If you can forgive the irresistible pun on Robert Merrill’s mid-50’s perpetually cool musical number, the Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna – which for obvious reasons refers affectionately to itself as MAMbo – became the focus of a few thoughts I gathered together during my recent visit to see Morandi’s works at the epicentre of contemporary art in the heart of Emilia-Romagna. The Museum is home to some outstanding modern collections – unsurprisingly some great Italian art and Arte Povera, along with their contemporary collection, temporary exhibitions and home to the largest collection under one roof of the work of the quintessentially Bolognese painter Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964).
Not in the words of Lionel Shriver: ‘We need to talk about Morandi’; I will state here and now, for the record, that he is one of my all-time favourite painters. Having read some and browsed his work over the past 30-odd years or so, I had, in my mind at least, assembled an image of the man, the artist, his family and home, that reinforced my quiet optimism about the metaphysical sublime and subdued modesty of the paintings and their perp.
Having seen his works in group shows previously in the hallowed halls of The Met., Tate and elsewhere, I frequently anticipated those dulcet, intimate encounters with Giorgio, particularly within the confines of a group show; sometimes, I confess, have sought solace in his work as the oft sole oasis of calm and meditation amidst the brash collision of Pop, the dotty obsessionality of Pointillism, and the swagger of The Moderns.
The soft agoraphobia of the bottles, vases and favourite hybrid vessels that populate Morandi’s still lives (‘Nature Morte’), exude a melancholy and scepticism that reassure; the paintings reassure us that it’s reasonable to think the world dull, and moreover that it’s okay for us to seek refuge in that dullness.
The grand backdrop to the artist’s work is rather in contrast with this of course; the political and cultural context for Morandi was in a Europe divided by the rise of Fascism and subsequently rent asunder by the ravages of war. The very quietness of Morandi, and his unassuming delivery have made him one of Bologna’s (and Italy’s) most beloved and glittering sons: Morandi was winner of the 24th Biennale di Venezia Painting Prize in 1948 (which also featured Picasso and Klee); winner of the Grand Prize for Etchings at the fourth Biennale in Sao Paulo in 1957, and in 1955 – showing almost a dozen paintings – he was featured in the first Kassel Documenta. Morandi is a truly fascinating figure with career longevity, consistency and a practice that remained reassuringly introspective and resistant to the avant-garde, Futurism, Dada and Modernism. Morandi represents some kind of artistic certainty within convention, but also with depth.
But wait, in my admiration of Morandi, I am simultaneously discomfited by a potentially darker (but equally credible) reading of his work: the artist’s (under-narrated) association with the Italian right-wing, the Strapaese (Supercountry), which originated in Northern Italy during the mid-1920s; within this context it is possible to construe a very different Morandi from the innocuous (painter’s) painter of bottles; are we in fact looking at work that was in quiet defiance of modernism and in effect glossed (sic) over the procession of tumults which characterised European art and accompanying political conflict in the 20th Century? Well maybe.
The substantive collection of Morandi’s housed at MAMbo were relocated from his house/studio/cum-museum a few years ago to the marvellous contemporary museum, so I was compelled to see this defining body of work and I entered in wide-eyed expectation. In truth, the venue saves this artist: walking through the extensive rooms and connecting corridors furbished with tens of paintings (I lost count), my lifelong fascination for his individual works effectively and embarrassingly waned after the second salon (I lost interest).
Now call me shallow, but this is one of those rare and disappointing occasions where the whole is less than the sum of its parts. I do not wish to be unkind, and maybe it was the weather (or the previous evening’s Negroni), but the enduring impression of my encounter with this corpus of Morandi’s work was for me genuinely and literally monotonous. The oasis effect I mentioned earlier evaporated, and the benefit to Morandi’s paintings of juxtaposition with other genre’s had not, until that moment, revealed itself to me; reality check. It’s not the curators fault, it’s not the space; quite simply, it’s the work. Aggregated together in this density, the effect of Morandi’s restrained palette and painterly mantra in the vaulted beauty and convected heat of Bologna, becomes oppressive and more than soporific: stifling, emotionally, physically and aesthetically.
I had to get out, and in that moment of escape from the Morandi galleries it was with enormous relief and delight that I came first to Tony Cragg’s Eroded Landscape; the perfect punctuation to Morandi and the perfect transition to MAMbo’s contemporary collections. The guard interpreted Cragg’s stunning sculpture in near-perfect English; he was excellent and incredibly well informed (“…do you know this artist was born in Liverpool?”) Well yes I did, but even so, thank you.
In finishing, let me say: MAMbo is a superb museum, with incredible spaces, some really spectacularly significant art and a directorial vision that many European museums have yet to dream of. Go there, absolutely, and rest assured that the oxygen of the contemporary is on hand. As a lifelong admirer, I look forward to seeing Morandi’s work again, but it will definitely be in the context of a mixed group show. Now where is that Dean Martin record…?