Sunday, September 21, 2008

Turner and Morandi at the Met

I had been hoping to catch the Turner exhibit since it opened, but when I discovered that a new exhibit of Giorgio Morandi's work would be, for a few days, overlapping, I knew I had to make the pilgrimage and go see them both. (Apologies to my New York friends—I didn't mean to avoid you—I will be back down soon for a more social trip!)

Turner's work I thought I knew well, but I found that his less representational work (which was what I was familiar with) did not make up the whole of his body of work. In fact, I walked around rather disappointed, for rather than proto-abstraction after proto-abstraction, I found numerous landscapes and history paintings with very careful attention to detail and finely controlled brushstrokes. While I have nothing against those things in other artists (I marveled at them in the recent Poussin exhibit, for instance), my interest in Turner is in the way he conveys emotion through gesture and movement. I love that speed and force seem to be his subjects, and the way that nature and paint seem to be vying on his canvas for the right to manifest speed and force, and the fact that it is only through that competition that speed and force become emotionally perceptible.

In most cases (see above), this competition is accomplished through the depiction of violent things—fire, wave and wind for the most part. A revelation was the canvas below (Mortlake Terrace, the Seat of William Moffatt, Esq.; Summer's Evening), where pure color is used to the same ends. One critic saw this painting and remarked that Turner had been taken over with "yellow fever," and another (though it may have been about a different painting) called Turner's work "mere freaks of chromomania." My favorite critic's comment, however, was that "to speak of these works as pictures, was an abuse of language." The painting below is not so abusive, but I think it wages the same war.

Unfortunately, the digital image does not do this justice, but the yellows Turner uses seem to be actively contesting the verisimilitude of the painting, fighting back reality in an effort to overwhelm nature itself. There are other works like this as well, which maintain a precision of drawing and depiction but using color—one or many—to maintain the struggle one sees in Turner's more abstract paintings, a struggle between art and nature. The word "picture" does not, as the critic I quoted above said, really apply to Turner's work because "picture" presumes a truce between art and nature, a calm and stable relationship.


Morandi's work is also a struggle between art and nature, though it is never a fair struggle: art is the burly older brother that throws nature against or through the wall on periodic occasions.

Words the curator used a great deal in describing Morandi's work were "architectural" or "architectonic," and "monumental." These are all fair words for Morandi's paintings, but perhaps the best descriptions are gerunds: "massing" and "blocking." Both words concern the technique employed, though in Morandi's case the apprehension of his technique and the absorption of its final effects—the appearance of the painting before you—are uncommonly close. In an excellent (although too brief) appreciation of Morandi's work in The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl elatedly remarks, "He is a painter’s painter, because to look at his work is to re-create it, feeling in your wrist and fingers the sequence of strokes, each a stab of decision which discovers a new problem."

Morandi's work doesn't just ask us to re-create the process of painting in our imagination, however, but also the process of composition, of "blocking" or "massing" the objects before us together, to repeat the order and ritual of placing the bottles and boxes in space. His work—partly because of its obvious Spartan discipline of mind and of hand—is devotional in nature; it demands of the viewer a form of prayer. And these prayers must be restless prayers, tense and immediate, to reflect the mood of the paintings. The shapes Morandi masses or blocks together are charged with a deliberate shock of intimacy—intimacy in the painting among the shapes, and intimacy to the painting from the viewer. There is a relation there, I think, to Byzantine icons, or perhaps (as Schjeldahl points out), to Giotto.

Part of this intimacy is achieved through Morandi's half-use of perspective—quite often the far edge of the table the objects are sitting on is either indistinct or irrelevant to the eye. This tilts the planes of one's perception such that the plane of the canvas often seems to dominate the plane of the objects depicted, creating a sensation that they are hanging together. This pendulous (or pending) feeling gives the objects back their weight, which would otherwise be unnoticed, supported by the table. This weight is what gives the paintings a sense of drama, and a precariousness, like a mobile, though that may not come off as well on a computer screen as in person. But do look at a few more of Morandi's paintings—the Met's page on the exhibit is a fine place to start.

I was irritated when I read Schjeldahl's New Yorker piece with his brusqueness in dealing with Morandi's landscapes and self-portraits; they are quite good, deserving much more than a brush off, and are much more clearly a part of Morandi's development than Schjeldahl allows. Unfortunately, I have duplicated this brusqueness now. When thinking of Morandi, I suppose the still lifes dominate the imagination. They are really quite incredible.

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