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Giorgio Morandi: an Italian artist of understated brilliance

What is it about Giorgio Morandi's paintings that draws me in? To the untrained eye they may look dull, but, for me they shine with a rare brilliance that I first fell in love with almost 60 years ago

Courtyard on Via Fondazza (1954) by Giorgio Morandi

Courtyard on Via Fondazza (1954) by Giorgio Morandi. Image: courtesy of Estorick Collection

I know where I was on September 19, 1965. I was 19, it was a Sunday and I was newly married and living with my wife in Edinburgh. On that day I went with her to the Botanic Gardens on the edge of the city, to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Now a colossal construction with hundreds of works and a vast building, it was then a small building among trees and grasses. I know I went there that day because I got the catalogue for an art exhibition of the works of Giorgio Morandi. I had never heard of him. How the hell have I moved all over the place, perhaps 100 times, and still kept the slim little catalogue?

I was astonished at Morandi’s work. It was so simple and undemonstrative. It was largely still lifes, though it did include a few simple and rather dull-looking landscapes. But there was something about the show and what Morandi did with so little.

His colours were mild greys, greens, pinks and cream. His subjects were jars and little pots – nothing to write home about. But with this he struck me as one of the best artists of the 20th century.

How can I say, hand on heart, Giorgio Morandi is as great as that, when he would bore so many people? By the time I was 19 I had trained my eye to look at paintings for over three years. I had put the work in. Putting the work in improves not just the eye for art but the mind for reading and thinking. I used art to lift myself out of a life of drifting and wrongdoing. Of being an anti-thinker, of not wanting to put myself out for anything other than the pursuit of girls and drink.

Morandi arrived suddenly in my life and turned my art world upside down. And also got me trying to think about what was going on. For I was surprised at my response. Why was I drawn to such simple and apparently dull artwork? I could not explain it. All I could say was that the thousands of hours I had devoted to drawing and painting, and looking at art and reading about it, had put me in the way of understanding Morandi.

And Giorgio Morandi was a great challenge because his work has this bland appearance to it. For instance, Courtyard on Via Fondazza (1954) shows a house with trees, with almost half the painting a blank wall. What’s going on here? Was I just turning into a ‘pseud’ – the worst thing you could be called then? My mate Brian and his brother Mick the Mouth, who I grew up with, were convinced that when I talked about art I was just showing off.

Which reminds me of a story told by Tolstoy. He was walking across the landscape one hot August day when he saw a mad person rolling and rocking up and down. He thought it was a shame that the local magistrate and the village didn’t take any responsibility for the man and get him hospitalised. As he got nearer – the man still doing this mad action – Tolstoy wondered why the local aristocracy with all their money couldn’t look after the poor wanderer, crazy in the August sun.

Tolstoy walked nearer and nearer and got ever more distressed at the poor man and his obviously mentally ill behaviour. But when he got close up he realised the man was sharpening a scythe.

The further you are away from something the less you understand it. Mick the Mouth and Brian were not interested and kept their distance from art. And therefore their ability to appreciate an artist like Morandi was going to be slight.

Morandi hardly went anywhere. He travelled to Paris once from his home in Bologna, Italy. He lived with his sister and painted in his flat and in a studio around the corner. He lived through the tumultuous 1920s and ’30s and the Second World War. Seemingly, the world passed him by. He carried on painting pictures that had no bearing at all on the big events he lived through, and he did not participate in politics or social life.

Monk-like, perhaps. But with a complete devotion to his work. All of this tremendous separation and concentration can be seen at the Estorick Collection, which this year celebrates 25 years of representing and showing great Italian art, a few minutes’ walk from Highbury & Islington underground station. I challenge you to go and drink in the incredible concentration of this great artist. 

I went last weekend and was pleased to see the place was busy with people who had woken up to the real beauty of the works on show, virtually all from the Magnani Rocca Foundation in Parma. Luigi Magnani collected Morandi and supported his vision via regular purchases. This collection is the best-assembled of this surprisingly simple and pure painter, seemingly living outside of the 20th century’s tortured times, yet giving us something that took so much concentration to achieve the artist’s desired ends.

Back outside, the streets of Islington were teeming and within a few minutes I was scheming. Scheming to support the unsupported working poor among us. Poverty doesn’t stay away for very long.

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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