Lockdown with Mr Morandi
I’ve tried writing a few things down in lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic but they all seem to start the same way. If I get any words down, they all excuse myself for my thoughts being erratic, that my ideas are blurred and I’m not quite sure what I am doing. My anxieties and periods of gloom are heightened.
This isn’t that new to me. I am a painter. An artist. I’m used to existing in some kind of clichéd isolation. There are lots of people in much worse situations than me. There is so much grief and not much optimism in the world but art offers some kind of escape, if only the tiniest chink of light or silver lining.
I’ve been thinking about one of my favourite artists a lot, Giorgio Morandi. Now Mr Morandi isn’t the most obvious choice for me, but his work has been a calming constant in my life. The man, much like his work, was quiet and polite, focused on still life with the occasional subtle landscape.
As a student, I would wander the halls of the National Museum of Wales looking for solace. Whilst I was attracted to the brashness of abstraction or Pop Art, I needed something else. The museum had some small delicate Gwen John paintings but over in the corner were two Morandi paintings, side by side. One was typical of his work as I later got to know it, but the other was of a very feint flower in a vase. I would return every week for three years hoping it was still on display.
I would visit the library (remember them!?) to learn more, but the flower paintings were rare in his work, so I felt that the one in the museum was mine, my own private Morandi.
My degree show, if I remember it with an uncritical eye, was a mix of Morandi and Philip Guston or Clyfford Still, or at least that was what I hoped for. I must have drawn or painted hundred of bottle shapes over large swathes of sloshed on paint.
A few years ago, I would paint a small watercolour of a flower every day. These weren’t for exhibitions, or reference, they were just for me. Not particularly cool in contemporary art circles (not that I care about that now), the watercolours were just a space. The repetitive nature of painting the same or similar thing builds up a visual muscle memory that I still rely on. From time to time, I return to doing these watercolours. Most don’t survive. They are overworked, ripped, torn or destroyed.
I’ve been doing some during lockdown and once again my thoughts turn to Morandi.
I still think about those two small Morandi’s tucked away in a large museum. If I’m stuck with a painting, which I often am, I retreat into Morandi’s studio in Bologna, just to have a sit down and think. Painting can do that to you, offer some small space for contemplation.
You can be transported. You can time travel. You can be in Bonnard’s garden or on the mountains of Aix, in Provence with Cézanne. It might currently feel like where in John Martin’s apocalyptic landscapes, but there’s hundreds of destinations. It’s the best travel agent in the world.
Those trips are very important to me now but they always have been. Imagining somewhere else, belonging, a rich romantic tradition grounded in painting.
There can seem so little in Morandi’s work, but for me, there is everything. There is peace.
Gordon Dalton, May 2020