Giorgio Morandi – the perspective of conscience

Photo by Carmela Gross


The power of negativity of consciousness in the face of what is set

The admirable constancy of the work of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) escapes the ties between modern art and the avant-garde. It also seems alien to the torn history of Italy in the first half of the XNUMXth century. How to explain such distance? Only the unusual moral concentration on oneself and the rational cut in the way of acting can sustain such constancy. Therefore, it is a coherence that results from the power of negativity of consciousness in the face of what is set, as well as from the universalizing perspective of its acts.

But how is the making of art, playful in itself, linked to such extreme ethical rigor? Morandi's work stems from a critical dialogue with currents in Italian art from 1910 to 1920. Carefully, Morandi accepts the modern party of futurism, but denies the unethical apology of dynamism, its unreflected activism. He takes the speculative tension of metaphysics (by Giorgio de Chirico [1888-1978]), hostile to the world of action, but rejects both the pre-Cezannean content of the pictorial conception and the theme of Italian squares, which evokes an eternal grandeur. Analogously, he welcomes the remission of the pictorial group gathered around the magazine Valori Plastici (1918-21) to the late-medieval findings of Giotto (1267-1337) and Masaccio (1401-1428), however, differently – without taking them as a model of a timeless and nationalist classicism.

In fact, the axis of Morandi's work is defined below in the 1920s. Quattrocento the low horizon, which attributed to the gaze the bias of a protagonist, the idea of ​​acting on things: in short, it adopts the focus of reason, that of the vision that dominates the space.

Indeed, in the paradigmatic Florence of the Quattrocento (of textile manufacturing and the first workers' struggles of the Ciompi), who perfected the representation of natural space via the invention of geometric perspective, the historical optimism inherent in the ambition to impose human measures on the world echoed in a balanced and simple plastic order. Morandi takes up these elements in a new key. Low horizon, balance and simplicity attest, also now in Morandi's work, the explicit foundation of the plastic act.

However, the difference with the ancients is given by the non-transparency of the world – that is to say, by a subject without optimism. Thus, if it was once possible to geometrize the natural space and assert human power in general, Morandi in his time adhered to the primacy of reason and his notion of space. Therefore, not the translation of natural space, but the exposition of the idea of ​​space generated by the spontaneity of reason.

Such a reversal is equivalent in art to what Giulio Carlo Argan (1909-1992) summarized as Cézanne's (1839-1906) postulate: “The identity between painting and consciousness”. In this sense, Argan synthesized the premise of the period opened by Cézanne: “Space is reality as it is placed and experienced by consciousness, and consciousness, if it does not encompass and unify the object and the subject, is not total”.[1]

Thus, it is through the previous impressionist lesson, that of the affirmation of the plane as well as volumes and luminosity as color relations – a lesson critically re-elaborated and re-established by Cézanne – that Morandi refutes classicism and inserts himself in a point of modern history.

In this “perspective of consciousness” – common (despite apparent differences) to Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) and Paul Klee (1879-1940), among others –, what would distinguish Morandi? In my view, dialogic awareness, uncompromising respect for alterity, which – contrary to all unilateralism – calls for dialogue with the other, the unfolding of consciousness in an opaque alterity, which the object embodies. Thus, in Morandi's existentialist and phenomenological art, the immanence of consciousness is dramatized in the face of the irreducible opacity of matter.

In a prism, let's say, Stoic, inscribed in the Italian tradition, Morandi's art appears as dramatic. The repetition of his motifs accentuates the essential uncertainty regarding the outcome itself, which makes each work an expiation of freedom on the level of conscience, and, each work, an irreducible result, without a sign of method.

The non-repeatable relationship of tones and shapes, which distinguishes each piece, denotes the problematic path that leads consciousness to the vain and uncertain, even quixotic, clash with matter. Indeed, how to order the new plastic space, starting from the modern perspective of consciousness? In this, it is known, old dichotomous pictorial premises, inherent to the dogmatism and dualism of common sense, do not fit: those in which space prevails as a container of light, matter precedes form, as well as the object, in turn, at the subject's discretion...

Morandi therefore had nothing to do but paint “upside down”, thus inverting the terms for determining qualities in the painting of the post-Caravaggio European tradition (1571-1610), in which the use of light crystallized as a value judgment. . Therefore, Morandi departs from consciousness – analogous in the work to the immediacy of the background or support – in search of the opacity of matter; in other words, he establishes the otherness of the bottle, in the middle of the path… The shapes and colors of the figures will appear as if encircled by what is around them; under pressure from the bottom, from the support – or from the conscience: in short, like eclipses or signs of resistance to light.

The opacity of objects and matter to consciousness is enhanced by a hint of darkness or a spectral white, without cooling the tension inherent to consciousness. If objects and matter – while averse to consciousness – do not surrender; on the other hand, variations in light, the remnants of vain reflection, become immediate and consistent to our eyes, obtaining the physical qualities required for their translation into masses and volumes. They thus come to structure the reciprocal determination between space and light, according to the modern synchrony of thought and space.

Therefore, the volume, the limits of things, the variations of light appear as concrete relations. One notices the fabrication of light and the production of space – the occurrence of thought in consciousness – through clear and distinct maneuvers: on the canvases, the coming and going of the brush, the broken limits, the drama of tones; in engravings, the variation of the regular mesh of strokes; in the drawings, the incorporation of the support, etc.

*Luiz Renato Martins he is professor-advisor of PPG in Economic History (FFLCH-USP) and Visual Arts (ECA-USP). Author, among other books, of The Long Roots of Formalism in Brazil (Haymarket/ HMBS).

Proofreading: Gustavo Motta.

Edited from the original published under the title “The perspective of consciousness”, in Journal of Reviews / Folha de São Paulo, no. 25, April 11, 1997.



[1]. Cf. GC Argan. Modern Art: From the Enlightenment to Contemporary Movements. Preface: Rodrigo Naves. Translation: Denise Bottmann and Federico Carotti. Sao Paulo, Company. das Letras, 1993, p. 375, 504.


See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Impasses and solutions for the political momentjose dirceu 12/06/2024 By JOSÉ DIRCEU: The development program must be the basis of a political commitment from the democratic front
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years oldHelio Pellegrino 14/06/2024 By FERNANDA CANAVÊZ & FERNANDA PACHECO-FERREIRA: In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still an aspect little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank