GIORGIO MORANDI (1890-1964) Natura morta (Painted in 1954)

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Lot 12* AR
Natura morta

Sold for £ 2,902,750 (US$ 3,500,869) inc. premium
Natura morta
signed 'Morandi' (lower left); signed indistinctly 'Morandi' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
43.8 x 50.4cm (17 1/4 x 19 13/16in).
Painted in 1954


  • Provenance
    Danilo Lebrecht (Lorenzo Montano) Collection, Verona (acquired directly from the artist circa 1954-1958).
    Thence by descent; their sale, Christie's, London, 30 November 1976, lot 67.
    Private collection, South Africa (acquired at the above sale).
    Thence by descent to the present owner.

    L. Vitali, Morandi Catalogo generale, Vol. II, 1948-1964, Milan, 1977, no. 921 (illustrated).

    Giorgio Morandi occupies something of a unique position in the canon of Italian twentieth century art. His images of stillness act as a bridge between Metaphysical art's quest to capture the unsettling and enigmatic, and the elevation of the everyday found in Arte Povera. Despite living an extremely simple, inward-looking existence for the most part of his life, Morandi's renown extended far and wide in the Post-War period. Natura morta, painted in 1954, is a sublime example of the Bolognese painter's finest work from this crowning decade. When Alfred H. Barr Jr. (the pioneering American curator) travelled to Italy in 1948 sourcing works for his 1949 exhibition of Twentieth Century Italian Art at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, he was told by all that the greatest living painter in Italy was Morandi. His deceptively simple arrangements of bottles, dried flowers, cans and tins – the markings removed so as to further evoke a sense of timelessness – are synonymous with a contemplative minimalism that belies the agonising preparation that Morandi would undertake before completing each composition.

    Born in Bologna in 1890, Giorgio Morandi lost his father in 1909 and assumed the position as head of the family, living the rest of his life in their house in via Terrazza with his two sisters Dina and Maria Teresa. After attending the Belle Arti in Bologna, Morandi explored briefly the stylistic breakthroughs of Futurism, but the influence of Paul Cézanne and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin that he had explored at school continued to impact his work more keenly. Indeed, one cannot ignore the resonance of Cézanne's words when looking at Morandi's deliberately structured canvases: 'Treat nature by means of the cylinder, the cone, and the sphere... Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth... Lines perpendicular to the horizon give depth' (Paul Cézanne writing to Émile Bernard in 1904, in J. Rewald, (ed.), Paul Cézanne Letters, New York, 1976, p. 301). Morandi found in the still life genre the possibility to explore almost all that he wished to express about the human condition, collating over the years a cast of inanimate characters that would appear again and again in his canvases. The silk flowers, cigar tin and sugar bowl that gathered dust on the shelves of his studio on via Terrazza represented not liveliness but something more lasting: 'There is something in these still lifes that goes beyond, I will not say the subject, but the very fact of their being paintings, and quietly sings of humanity' (Cesare Brandi quoted in Exh. cat., Giorgio Morandi, London, 2009, p. 12).

    Morandi's stylistic development outwith the Academy in Bologna began with his discovery of his contemporaries in the Italian avant-garde. Having left Bologna briefly to serve in active duty in the First World War, Morandi suffered a breakdown in 1915 and was summarily discharged. This period of personal hardship and physical retreat saw the beginning of an interest in the developments made by Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà in Metaphysical painting, which Morandi explored through a series of still life paintings that display the same intense shadows and sense of disquiet that the one finds in de Chirico's piazze or Carrà's mannequins. Works from this period (1918-1922) very much sowed the seeds of what would come later, and represent Morandi's last great shift in style. From the mid-1920s onwards he retained this interest in the emotive and anthropomorphic power of the still life but began to develop an almost minimalist style and his famed approach to process. Initially displaying slivers of light and shade between the dust-covered objects, Morandi's compositions became more and more dense towards the beginning of the 1950s, with the familiar characters huddling ever-tighter together in a poetic defence. This is typified by the present work, Natura morta, where Morandi groups his bottles, tins and vessels in a close formation where almost no shadows fall between them, and the horizon line sits unbroken behind them. No clutter or hint of life beyond the studio exists in the scene: the composition is unabashedly a construct. The restrained palette of greens, greys and putties amplifies this sense of contemplative simplicity.

    Morandi placed the greatest importance in the process of selecting and assembling these groups of seemingly mundane objects to populate his still lifes. While the painting of the canvases themselves took comparatively little time, what occupied his mind was the process itself. He described his process to the painter Josef Herman in 1953, just a year before painting the present work: 'In a low voice, as though to no one in particular, he mused: "What do people look for in my bottles?" I looked at him and he now looked at me. "It is already forty years since I looked for some element of classical quiet and classical purity, a moral guidance perhaps more than an aesthetic one." Then he changed the direction of his meditation. "It takes me weeks to make up my mind which group of bottles will go well with a particular tablecloth. Then it takes me weeks of thinking about the bottles themselves, and yet often I still go wrong with the spaces. Perhaps I work too fast? Perhaps we all work too fast these days?"' (J. Herman, 'A Visit to Morandi', in L. Klepac, Giorgio Morandi, The dimension of inner space, exh. cat., Sydney, 1997, pp. 26-27).

    The present work not only exemplifies Morandi's Post-War refinement of the principles that he developed in the 1920s and '30s, but comes from a distinguished line of provenance. Natura morta was acquired from Morandi by the Italian writer and poet Danilo Lebrecht (better known as Lorenzo Montano, the pseudonym Lebrecht assumed in 1918) sometime in the late 1950s. Lebrecht had himself taken a role in the development of the Italian avant-garde, writing for the influential magazine Lacerba and founding publications such as Il Mese. Just as Morandi did, Lebrecht enjoyed his greatest acclaim during the late 1940s and 1950s. In 1958, around the time that he acquired this work, he was awarded the Premio Bagutta, one of Italy's highest literary accolades.
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