowed him to depict the essential things with simplicity.

Gone were the days when it was necessary to clarify whether the layout belonged to a court or cottage, or whether the vase was a Greek urn or a piece of Wanli porcelain imported from China. With the “background check” spared on the part of the artist, focus was drawn to the form of the objects, or rather the mission of transformation.

Half figurative and half abstract, Morandi thought neutral. Free from the bounds of perspective, his objects are stripped down to their most basic shapes to be maneuvered in the space of minimalism evocative of a place that is vastly timeless. They usually take center stage with great confidence. The background and foreground are no longer distinguished except for a brief expression briskly done in monochrome. Overall, all the elements appear to be no more than bare essentials, and they cannot be made more bare.

Morandi tried hard to break new ground throughout his career. On a moderate canvas measuring usually around 25cm by 35cm, he went to the greatest lengths to shuffle and reshuffle the same objects in order to catch the slightest differences that might make a big difference.

For instance, a fluted bottle is debuted in “Still-life” (1916) alongside a long bottle and a fruit dish. A series of variations spanning decades follow on. Surprisingly, the fluted bottle used to be an oil container with dirty stains dripped all over. Voila, it looks really fresh and elegant as soon as it is staged.

In some variations, it can be found in the front row for highlight (eg “Still-life,” 1949). In others, it is hidden behind except for a sketch of its nice-looking bottleneck (eg “Still-life,” 1946). Its beauty rarely dims because all the versions are felicitously varied with intent to seek greater beauty. This is probably why Umberto Eco said the artist’s work is “painting with a capital P” in his essay “My First Morandi” (1993).

“Still-life” (1942) is often acclaimed as Morandi’s masterpiece. The gray-hued painting gives a feel of pristine tranquility. The fluted bottle is paired with a flipped-over bowl, both rendered in grayish ivory.

The fluted bottle is put front and center, a little shy of being a real close-up. Without any suggestion of a ledge or a tabletop, indispensable for conventional still-life, the opaque foreground is painted in light steel gray.

The background is also empty except for some loose brushes gliding from gray to beige, a range summarized adequately by the neologism “greige.” Given the bare, essential and timeless traits, everything combined in the light-hued picture conveys a kind of utopian serenity.

Over time, the framework of Morandi’s moderate canvas has kept pushing forward. No longer confined to world-class museums, the spirit of his art has reached almost every nook and cranny of daily life. Yet all this constitutes a paradoxical question that gives us much gray hair after the very comfort of enjoying the charming art: How would the reclusive artist have responded to this scale of popularity?


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