Documenting DOCUMENTA: A haudenschildGarage Project with Matthew Schum

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Inside Morandi’s Vitrine

“Chardin does not paint with color, but with feeling.” Diderot used these words to describe looking at one of his favorite artists. Still life paintings as Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin executed them could not be reduced to the application of pigment upon stretched cloth; Chardin’s palette was the vase, the tobacco box, the kitten, the perch, the goblet, the bouquet—the kitchen or the drawing room depicted upon the plane. He, according to Diderot, could render the life of objects as animated as figments of the oikos, or household, that humankind has always made singular in their separate daily lives. To arrest life at the meager level of substance was to capture objects as they actually “live” via the magic of painting, perspective, line and color. The still life has the potential to be an especially artful object created to behold others in an infinite regress. Diderot witnessed in Chardin’s most inimitable works the image and the things depicted losing distinction.

Giorgio Morandi installation

This blurring of life is replicated in the formal approach as well, the non-finito. The brush carefully bedims the outlines of objects in order to loosely contain volumetric shapes. The expression of paint as material is, in fact, an eighteenth-century innovation, even if it defined a great deal of painting after Realism and especially Impressionism. Art historian Norman Bryson has written about the non-finito in still life as having a magnetic pull on the viewer, an effect Chardin did best and Diderot first commented upon. “The blurring of the forms marks a kind of homecoming of the subject into the ground of being,” according to Bryson. It is also “a critique of still life’s tendency to dwell for too long on the face of familiarity, and thereby to produce visual unease.”

Detail of vitrine

This soft touch around the edges can be found in Giorgio Morandi’s still life on display in the rotunda. He, too, transmits the unease enclosing everyday life, its objects and its modest pleasures, just as his artistic forebears did in Flanders and Spain before Chardin mastered this tradition in France. With Morandi, we are in the company of artists in their sixteenth-, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century studios that came before him and it is as though he is painting for the Ancien Régime or some other time before him. Yet, we cannot forget that these humble containers, painted again and again, are also deflecting the hysteria of a reactionary culture that nearly destroyed European civilization, as conflict erased whole parts of the material culture that preceded the wars of the twentieth-century.  Seen in the vitrine, each object is removed from the formalism of genre and from the bubble of the artist’s studio by the expressed exile each object occupies. Literalness in Morandi’s work is lost in the double image of the artist’s own retreat into a separate world expressed by these modest things.

Detail of vitrine

One bold curatorial move in this central installation in Documenta 13, notable for its simplicity and its power, is the inclusion of vitrines next to Morandi’s paintings that re-stage his studio as inner exile in a minimal set of props and books – a Chardin monograph sits among them – to no surprise. On the glass shelf above the books stand the vases he painted over and over. Each of these objects he returned to has a discrete longevity. Each presupposes a role in the life of the house and an attachment to its fate. Each is as useful and as insignificant as the next, like the foodstuffs that have come and gone across a worn chopping block.

Following Diderot, the tonality of the objects – not just their color or texture – can be seen while pacing between the painting and the painted objects.

The quiet unease of mid-century banishment is still tangible in these old paintings hung in the rotunda.