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  • Lex van der steen

Reflections on Morandi’s paintings while standing in the queue

Natura Morta (1936) - Giorgio Morandi

The lady standing in front of me in the queue has reached the counter and is putting on the things she is about to buy. A composition of roasted nuts, a ceramic soap dispenser, lingerie, plastic baskets, a few candles, and many more objects that are not easy to group together are put down. While I am holding the dishwashing tub I am about to buy, I wonder whether all these things were on a pre-written grocery list or whether their coming-together is the result of an unforeseen shopping spree. I also wonder about their future: where will these objects end up? What will be their trajectory? Will they stay together for long, or is this only a short encounter?

I assume that most of these objects have been written down on a list, since otherwise the person in front of me came to the store without any specific need or goal, which, in this type of store, seems very unlikely to me. If there is a grocery list, then for all these objects there will probably be an already imagined task and place within a structure of functionality that composes a household. The fact that these items are on the counter right now result from a very specific and personal set of needs and desires. An array of demands that are part of the intimate relation between oneself and one’s daily environment, to which only that lady in front of me has access. At least, up till this moment. The specific collection of commodities upon which my view is resting constitutes a representation, a sort of excessive, completely unintentional communication, of what was lacking from her life and home. The cashier, me, and perhaps also the person behind me, get to witness for a brief moment a careless composition of signs that allow one to peek into something much more personal than any of this seems to be in the first place. In fact, everybody in the store goes through this indirect exposition of an inner world. I am next in line.

The groceries that I am observing have something that reminds me of the still life painting. Yet, it is also obviously completely different. In both cases a type of signification takes place. As is well known, the objects depicted in a still life from the 17th century, especially those produced in the Dutch Republic, all had a specific meaning. Apples, for example, can refer back to the story of Adam and Eve, while grapes signify pleasure and lust, since they are associated with the Roman god of wine Bacchus. Skulls and candles are important objects used in the vanitas still lifes, which aim to depict human transience and the certainty of death. Seashells are associated with fertility and good fortune, but also symbolize baptism and resurrection. The list goes on.

The pile on the counter does not refer to these abstract themes in the same manner as painted still lives. As I mentioned before, its communication is excessive, a leftover. This residue only takes place, or rather, leaks out at this moment at the counter, where it is all about the products that are about to be bought. Inside the store shelves, they are part of the store. Inside the living room, they are part of the house. The objects normally disappear in the background, being part of the world as world. But here, where all objects are in a moment of displacement, the ceramic soap dispenser and the roasted nuts are exposed as things out of place. Without a place and on the move. And what is communicated here, not as actual communication but as an implicit extra, is the relational nature of this movement. That these objects are here, on this counter, is the result of this particular woman coming to this particular store, because she is living in a certain house, with and without other objects and tools. She has certain desires (she likes roasted nuts apparently, and maybe she dislikes candies), and a particular taste in candles (because there are many different ones in this store). Laying here next to each other, the objects also exhibit a strange unrelated-ness, a too obvious difference in character and origin, which emphasizes their movement, their coming-from-somewhere-else.

Actually, I think all still lives have this remainder, this expression of the undestined movement. Rather, all sensical experiences of the things in the world display a coming and going that is fueled by interconnection. Yet, many forces are better at harvesting attention than this fact, this exhibition of flow and migration. One of those forces – that are ways of reading, understood in the broadest possible sense – is the symbolism by means of which we interpret and understand the still lives that have been produced in the Dutch Republic in the 17th century. And when I am sitting at home, the ‘still lives’ that are there everyday on my desk do not appear as such often. What predominates is the hustle and bustle of everyday business. And in a painting like, for example, Ralph Goings’ Still Life with Straws from 1978, either the recognition of this everydayness, or the overwhelming intensity of how realistically it is painted tend to draw our attention. The simple fact that everything moves together and that every single thing moves because of the movement of all other things, is weak and enters our conscious reflection rarely, if ever.

Do, however, Giorgio Morandi’s painted still lives not depict this movement clearly? Many might be surprised by this remark, since the first reaction to his monotone and static paintings are perhaps the opposite; they would depict a certain stillness and absence of movement. To be honest, I do not know what the common and accepted interpretations of Morandi’s still lives are, and I cannot research them now, while standing here in the queue waiting for this lady to pay for her groceries. I just know what these paintings look like, and somehow I have drawn a connection between the objects chosen by this lady, and the bottles and pots that Morandi used to paint. It seems to me, at least in this moment, that the unintended residue of communication, that reveals the unstoppable movement of everything in relation to everything, is exactly what Morandi, intentionally or unintentionally, depicts in the careful compositions of sober, neutral and simple objects.

Natura Morta (1955) - Giorgio Morandi

Objects that barely differ from each other and backgrounds that only consist of two empty planes, a floor and a wall. A desert one might think of when looking at Morandi’s paintings. But it is here, in this emptiness, where the magic happens. The absence of all details, of anything that might distract from the mere presence of bottles, cups and boxes, breaks down the self-evidence of the most self-evident. That which normally would not catch the attention of our conscious reflection is brought to the forefront. Or rather, everything else has been taken away, suspended. Now, taken from everything that normally fills their environment, the empty cups, bottles, and other simple utilities take up the front row and appear in their nakedness. Where do they come from? To whom do they belong? This same indeterminacy rules over the groceries of the lady in front of me. But in contrast to this situation, the objects in Morandi’s paintings have even less to grasp on to. No lady in the queue, no packaging with a brand or the context of a certain store. All we get to see are the most basic ingredients of human life.

In fact, Primo Levi once wrote a very short essay, translated into English as ‘A Bottle of Sunshine’, in which he argues that what is distinctive about human beings is the fact that they build receptacles. This interpretation of humanity puts most of Morandi’s still lives in another light. They, as I already just thought, display the bare minimum of human existence. Looking at these still lives, I wonder where the vases come from, to who they belong, where they will go. No answer is given, just questions. These unanswered questions, these openings that remain unfilled, form the presentation of the movement of all together with all in the most human way possible. We are here, taking up a place in the hustle and bustle of the universe. We move while stars that we will never see explode and while materials completely unknown to us are meeting for the first time. Our cups and bottles come from somewhere and will go somewhere, while all other cups and bottles do the same. Build by us and used by us. While the composition of objects about to be bought that stands in front of me opens up a window in a very personal realm of a stranger, Morandi’s still lives offer a view of humanity’s place in all of existence.

Oh, it is my turn to pay.


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