Still Life 1: Introduction to Morandi inspired photographs project

Still Life  Chapter I   Introduction
Studies IV    July & August, 2013 ~ continuing
Photographs Inspired by Giorgio Morandi

 Fig. #1   Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #1 Morandi Book on edge of table  (see Fig. 2 below)

This project was first posted September 3, 2013
Click on images once, twice,  to enlarge

This online book project entitled Still Life is both a visual and textual meditation on the work and creative process of the great Italian painter Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964).  I have for many years felt a very strong affinity toward his work: it's formal rigor; it's perceptual playfulness; its tendency toward visual abstraction; it's questioning about the nature of reality; it's luminous atmosphere of mystery and presence; it's high ideals of striving to unveil the essence of things.  I have pursued this study of Morandi and his work in the trusting attitude that it would lead me to a deeper understanding of myself and my own creative process as well, for I firmly believe that if something outside myself awakens a feeling of enthusiasm or meaning within me it's because there's something inside me that needs to be acknowledged, understood or at least more consciously integrated into my awareness.  This first chapter, completed during July and August, 2013, will serve as an introduction to Morandi and the project as a whole.


Still Life is the fourth in a series of projects entitled "Studies."  Here is a list of online project links for the first three Studies projects and the entire collection of ten Still Life chapters, each with it's own thematic sub-title.  Because the Still Life project has emerged out of the earlier Studies projects, I encourage you to have a look at them:      

Studies  I      1994 - 2000
Still Life ~ Photographs Inspired by Giorgio Morandi ~ Studies IV 2913-2014, in process 
An Acknowledgement with gratitude
I have never mentioned Morandi's name as an influence upon my creative process, although I have known his work and felt attracted to it for perhaps fifteen years.  With this project I am paying an overdue tribute to Morandi and his life's work with great respect, love and gratitude.

Synchronicity : How the project got initiated  
After completion of the “Studies” III  Color Photographs project in June of 2013, I began watching for ideas or subject matter that might serve as inspiration for a next Studies project which I decided must also be in color.  Then I became aware of a publication  on Morandi's work that had come out that I hadn't yet purchased (see fig. 1 above, fig. 2 below).  I  decided to get the book to add to my already large collection of Morandi monographs, and seeing his work again and reading the new texts in the publication initiated an intense two month period (July and August 2013) in which I studied his work and his life with renewed and intense enthusiasm.    

This reawakening of my heartfelt connection to Morandi's work was extremely stimulating for me.  I began making lots of photographs of domestic objects and scenes within my house, allowing myself to be inspired by Morandi's work but at the same time not limiting my desire to make photographs according to obvious stylistic mannerisms.  In other words I did not try to make Morandi "look-alike" pictures, and at the same time I allowed myself to make them if the impulse arose. 

The work flowed easily, spontaneously, and unfolded quite rapidly.  It soon became quite clear that these first Morandi-inspired photographs were pointing to the direction I must take for my next project.  And so the work continued, not only under the spell of Morandi's inspiration, but also with an intention, a conscious awareness, that this new body of work would be both an extension of the three earlier Studies projects, and a continuation of investigation into my own creative process.   


An Introduction to Morandi, his art and ideas I thought it would be useful to provide a brief introduction to Morandi's painting and drawing; then I'll introduce some images from my past photography projects in which I believe Morandi's work was an influence, or at least reveals a tendency that anticipates the importance his work would have for me.  Finally I'll present my first collection of Morandi inspired Still Life photographs.  

The first image immediately below is the cover of the book I photographed in the fig. #1 Still Life image above.  It's the Skira catalogue for the 2008 Metropolitan Museum of New York's retrospective exhibition, the first retrospective of Morandi's work ever to be mounted by a museum in the Unites States.  This is also the book that initiated my renewed interest in Morandi which led to the Still Life project. 

Click on the images to enlarge

Fig. #2   Morandi Still Life, oil painting 1956  (see Fig. 1 above)

Fig. #3   Morandi Still Life, oil painting 1963

Fig. #4   Morandi Still Life, Watercolor 1956 

Fig. #5   Morandi Still Life, Watercolor  1960

Fig. #6   Morandi Still Life, Watercolor  1962

Fig. #7   Morandi Still Life, Watercolor  1963

Fig. #8   Morandi Still Life, Drawing 1963

Fig. #9   Morandi,  Fiori,  oil painting,  1924

Fig. #10   Morandi Landscape, oil painting 1943

Earlier Morandi influenced photographs
The selection of photographs below are from some earlier projects I think were either influenced by Morandi's work, or at least are kindred in spirit to Morandi.  The hyperlinked title under each picture will take you to the complete online project from which the image was taken.

