Still Life 2: Seeing & Picture Making: Morandi Inspired Photographs

Still Life Chapter 2   Seeing & Picture Making
Studies IV    September, 2013 
Photographs Inspired by Giorgio Morandi

 Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #1 "Dried flowers, blue moon,  in setting sun  light"  

For an Introduction to the Still Life project and the links to all of its chapters visitStill Life
Click on the images once to enlarge

Seeing &  Picture Making

"I believe there is nothing more abstract and unreal
than what we actually see."
Morandi, from a 1957 interview

"The only interest the visible world awakens in me 
concerns space, light, color and forms."
Morandi, from a 1957 letter

In a 1957 interview Morandi invoked Cezanne as an important 
 influence on his work and made use of Cezanne's Galilean 
metaphor, the book of nature written in triangles, 
squares, circles, spheres, pyramids and cones.

Morandi often used the term "cosiddetta realta" saying 
"so-called reality" when he meant to say reality.  

Gottfired Boehm believes that Morandi's use of the term  
"so called reality" reflects Cezannesque insight.  
He writes: "The term refers to nature 
as not simply beingbut being 
the result of seeing: 
nature exists as 
something seen 
anew every 
1999 Prsetel  publication "Morandi"


Introduction Inspiration & Influence
It seems to me there is a difference between being influenced by another artist's work and being inspired by it.  Influence, I'd say, involves the intellect, ideas which can be consciously used to help create new work.  On the other hand inspiration is an intense personal experience, a reaction to something often manifesting as an instinctual or intuitive burst of enthusiastic creative energy and activity.  I also associate inspiration with the sacred, the in-breath of spirit, the divine.  Fredrick Sommer, a great photographer and philosopher, once said we can only discover out in the world what we already have within ourselves.  As I proceed with my Morandi inspired project I do so in the awareness that it is an out-breath of what is inside me; as such Still Life is a journey toward Self discovery. 

Perception & Visual Transformation
Giorgio Morandi was born in 1890 and died in 1964.  Most writers agree his late works are his best, and interestingly Morandi produced relatively more works in his late period, beginning around 1956, when he retired from teaching.  Also the late works tend to be  more abstract than his work from the middle and early periods, though Morandi did not like to use the word "abstractin regards to his work.   

Bo matter how abstract it might appear to us, Morandi's work was always based in his perception of the visible world.  He insisted that he painted from nature, he painted what he saw - a landscape, an arrangement of studio objects he had carefully constructed on his table tops illuminated by the indirect light from his studio window.  And yet, clearly his paintings are seldom descriptive of, or about what he was looking at in the visible world.    

I have contemplated this issue of perception and visual transformation quite a lot over the years.  Indeed, it has been an important consideration in many of my past photography projects and is becoming an important question for me in this project.  I admire the visual reduction- abstract nature of Morandi's late works and I can't help but wonder how this tendency will manifest for me in this project. What constitutes visual invention, or abstraction, or visual transformation in photographic picture making, has always been a contentious issue in photography's brief history; we commonly think of photography as a descriptive medium.  I would say most of the pictures in this chapter 2 collection are not abstract, but they are not particularly descriptive either.  The formal aspects of this work are trying to unveil a hidden reality, what Morandi referred to as essence.  Thus it's fair to say, I believe, that the tension in my photographs between perception and invention or abstraction is in alignment with Morandi's work.  

When I am photographing, at some point in the process I stop seeing the world and instead see the imagined picture, or some ineffable picture possibility.  The world before me seems to dissolve, or perhaps I leave the visible world and intuitively venture into the Imaginal World or the Picture's World.  I believe Morandi lived much of his life in this other imaginal world, especially when he was making paintings or drawings or contemplating a picture he was about to make.  I don't doubt Morandi painted what he saw . . . but seeing and picture making, and even the process of viewing pictures, is more mysterious than what appears to meet the eye.  

