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Great Works: Still Life (1953) Giorgio Morandi

Phillips Collection, Washington DC

Some people are suspicious of critics who can't give their reasons. Some people are suspicious of critics who can. When we explicate art, they believe, it must reflect badly on ourselves. We've got no heartfelt responses, only a cold analysis. Unless, that is, it reflects badly on the work itself. It's just a box of tricks.

But why shouldn't we have it both ways? The fact that we analyse doesn't mean we have no feelings. The fact that we have feelings doesn't mean we shouldn't analyse. The feelings are why we want to analyse. The feelings are what we analyse. And a work of art can capture our feelings precisely because it's a box of tricks.

A picture is a gadget. It uses its technical devices to bring off its desired effects. For example, there's the question of how a picture creates depth and distance. How does it indicate which of the things it depicts are further away than which? And by how far?

There are basically five ways. The first is overlapping. Things are simply laid behind one another. The second is scale. Things become smaller as they retreat. The third is ground position. Receding things are placed further upstage on a ground surface. The fourth is volume. Things use their dimensions to establish distances amongst themselves. The fifth is focus. Remoter things get blurrier.

Each device is a distancer, a depth-maker. Each can be used independently; often they will be used together. They can also be used inconsistently. The ones to pay attention to here are overlap, ground position and volume.

Giorgio Morandi's still lives are famous for their quiet but tense poetry. They feature a cast of smallish inanimate objects. There are bottles, vases, bowls, jugs, cups, tubs, boxes – but no fruits or vegetables. These objects stand on a blank tabletop, and quite often backed against a wall.

They're typically arranged like a group portrait, with two rows, one in front of another. They form close and nervous families – huddled, withdrawn. They appear in numerous variations on this theme. The poetry arises from a recurring trick involving the way they handle depth and distance.

Take this Still Life from 1953. It presents five objects in a tight group. Morandi shows little interest in their domestic lives. They are removed from any kitchen scenario. The cup, the vase, and the three boxes are little more than a set of solids. Their volumes are made clear, roughly squared or rounded forms. This clear geometry is important to the picture's central trick. It means that, though we can only partly see some of these objects, we're able easily to judge their unseen volumes.

Now see how the picture sets them out. They are, as usual, in two rows. One row is lined up directly behind the other. They stand in an empty area of table surface. You can see quite clearly where they're situated. And the question is: how do their implied volumes get along with their apparent proximity on the ground?

Not comfortably. At several points, where the front row comes up against the back row, the objects would find themselves sharing the same space. Look at the white vase with the spiralling neck, and judge how wide its circumference would become lower down. Then judge how much space would be occupied by the brown box and the yellow box in front of it.

Vase and boxes: as big as they are, and where they sit, they'd have to be intersecting. The same thing happens with the black cup and the striped and the yellow boxes in front of it; and between the cup and the vase beside it.

We can't actually see where these solids meet. Their intersections are all hidden, on the far side of the front row. They lurk in the realm of implication. But from what we can see of these objects, we can infer their volumes and their ground positions, and that they don't have room.

Their intersections benefit from being concealed. It's better if they stay invisible and implied, happening in a way that we can't quite imagine. It's not that what's implied is necessarily magic. 3D forms can intersect, after all, and it would be possible, though odd, to show the forms of a cup and a vase (say) cutting through one another. But definite oddness is not Morandi's point. He wants something more suggestive.

So here we are, quite a way into Morandi's art and its poignant sensations. This is why his still-life families feel so huddled and withdrawn. His objects are literally being squashed into each other. Literally – but obscurely. How exactly this penetration is supposed to occur, Morandi keeps a mystery. He doesn't show it happening. Perhaps (oddly) one object is slotting through another. Perhaps (magically) they dematerialise into one another. We don't have to decide. Things stay in a state of perhaps.

Yet how he creates this feeling of mysterious penetration is not itself a mystery. It can be definitely analysed. He does it, in this painting and in many others, through an inconsistency between volume and ground position, covered by an overlap.

A Morandi intersection is often accompanied by another analysable trick. It takes the squeeze between two objects and – so to speak – seals it. It's a way of compacting two separate things. It's typically done by aligning the edges of a near thing and a far thing, so they appear to be in contact or in perfect union.

You see it happening here between two overlapped things. At certain points, the outer edge of the box (front row, right) and the outer edge of the vase (back row, right) perfectly coincide. It makes these two objects seem to fuse into one. And something similar embraces the whole group, pressing it into a flat. This time what's implied is a physical impossibility.

The mysterious intersections and the impossible fusion are technical and repeatable effects. They're necessary to Morandi, but they're far from unique to his work. They could be used in pictures very different from anything he painted.

As for Morandi, his poetry is not just a matter of these squash effects. It has further resources, equally essential. There's the modest status of his things, and their placing in the middle of the canvas. There's their upright stance and regular line-ups. There are his pale, chalky colours, and his undemonstrative paint strokes. There is the softness and liquidity of his forms. These factors give his super-close groups their specific character – isolated, obedient, vulnerable, defensive, clingy, giving.

And there'll be other needful tricks in the box – like that faint oblong of paler paint, hovering at the left of the group, the ghost of an object, a built-in after-image – whose workings and feelings criticism may be quite unable to properly reckon with. But you never know.

About the artist

Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) was one of the great narrows of modern art – his near anagram, Mondrian, was another – whose work became ever more less. His sustaining inspiration was Cezanne. After an interest in Metaphysical Painting, the pre-Surreal school of Giorgio de Chirico, his art found its minimal vocation and hardly changed for 40 years. His works are mainly tabletop still lives, all titled 'Still Life'. They stop just short of abstraction. "Nothing is more abstract than reality," he said, and his subject became a kind of 3D abstraction, reducing a range of domestic objects to simple solids, elements that bear shape, tone, colour, composition. There are a smaller number of landscapes, simple views of buildings and trees, all titled 'Landscape'. The formal purity and worldly neutrality of his work has naturally, contrarily, made people interested in Morandi's political orientations. In the 1920s he was sympathetic to Italian Fascism. Later, in the war, he fell under suspicion and was briefly arrested. He lived all his life in Bologna, in the same flat, with his sisters, working in his bedroom.