I certainly feel inexplicably connected to Morandi.  When I look at his work and read about his life I feel as if I'm looking into some deeply resonate aspect of my own self.  Morandi's commitment as an artist and the work he created over a lifetime touches me in a very heart-felt way.  I began this Still Life project expecting that it would help me better understand my feelings for his work and thus help me learn more about my myself and my own creative process.  In later chapters I also contemplate the tradition of still life painting and the concepts associated with it.  An important earlier project of mine entitled Thing Centered Photographs is related to the still life tradition, and Morandi's desire to get at the essence, the core of things.   I write about the thing photographs and their relation to Morandi's work in Chapter 2.

Morandi worked in series, though not necessarily systematically, or intentionally.  He would create multiple variations on a given still life arrangement of his studio models, each painting being different in it's handling of the paint, the light,the color; and various other interpretive or perceptual variations.  The series has also been my primary means of working.  See for example my Meadow Series.  In 2008, my wife and I moved to Canandaigua, NY where we are blessed with an excellent view of a beautiful meadow with two ponds, a tapered woods, and some hills in the background.  I began documenting the meadow as I watched it go through various transformations by the seasonal changes in light and weather.  Eventually the project turned into an ongoing series that has lasted several years and continues to this day.  I photograph mostly from my back deck.  Many of Morandi's wonderful landscape paintings were made from his studio window.  I have devoted Chapter 8 to discussing Morandi's studio, and Chapter 9 to his landscape work.

My Garage Series is also an example of my preoccupation with variation on a theme.  Even in the first collection of Morandi inspired still life photographs which you will see below, I can identify several themes emerging that will no doubt be extended into future chapters, for example the nocturnes, and the reflection pictures. 

In 2007 my wife and I traveled to Italy, and I was able to seize upon the rare opportunity to visit the Morandi Museum in Bologna, the city where Morandi was born, lived, taught, and painted his entire life.  The picture below  fig. 11  from my project  "Italy" was taken in Pompeii.  Though I was not consciously thinking of Morandi when I took the picture, the image, in its final, transformed state was indeed influenced by my having seen Morandi's work in Bologna.  Interestingly, when I was at the Museum, there were several blank spaces on the walls with notes indicating that the works had been removed for use in another  exhibition.  I learned from a woman at the museum that the works had been taken to New York for the Metropolitan exhibition that opened in 2008.   

Regarding the image  fig. 12 below  from the City Places series: it shares multiple characteristics one can typically find in Morandi's still life work, including the soft tones and atmospheric light, the layered structure of forms, and the way the forms cuddle up together and almost merge into each other.  Though I took the picture before I discovered Morandi's work, it certainly contains seeds of a visual sensibility that I believe makes me feel so close in spirit to Morandi.  


Click on the images to enlarge

Fig. #11   Pompeii,  from the project "Italy" 2007

Fig.  #12   from the project City Places  1984-85

Fig. #13   from  "Thing Centered Photographs"  1980's / 2003 - ongoing

Fig. #14   from the project "Garage Series"  1999-2000 / 2006

Fig. #15   from the project "Garage Series"  1999-2000 / 2006

Fig. #16   from the project "Visual Poems"  2003 - 2008

Fig. #17   from the project "The Meadow Series"  2008-11


About Morandi and His Paintings
Morandi famously said: “I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see.”  Morandi always insisted that he painted from real life, “from nature” and yet it's clear to me his work is not about the objects and landscapes he painted.  Rather, his work is about painting, and painting the same things differently each time, and about perception, visual transformation, light, color, space, structure . . .   The magic of Morandi's work is that the images transcend his subject matter, and yet his subject matter is an important presence both in the work itself, and as a point of departure for each of his paintings.

There are Morandi paintings and drawings so close to abstraction that the still life objects and landscapes he painted from are not recognizable.  The images have become visual equations of formal elements which manifest an evocative pictorial structure and atmosphere, or mood.  There is often a sense of quiet or stillness in his images, a feeling of time being held in suspension.  Writers often speak of Morandi's work in terms of essence, presence, spirit, silence.  

