Morandi / Edmund de Waal

an exhibition on the theme of still life, pottery and the investigation of boundaries at the art museum Artipelag, Stockholm

Private study visit with a fellow OCA student. Find Gwenyth’s account of the exhibition here.

The venue – inside and outside

Artipelag is a museum for contemporary art built 2009 – 2012 in the archipelago east of Stockholm. From the beginning in the planning office the surroundings in which it is built have been an integrated part of it. (Source: Artipelag Hompepage) Large windows open the spaces inside onto the pines, rocks and water outside. In the café-area and the video room the rounded bedrock beneath comes through the floor. The boundaries between outside and inside, between art and nature, between planned and accidental are opened up.


The exhibition – painting and sculpture

Edmund de Waal’s installations occupy the main exhibition room. Here only one small painting by Giorgio Morandi hangs on the wall. The room feels large with a lot of space between the showcases. In the middle black yoga mats lie on the floor inviting the viewers to lie down and look at the showcases suspended above. The idea here is partly to offer an unusual viewpoint, but also to slow down, to allow for contemplation and stillness.

exhibition room

Further back one enters a flight of three smaller rooms. The first is arranged as a library with books and pads of paper. Again an invitation to slow down and contemplate. Sketches, etchings and watercolours by Morandi hang on the walls. In the next room one finds earlier oil paintings (mainly still lives with a few landscapes) by Morandi and in the last room, which again opens to the archipelago, there are later works by Morandi and two sculptures by de Waal. All four spaces are connected by one long line of small handwriting on the wall on about eye-level. It is a text by de Waal about Morandi, still lifes and his own works for this exhibition.

Edmund de Waal (*1964) – visual art and music

de Waal has built this exhibition with great care to its surroundings. The woods outside and the light falling in through the windows are part of his installations. He says that they change character with the changing light of day. (Source: Audioguide)

At first glance the installations seem very simple: groups of white porcelain vessels and alabaster squares on shelves or in showcases, some behind clear glass, some behind milky glass. And similar ones in black. On closer inspection, however, they become very complex and fascinating to explore. Especially in the white ones a lot is happening: There is a tension between the slender, round, opaque pottery and the heavy but translucent square blocks of alabaster. Light and shadow are playing. Some groups stand on reflecting glass, some on glass that makes them look as if they float. Behind some of the white objects de Waal has placed small gilt plates. It is quite difficult to see them, but they change the cast shadow of the objects into a warm glow. Some of the groups seem like symphonies on white, where white becomes very relative.

Canzoni, Edmund de Waal, 2016. Porcelain vessels with gilding and alabaster blocks on an aluminium shelf
In Time I, Edmund de Waal, 2017. Porcelain vessels, porcelain shards with gilding, alabaster blocks in tin boxes in aluminium and plexiglass vitrine

The black ones were more difficult to take in, I found. It seemed to me at first there is much less going on. They seemed like simpler more distilled versions of the white ones, emphasising certain of the aspects present in the white ones. But then I saw that they showed a stronger and stranger interaction with the wood outside the window. It was reflected more clearly but in strange colours. There was purple and sea green we were unsure where it came from.

purple forest
Part of #835, Edmund de Waal, 2015.

I also found in one of the black sculptures standing on a black plinth that when I moved the vessels and the frames of the showcases engaged in a dance.

Some of the groups were placed behind milky glass with different levels of opacity. I found these annoying as they would not let me see clearly. However, seen against the window the shapes became much clearer and I saw a direct connection to the tree trunks outside (observe the one empty and open rectangle in the third column from the left).

an other hour
Another hour I-VI, Edmund de Waal, 2017

Other objects behind milky glass became sharper as one looked from a distance – which feels counter-intuitive. We usually go closer to see something better.

In an interview (Source: Video) de Waal says that music plays an important role in his work. He says that when he works he has “serious music going on” as a kind of landscape to be in. He also says that he hears sounds in shapes, so by grouping the vessels and blocks he builds melodies and rhythms. I cannot hear that, but I can see rhythm in the grouping of objects and the grouping of groups and I can feel the quality of a base in the heavy squares and the quality of a melody in the slender vessels.

Music in thirteen parts, Edmund de Waal, 2017. In the background still lifes by Giorgio Morandi, reminiscent of the gold used in other works by de Waal in this exhibition.

Literature and especially poetry are themes that go in a similar direction I feel, rhythm, groups and spaces play an important role there as in these works.