Thing Poems & Thing Centered Photographs
The great Italian essayist, Umberto Eco loved Morandi's painting.  When he was in his first year of high school (1948) he saw his first Morandi painting in an exhibition, and went to see it every day after school.  He noted that it looked different in some subtle way each time he visited the exhibit.  Later he wrote an essay entitled My First Morandi in which he equated Morandi's painting to poetry and spirituality.  He wrote:  "Morandi spent his entire life addressing the problem of the redemption of matter . . .   You have to love the world and the things that are in the world, even the humblest, the light and shadow gladdening or saddening them, and the very dust that chokes them.  Morandi reached the peak of his spirituality as a poet of matter."  Printed in the Skira catalogue, "Morandi 1890-1964"  

Morandi was uncomfortable talking about his work, but in a 1957 interview he said:  "We know that all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it.  Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own . . ."   I like the first half of Morandi's statement, but I don't agree that matter has no intrinsic meaning.  In this regard I like Eco's idea that Morandi redeemed or liberated the things he saw and painted.


In the early 1980's, before I discovered Morandi's work I discovered thing poems through Robert Bly's publication for Sierra Club entitled News of the Universe .  It's a collection of pithy, engaging essays by Bly and a selection of poems in six parts that Bly believed reflected the history of man's evolving consciousness and its relationship to the natural world.  Although there is an ecological agenda behind the publishing of the book, Bly's book continues to stand for me, a visual artist, as one of the most interesting and important books I have ever read.  

In Part 5 of the book, entitled The Object Poem, Bly introduces Francis Ponge's "thing poems" and Rilke's "seeing poems."  I think its fair to say Bly's essay on the object poem and the poems he selected for this part of the book changed my life.  It initiated an ongoing project entitled Thing Centered Photographs.  For the work in this project I quite literally place a thing both in the center of my attention and simultaneously in the center of the square format of my picture frame.  I have made two kinds of thing centered photographs: in the one I present the thing in it's place, in its environment, where I found the object; in the other I isolate and suspend the thing in black space. 

My primary intention in making thing photographs is to honor the interior life or consciousness of a thing, that is to say it's essence or "intrinsic meaning."  If I succeed at all in this, which in fact may be an impossible task, the photographic image will somehow make the thing's consciousness present, accessible to other viewers.  In the best of all possible worlds this image then initiates a silent, intimate dialogue between the photographic image and it's corresponding counterpart within the viewer's consciousness.  Francis Ponge said "things are the ambassadors of the silent world."  

I have felt for a long time that things have something important to say to us, but we must become silent before we can hear them.  I consider the making and contemplation of thing centered photographs a process of becoming silent and then listening to what the things of the world want or need to say to me.  The communication is beyond words.  The communication takes place at the ineffable level of the Heart.  

Ponge said he wanted his thing poems to "nourish the spirit of man by giving it the cosmos to suckle."  Given the harsh realities of climate change, I think its become obvious that listening to the  natural world, and hearing what it wants to say to us, could be a matter of life or death for us humans and the entire planet.  We are totally dependent upon the natural world for our existence and yet we have continued to abused it to the extent that it is now rapidly Departing from us.     


Many of my Morandi inspired photographs are about a thing in it's place.   Even more of the work is about the relationships between thingsand the space between things.  I believe every object has its own independent voice, but it's possible that the place a thing exists within changes the voice of the thing or what it may want or need to say to us (I can't really say I understand how this works).  

Place could be defined as the relationship of things in a space, and the silent conversations that are occurr between the things in that space .  A photograph, I believe, can be a way of listening to the conversations between things.  The visual structure of a photograph (or a painting) undoubtedly has something important to do with all this.

Morandi titled most of his still life paintings Natura Morta.  The Italian metaphysical painter De Chirico (1888-1978) who was an early influence on Morandi's work between 1916 and 1920 literally translated the term 'still life' vita silente.  He is quoted to have said: "the viewer has to listen to, understand, learn, and express the remote voice of things that invite us to enter into contact with them behind the implacable wind-screen of matter."   


Some of Morandi's still life paintings seem to be about the thing itself, but especially in the later works I often feel as if I'm looking at ghostly apparitions.  The paintings are more about a presence, an atmosphere, a mood, even a memory of a felt reality from some other world.  