Morandi's Still Lifes
Morandi worked in three primary areas over the course of his lifetime: Natura Morta, still life; Paesaggio, landscape; and Fiori, flowers.  He worked in both oil and watercolor, and Morandi was a master at etching, which he taught at the University in Bologna.  His drawings are absolutely stunning; they are no less masterpieces than his works in the other mediums; I especially love the abstract simplicity of his late drawings, and his use of white space.  His still life paintings in oil are best known, of course.  All his works are relatively small, intimate in both scale and quality of feeling.    

The subject matter for his still lifes consisted of domestic objects, especially bottles, tea pots, vases and boxes of varying shapes and sizes and colors and surfaces.  He arramged these objects into an ongoing series of compositional variations upon three table tops, each a different hight from the floor within his small studio which also served as his bedroom.  The all important light in his works came from only one window; he loved to draw late into the night under the light of one solitary light bulb hanging from the ceiling.  His arrangements of the objects in his still lifes were often like architectural constructions.  Janet Abramowicz, first his student and then later his assistant, wrote: “in reality he was a master builder who reconstructed nature to suit his vision.” 

Morandi was clearly more interested in the pictorial structures he could build with his archetypal forms than in the particular objects themselves.  In fact he would purify the bottles and boxes he used in his compositions by applying flat paint of various colors and tones to their surfaces, and he allowed dust to settle thickly on his collection of objects that sat in his studio over long periods of time (many years).  

Careful scrutiny of his paintings reveal that Morandi did not faithfully reproduce the colors and designs of his studio objects; he transformed them in his still life compositions according to what the painting or his imagination required.  
In his finished paintings the most humble of his objects became elevated to the status of symbol, and as such served as carriers of an ineffable Presence or Essence that are quite palpable to me when I quietly contemplate his images. 

Morandi said he painted mostly in the afternoons, when the light coming from the one small studio window “was best.”  Many critics have written that the light in Morandi’s paintings was more remembered than literal depictions.  There seems to be visual proof for this idea: if one looks carefully enough one can sometimes see in a painting inconsistent and multiple qualities and directions of light and shadow.

In some works the shadows and negative spaces between the still life objects become new, invented shapes essential to the composition of the image.  In other works, the objects can appear transparent, or ghostly, or perhaps suspended in time and space.  Such images manifest an other-worldly reality or atmosphere.

I especially love the way Morandi dissolved or evaporated the edges of his still life objects into boundless spaces of light and color.  It's as if he wanted to liberate his earthly models by allowing infinite spaciousness to enter into their archetypal shapes and forms.  

Morandi's Landscape Paintings
Morandi’s landscape paintings are related to his still lifes in the way that the forms and shapes of trees and hills and buildings became reduced to their abstract and structural archetypal essences.  He often included simple childlike architectural forms in his landscapes which invoked a human presence into the landscape imagery.  These forms, never more than a triangle set on top of a rectangle, was not unlike the forms he used in his still lifes.  The landscapes are often more abstract and energetic in the way he handled his paint, but they also provide an excellent context by which we can better understand the still life paintings.

Some of my favorite works by Morandi - and some of his most abstract pieces - were the watercolors and drawings he titled “Landscape.”   These small intimate picture worlds were often so minimally represented that they become recognizable as “landscapes” only with the help of his titles.  

Obsessive Repetition:  Series, Variations
Morandi’s work is often characterized as an obsessive investigation of perception.  Though his work at first appears repetitive, upon close examination it becomes quite clear that he never made a painting in the same way twice.  Each painting or drawing is uniquely different in its own way though it might be part of an ongoing series of visual experiments or variations on a given studio arrangement or landscape scene.  

A battle between perception and visual invention
Karen Wilkin has written about how Morandi’s art can at first appear old fashion, classical, simple, sever, restrained, not obviously sensuous, repetitive and innocuous in its small scale.  His works . . . “demand that viewers exert themselves if they are to discover the work’s true character.”  She also says it’s especially important to see his work in large quantities.  In this way the breadth and nuance of his inventiveness becomes more visible.  And finally I'll offer a quote in which she addresses the tension that I enjoy in his work between his painting what he saw in the real world, perception, and his painting what he "saw" in his imaginal world, which tended toward invention and abstraction: "the economy of Morandi’s means, the self-imposed restrictions on his visual language . . . seem to bear witness to a battle between the desire to remain faithful to perception and the will to alter, invent, restructure."   This tension is a strong impulse in my photography.  I want the apparent world as a point of departure, but finally the picture I end up must be fee to have it's own imaginal autonomy.