Another recurring theme in de Waal’s work is memory and time. How they change. The installations behind milky glass maybe express the feeling of almost grasping a memory, but loosing its sharpness when trying to look at it closely. In the black sculptures I see how the light of the now changes the “memory”. The boxes of shards are like memories, too, pieces of what was, moments of gold, de Waal says, briefly shining and then lost. (Source: Audioguide)

Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) – object and background

Giorgio Morandi was a painter of still lifes and landscapes and a professor for etching at the Academia degli Belli Arti in Bologna. He lived a quiet life and kept to his routines as far as possible. He won several prizes for his still lifes, and his work inspired artists and was shown in many exhibitions during his lifetime and afterwards. (Exhibition leaflet)

I found Morandi’s paintings less easily accessible than de Waals installations. They are kept in rather drab colours and seem quite uneventful at first glance. I first reacted to the unorthodox positioning of the objects. I have learned that in still lifes I should avoid lines, such as the horizon and the tops of objects, meeting in the same spot or coinciding with each other. In these still lifes, however, it seems Morandi went out of his way to make them meet and coincide.

In the library room we found sketches which offered me a possible insight in what it was Morandi was investigating: shapes, lines and where they belong, boundaries between objects and background:

Graphite sketch, Morandi, 1956

Here he has added or omitted lines, I cannot say which. The bottomline between bottle and boxes (?) suggests another box, as does the invisible horizon line just above and the shadow on the bottle. However, there is no top edge to this object. Is it object or is it background?

neg space
Graphite sketch, Giorgio Morandi, 1958

In this sketch I feel the dark object in the middle flickers back and forth between being object and negative space.

With this in mind I can see why he wanted to align his objects as he did. The aim does not seem to have been a realistic depiction but rather studies of lines and shapes and boundaries.

The small painting in the main hall had me confused and I did not understand the colours or the brush strokes. Why does he choose the same colour for bottle and background. Why does he change the direction of the brush strokes in the background to follow the curve of the bottle?

disolving b
Natura morta, Giorgio Morandi

After having seen and discussed the sketches above and looking at the painting from a distance I noticed that the bottle disolves into the background. It is only the little shadow in the (to me irritating) brush stroke near the horizon and to the left of the bottle that suggests that side of the bottle. That shadow, however, on closer inspection, belongs not to the bottle but to the background. The top line of the white box meets the horizon line to the right and another line suggesting a lable or some such meets the horizon line to the left. Both these lines I feel give volume to the bottle – also the one that belongs to the white box.

Giorgio Morandi

In this painting it is the pitcher’s handle that plays with our perception. When does it stop to be the handle and becomes the shadow between the first two beakers?

So I think these still lifes are not about objects. They are abstractions that play with lines and shapes and colour.

I was surprised by the luminosity of these pictures, despite the cautious colouring. They have a special glow to them as if the light comes from them, not into them. The photos do not really reflect this. In the following painting it is really remarkable:

Giorgio Morandi, an earlier painting


I am glad I visited this exhibition in connection with unit 4 of my course. I had been studying pale upright shapes and their shadows and thus my senses were hightened to that sort of interplay. I saw negative shapes changing as I moved past, I saw the shapes of shadows and how they move. Morandi’s sketches also struck a chord. Not so much at the exhibition, but afterwards. I want to try and set up a still life playing with the lines and flat quality of the drawing. It seems like a natural thing to do after unit 4 and this exhibition.

I very much enjoyed interacting with de Waal’s installations, to go and look for the hidden gold, to lie down and let  Atmosphere affect me. I feel that the exhibition has a very playful side to it. It is about looking, finding out and finding. de Waal has one installation at the back of the big hall that is a bit hidden and not lighted as the others. He says this is a piece for the visitor to discover by his/her own, not at all in line with the convention to label everything in an exhibition. (Source: Audioguide) In the boxes he has hidden gilded plates – more to discover.

Having seen the exhibition it feels quite natural to combine works by Morandi and de Waal. But I found it hard to put the feeling into words that there is another common denominator that goes deeper than the obvious pottery and still life connection. But I think the play with boundaries that I find in both their works and in the venue itself is important. It is something I would like to take with me into my own work. I have tried to do still lifes with Morandi in mind here, and made a version of my drawing for Exercise 4.1 where I blurred boundaries between objects and background.

I have very much enjoyed visiting and discussing the exhibition with a fellow student. For me, looking and discussing is so much more rewarding than just looking and thinking by myself. The other person’s thoughts trigger new ones of my own so that together we can go deeper. It has been a lovely day out and a wonderful experience! Thank you!



2 thoughts on “Morandi / Edmund de Waal

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