La prima volta: Giorgio Morandi at the Gemeentemuseum, 1954
In 1954 the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag held a retrospective of the work of Italian painter Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964). It was Morandi’s first major exhibition outside Italy and it included not only around sixty paintings, all from private Italian collections, but almost the whole of his graphic oeuvre.
In the 1950s, Morandi was regarded in Italy as the country’s greatest living painter. The honours awarded him at the Venice Biennale in 1948 and at the São Paulo Biennial in 1950 brought him increasing international recognition. In 1951, the then director of the Gemeentemuseum, L.J.F. Wijsenbeek, and curator K.E. Schuurman visited the Hague home of Vitale Bloch, a friend of Morandi and collector of his work. After seeing one of Morandi’s paintings there, they began to think of organizing a show of his work at the museum. At the opening of the exhibition in April 1954, Vitale Bloch talked about ‘the humanity and pure lyricism’ of Morandi’s work, contrasting it with the ‘protesting and polemical Picasso’.
Morandi was born in 1890 in Bologna and later studied at the city’s Art Academy. His progression towards his distinctive mature style, typified by sober paintings of bottles, vases and jars with subtle variations on colour and composition, was influenced by Paul Cézanne and Cubism.
The press release issued by the Gemeentemuseum in 1954 describes how Morandi went his own way, especially from 1920 onward. His outlines softened and the mood of his paintings became sober and intimate. The restriction of the subject matter to vases and bottles, constantly repeated and regrouped, lent his paintings an extraordinary sense of refinement and balance. Morandi’s paintings were not, as one critic wrote in De Tijd in 1954, ‘ ...exuberance, pictorial acrobatics and modernist hocus-pocus...’, but ‘...you find [in the exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum] rooms full of small still lifes of bottles, dusty canisters and unsightly boxes, painted in a hazy palette, in chalky tones.’ The critical reaction to the exhibition was extremely positive. The very fact that Morandi abstained from external references and restricted the scope of his subject matter to such an extent gave his work a poetic quality and richness. According to Hans Redeker, writing in the Haagse Post, the naturalness that Morandi displayed in his work was rare and the viewer experienced ‘...a gentle, refined language of lyrical intensity and quiet emotion’.
A tranquil still life donated by the artist
On 16 July 1954, K.E. Schuurman wrote to Vitale Bloch that he would like to go with him to Italy, to visit Morandi and select a painting. There is nothing at this point to suggest that the painting was to be a gift from the artist but by 26 August Morandi was writing to Schuurman that he would be delighted to donate a work to the Gemeentemuseum. Although he had nothing he thought was good enough at the time of writing, he expected to have a suitable piece ready in a few months’ time. The work he finally presented to the museum, Still Life with Green Box (1954), is distinguished by its subtle hues and serenity. The handling of the paint creates a degree of abstraction, so that the picture is less a realistic depiction of everyday objects – some bottles and the green box of the title – than a vision in paint and colour.
Still Life with Green Box is currently on permanent display in the Discover the Modern section of the Gemeentemuseum.