Still Life
I have entitled this project Still Life in homage to Morandi's large body of still life paintings and drawings.  The title also implies my willingness to enter into the great classical tradition that includes of course Chardin, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, O'keeffe, the photographer Edward Weston, and many many other artists who approach the tradition through their own unique stylistic, perceptual and perhaps cultural and historical frameworks.  Again, I need to reiterate that I have not necessarily wanted to make photographs that look like Morandi's paintings;  I have simply allowed my work to spontaneously unfold using my love of his paintings and drawings as inspiration and as points of departure.  Inspiration means to me creative energy, tremendous hits of enthusiasm that lead me into the still life work that I need to do, work that is uniquely my own because it comes spontaneously out of my creative process.  This has been the basis of my three earlier Studies projects.  Still Life is the fourth in the series.

I confess to having never liked the term "still life."  I many have never really understood this tradition because I was blinded by my prejudices.  Morandi consistently used the Italian phrase Natura morta, "dead nature" as the title for his still life paintings.  His pictures are for me anything but dead.  On the contrary they are alive with presence, with essence, with pictorial invention, edging closely to abstraction!  This project has allowed me to work through my resistance to some of my biases toward the still life tradition.  Morandi was a remarkably committed, sensitive hard working artist who liberated the still life tradition in his uniquely personal way.  He took the tradition to a whole other level, into a new imaginal world.  I hope my Still Life work has succeeded in achieving at least this one simple but difficult intention: to honor and praise this great artist, his life and his work.


Following now is my first collection of Morandi inspired photographs.  The works, if ever I were to print them for exhibition, would be of an intimate format, probably 8 inches square, perhaps matted and framed to a size of maybe 14x17 inches.  I encourage you to click on the images once or twice to enlarge them.  This will allow you a detailed close-up, interior view of the images.

In invite you to keep an eye on the Latest Additions section of my website, located at the top of the Welcome Page where I will announce any new projects added to the Still Life project and all other new projects that will be forthcoming. 

Welcome to Studies IV: Still Lifephotographs inspired by Giorgio Morandi.   Steven Foster

“The primary aim of art 
is to concentrate the spiritual universe 
into the simple, visible form of utensils, flowers, or fruit.” 
Ardengo Soffici  
Italian painter and writer
and friend of Morandi


Still Life 
Inspired by Giorgio Morandi
 Studies IV Project 
 Chapter I

Click on images once, twice,  to enlarge

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #2   Wood bird hanging on lamp 

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #3  Spray Bottle

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #4  Lamp shadow, red flower in mirror 

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #5  Cat curled up in rocking chair 

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #6 Reflection in refrigerator door  

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #7  Table, newspaper, shadow 

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #8  Banana, avocado, small tomatoes 

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #10  Cantaloupe, small tomatoes, 3 large tomatoes 

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #11  Bowl of tomatoes on shelf above cat toy box

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #12 Tomatoes large and small on granite counter top 

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #13  Two tomatoes next to large cooker

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #14  Red dish cloth, edge of sink 

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #15  Picture frame with prism reflection  

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #17  Lamp shade  tilted up, blue bulb

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #18  Kitchen sink, oval bowl, canning jar top

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #19  Globe, shadow above  

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #20  Toilet bowl brush and container

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #21  Shower wall, reflections,  squeegee, hair brush

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #22  Plastic cup on white card on oak table top

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #23  Hangers with blue clips  

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #24 Nocturne, Tray, reflection of tea kettle, lamp

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #25  Nocturne, Reflections in picture window 

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #26  Nocturne, night light

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #27   Small oval mirror, reflections of laundry room

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #28  Light switch, light streaks below 

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #29  Hanging vine

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #30  Turkey basket, ceiling, yellow wall 

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #31  Three planters, curtains, sunlight 

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #32  Tea kettle, compost pail, sun set light 

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #33  Nocturne,  Lamp, plants, edge of couch 

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #34  Washing machine abstract 

Morandi inspired still life, Chapter 1, #35  Morandi book on edge of table

Note:  this project was first placed on my website "Welcome Page" September 3, 2013

Still Life ~ Photographs Inspired by Giorgio Morandi  

Welcome Page  to The Departing Landscape website which includes the complete hyperlinked listing of my online photography projects dating back to the 1960's, my resume, contact information, and more.

"Italy"  2007

City Places  1984-5

"Garage Series"  1999-2000

Family Life  1985-88