Morandi never painted the same picture twice; in this respect his work is about painting,  about how the things in the picture are painted, and about color and the quality of light on the objects' forms, the relationships between the forms . . .which are often reduced to their utmost archetypal simplicity.  Its a great mystery  how an artist like Morandi achieves the kind of pure transcendence, or poetics of vision that gifts us with what Bly terms news of the universe.  


Rilke's Seeing Poems
Bly tells an interesting story about how the German poet Rilke began writing his "seeing poems."  Rilke was suffering from writer's block around 1903 after the completion and publication of a large collection of his early poems.  He was stuck inside the interior world of his poetry, which was often based in memory, and didn't know how to get out.  He talked about this with the great sculptor, Rodin, who told Rilke he needed to go out and try to see something.  This initiated for Rilke an important new collection of "seeing poems"  (for example Archaic Torso of Apollo, and The Pantherthat were not only about things, but about perception and experiencing things imaginatively, empathetically from inside the thing seen.

The origin of my Morandi inspired photography project is related to the Rilke story: I had just completed "An Imaginary Book," a large two year project inspired by a mysterious experience I had while looking at some illuminated Qur'ans in a museum in Istanbul.  Because of the experience I became fascinated with sacred art, and especially the sacred art of Islam.  The project became an intense interior journey into the mystical traditions associated with the Qur'an and Sufism and the abstract nature of Islamic sacred art.  

When I completed the "An Imaginary Book" project I felt I needed to get back to the world and start seeing things again.  I felt compelled to go back and review my two earlier Studies projects.  Seeing that body of work again initiated the Studies III Color Photographs project which, it turns out, had been the necessary preparatory work that allowed me to move on to this Morandi inspired project Still Life. 


Quotes regarding Spirit,  Soul,   A Battle 
Renato Miracco writes: “Morandi, like the abstract artists, turns the image inside out by building a system of transactions between two or three outlines or shadows, suggesting the reverse face of the form, highlighting what remains on the canvas that is the gateway to the Essence or the representation of Absence, that is to say, the visualization of Spirit.”  
Maria Christina Bandera writes the following about a Morandi watercolor: “The level of simplification is already at a maximum in this work, seen in the rendering of barely noted objects, delineated with rapid, sure strokes and without a preparatory drawing . . .  The object to the extreme left remains an outline, not incomplete, but open, underlining the importance of the ‘void’. . .   According to a pantheistic philosophy of Eastern origin, the void . . . is symbolic of the communication between things and the universe.  The absence of a support surface . . . as well as the lack of spatial references to define the background, and a dazzling central luminosity, together transform the composition into an otherworldly apparition.  These barely noted shapes become the quintessence, the soul, of the objects represented. . .”  

Karen Wilkin, having referred to Morandi's pictures as being "enigmatic" and "unforgettably intense," then writes: "The pictures seem to bear witness to a battle between the desire to remain faithful to perception and the will to alter, invent, restructure.  The marginal dominance of pure, willful inventiveness places these fierce little pictures squarely in the realm of very radical painting.”


The Archetypal  Imaginal World
Morandi's still life paintings and drawings consist of constellations of simple, archetypal forms (Cezanne's Galilean model of the book of nature written in triangles, squares, circles, spheres, pyramids and cones).  In my study of Sufism for "An Imaginary Book" I came across ideas about the world of archetypes and the concept of a transpersonal Self very similar to the theories of depth psychologist C.G. Jung.  The Sufis believed (and experienced) the visible world to be a mirror counterpart to an invisible archetypal world which originates in the divine Self.  The great 12th century Sufi saint and scholar Ibn 'Arabi, wrote in depth about this and what he called the Imaginal World.  Simply put the forms and shapes of things in the visible world are part of a silent language for an invisible world which is accessible within the Self or the Heart of each one of us.  When I contemplate a Morandi still life, especially the later works, the world of apparitions I experience behind the forms in the painting is I believe an aspect of the Imaginal World that exists inside my own Self.  We see and experience meaning in things outside of us because of what is already inside us.

Silence & Creation 
The vocabulary which writers above used to define their experiences of Morandi's work - Essence, Spirit, Soul, Silence, Void - is an attempt to articulate something beyond what is seeable, beyond what words can say.  The objects in Morandi's painting are often difficult to see, and they are often characterized as being silent or mute in the sense that they fail to yield a narrative or an allegory (i.e., a meaning that language can articulate).  

