The Sense of Order
Ron Singer

The show comprised eight small pictures, two drawings and six paintings, each containing a combination of three objects, or shapes: a bottle, a cylinder, and a cube, or cubes. According to the catalogue, the artist, Morandi, lived for several decades with his mother in a small house in Bologna, painting and drawing the objects, or shapes, over and over in a small room, his "studio." The Fascists are said to have initially admired his work for its neo-classicism -- admired it perhaps in spite of the fact that, when he had been conscripted into World War One, Morandi had suffered a nervous breakdown and spent several years in an asylum. Did his mother rent out the studio, or use it for some other purpose, during his absence?
On December 4th, 2004, a mild day in early winter, a park disappeared. One minute, I was sitting on a bench. To my right, across a busy highway, I could see a few boats on the gun-metal river. It was a wretched park, full of braying winos, catatonic homeless, zoned-out punks and Goths, broken glass, dog droppings, graffiti, and litter -- lots of litter, natural and man-made. Even the few leaves still clinging to the branches of the huge plane trees were brown and dead looking. For some reason, I felt a guilty complicity in the state of this park, even though I had done nothing other than to walk in and sit down on one of the few intact benches.
Morandi's many shows, associations, and official appointments in the 1920s and '30's belied his later claim to have been "considered little more than a provincial professor of etching who sought no recognition." It was only during World War Two that he hid away in his house, complaining that the intense Allied bombing deprived him of "the quiet. . . indispensable for my work." His pictures were exhibited in official venues as late as 1943, when the police raided the house, looking for subversive letters from friends who had by now joined the Underground. Having prudently burned these letters, after a week in jail Morandi was released at the behest of people in high places. In 1948, his friend and colleague Longanesi wrote: "The absence of freedom didn't seem to be of great importance to us, but slowly as the years went by, our consciences began to bother us. . . and we truly felt that our imagination had dried up because our impulses to rebel had disappeared." Not, apparently, Morandi's imagination. His huge output both before and after the war was by no means restricted to the three shapes, or objects, but also included landscapes, interiors, at least one portrait, and, reportedly, some anguished Expressionist works now in private collections. It was only after the War that the artist began to cultivate the myth of the recluse, vigorously opposing a biography by a former student that offered a more realistic account.
Then, the park disappeared, or, to be more accurate, I found myself walking through a much larger, much nicer one about eight blocks from the first. This second park had several clearly defined sections. Two or three sanded areas with plane trees, a kiosk, and three big rusted steel sculptures could have comprised entire small parks in Europe -- Paris, especially. Then, there was the playground, full of brightly painted equipment and the cheerful sounds of children, many of them playing away in a rectangular sandbox. Perhaps because the second park was farther from the windy river, there were still brightly colored leaves, some even green, on the trees (oak, maple, plane, and others that I didn't recognize -- beech, perhaps).
"A tangled web of paradoxes and silences."By about 1929, Morandi's associations with liberal, satirical elements in the art world invited ostracism from right wing Fascists, who derided his work as the antithesis of manly social realism. (Post-war Communists would level the same criticism.) Imagine all those boots marching past the small house on the cobblestoned (I imagine) Via Fondazza, with the presumably still nervous man inside, painting away. What did he think? Was there ever a knock at the door? The Duce, himself, perhaps, poking his big face in for a brief look and a gruff compliment. During the bombing of Bologna, Morandi's paintings of sea shells took on writhing, organic qualities that have invited comparison with prone bodies being strafed. As Giorgio Bassani, director of the film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, said in a 1989 interview, "Morandi's still lifes held a lesson for some young people of my generation, for in a period of lies and rhetoric, he was the least rhetorical of anyone; his work was a lesson for us in artistic integrity." Morandi himself said that an artist need not try to see many things, but that he must see what he does see, well.
What happened? One moment, I was sitting on the bench in the first park; the next, I was walking through the second one. Who (if not I) can say what happened? Since the disappearance took place a few hours after I had visited the show, let's agree, then, that I must have been thinking about the painter in his little room, painting his three objects, or shapes, while jackboots echoed in the street thirty feet away. Would it be fanciful to add that the second park -- the leaves, the children's cries, the sandbox -- were, at this point in time, my own little room?

Note: All facts and quotations come from either the 2004 Morandi show catalogue at Lucas Schoormans gallery, New York, N.Y. (quoted in several reviews), or Jane P. Abramowicz, Georgio Morandi and The Art of Silence (Yale, New Haven and London, 2001).