I think the phenomena known as silence which is often associated with religious or aesthetic experiences (music for example) must be understood as a state of mind.  The picture which invokes an experience of silence corresponds to something within the viewer's own Self whose true nature is silence or stillness.  If the picture we contemplate invokes a stilled mind, our experience will necessarily be outside of what language can articulate.  A mind that has become silent is able to perceive things it can't see (or hear) when it's busy thinking in language based terms.  

In many spiritual traditions, for example certain forms of Yoga and Buddhism, the goal of spiritual practice is an opened heart and a stilled mind.  Repetition of an enlivened mantra or the one-pointed contemplation of a specially designed visual image, are considered practices of silence because when they are performed with concentrated devotion, they silence or still the mind.  When the mind is still, the divine Self becomes unveiled.  

In many traditions the Self is considered the origin of all creation.  Creation myths often teach that the visible world emerged out of the pure stillness, the pure silence of the Self.  The visible world originated with a primordial sound that spontaneously emerged out of silence and then manifested into the various letter forms of the alphabet; those letters mutated into words, and the power of words manifested each thing in the visible world. 

Still Life : News of the Universe
This way of thinking about silence and stillness gives new meaning to the common though paradoxical nature of the term still life.  Morandi loved the peaceful quiet seclusion of his small studio with the one window, the one solitary light bulb.  A really great still life painting by Morandi is not merely a description of simple, everyday examples of inanimate subject matter.  On the contrary the image reflects the quiet mind of a great painter, and as such can be experienced by others as alive with presence, magic, soul . . . the creative power of the Self.  The image can transport us into an imaginal world which many mystics and saints have written about voluminously as an extraordinary mode of being that gives us access to the origin of all creation.  This is what Bly means by his use of the term news of the universe

The Creative Process 
That tension in Morandi's work between seeing and pictorial invention, between description and transformation or abstraction, fascinates and inspires me.  Morandi's life long dedication to picture making, to going continually deeper into the possibilities of his creative process, challenges, encourages and inspires me.  I trust my own creative process and have learned it's best to allow it to take me where it wants to go.  The pictures below are the second chapter of this journey into an imaginal world inspired by Morandi.


The Morandi Inspired 
Still Life Photographs
Chapter 2  

 Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #2 Chair shadow, electric outlet,  setting sun light

 Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #3 Cale rack

 Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #4  Sugar jar, bowl of peaches

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #5  Butter, salt, pepper on stainless tray

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #6  Reflection in long oval mirror 

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #7  Dried flowers in blue vase

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #8  Meds cup and reflection of spray bottle

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #9  Red cup in microwave

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #10  Clothsline pole inside a shadow 

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #11  Raindrops on screen , clothslines

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #12  Green garden shoes in light and shadow

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #13  Plant leaves, round wood hot cup pad

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #14  Dish towel on granite counter top

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #15  Dish rack, red dish towel, blue scrub pad, brush

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #16  Large bowl of small tomatoes, part of a banana 

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #16A  Maple sugar bottle  with red cap 

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #17  White reflection in a picture frame

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #18  Nocturne, Plant, electrical outlet

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #19  Blue ceramic vase, plastic flowers

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #20  Hanging Christmas lights, cloud, blue sky

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #21  Bird deflector on picture window, bird droppings 

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #22  Dark blue Christmas cup in microwave

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #23  Leg of wooden chair, cat toy 

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #24  Nocturne, Tilted lampshade

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #25  Nocturne, Heat pad, shadows

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #26  Nocturne, Serving tray & tea kettle reflection #2

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #27 Nocturne,  Bathroom series, towels, nightlight

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #28  Bathroom series, toilet seat up, toilet paper roll 

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #29   Nocturne, ceiling fan

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #30   Nocturne, multiple reflections in picture frame 

Morandi inspired Still Life, Chapter 2, #31  Nocturne, snail climbing up picture window 

Note:  this Chapter was announced on my "Welcome Page" October 1, 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.

Other Related Links:

Morandi's Dust  DVD documentary, English subtitles.  Highly recommended