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Published  12/05/2006
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Morandi's Legacy: Influences on British Art – book review

Morandi's Legacy: Influences on British Art – book review

Paul Coldwell. London: Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art/Philip Wilson Publishers, 2006
ISBN 0856676209

This publication is essentially also the catalogue to the exhibition of the same name, which was first shown at the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal (12 January-25 March 2006) and subsequently at the Estorick Collection, 39a Canonbury Square, London. Professor Paul Coldwell both curated the exhibition and created the catalogue, with support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Professor Coldwell has to be congratulated for singling out a selection of British artists who could be said to have been influenced by the work of Giorgio Morandi, and also, in consultation with them or their archives for the most part (when deceased), for matching Morandi paintings to the actual works of the artists concerned in inspirational terms.

A fundamental assertion by Coldwell is that there came to be a special relationship between Morandi's work and the British public. Where the contemporary artists are concerned, such influences have been temporal, coming at key points in their lives; or else 'tangential' - Coldwell focuses on, 'ideas which I perceive to be fundamental to Morandi's art'. He identifies as a result a rich legacy. In dealing with Morandi (d.1964), Coldwell places particular emphasis on his life as a long-term academic at the University of Bologna, and the way in which his ethos interacts with that of a widely divergent group of artists in Britain who have themselves benefited from the expansion of art teaching and schools of art over the period 1970-90. Coldwell seeks in this light to, 'pick out particular threads of connectivity'. Hence, the artists juxtaposed with Morandi here by Coldwell include those specifically involved in teaching - Patrick Caulfield, Michael Craig-Martin, Tony Cragg and Euan Uglow for a start (whose effect percolated through more than one generation of students):

Ben Nicholson
David Hockney
Christopher Le Brun
Victor Willing
Michael Craig-Martin
Paul Winstanley
William Scott
Euan Uglow
Tony Cragg
Rachel Whiteread
Patrick Caulfield
Paul Coldwell
'Theatre of Mistakes' (Group)

The underlying characteristic that drives this selection is the establishment of a discourse. Connectivity has of course always existed between historical work and the contemporary. The historic is a quarry for contemporary art, not a quagmire, whether for working artists or for students, and it underpins the continually evolving basis of art theory. What is remarkable about this venture, both the publication and the superbly curated exhibition it complements, is its clarity and also its propensity to generate comparisons, discussions and new works. What it also points out (with the strong exception of Neil McGregor's 'Encounters' exhibition during his tenure as Director of the National Gallery in 2000), is the special value of continuing discourse and its key role for curators. Here they can foster and analyse the resultant connectivities between traditional and contemporary art.

Paul Coldwell investigates remarkable interactions between Morandi's work and that of Victor Willing. Morandi's 'Still Life' (1961) and Willing's 'Still Life with Model Boat' (1957) are a case in point. At a supper with Willing after the opening of his 1987 exhibition, Willing used the salt and pepper pots on the table to illustrate how the spaces between were as crucial as the objects themselves in Morandi. A comparison between the print by David Hockney, 'Wooded Landscape' (1969), especially compares in an extraordinarily succinct way with Giorgio Morandi's 'Savena Landscape'. Both examples are very deeply etched works. Tony Cragg's 'Early Forms' (1993) seems at first to bear little connectivity with Morandi's 'Still Life' (1962) but then one realises that here there is no space between the bottles; nor is there any between the 'Early Forms'. Michael Craig-Martin's 'Still Line' (2005) relates neatly to Morandi's 'Still Life with Bottles' (1942). Patrick Caulfield's 'Still Life: Autumn Fashion' (1978) seems literally to reverberate in reaching to converse with Morandi's 'Still Life' (1948). 'Cloud and Tree' by Christopher Le Brun and Morandi's also apparently somewhat nebulous 'Landscape' (1942) are a skilful matching: both artists rely upon the quality of materials to resolve the discourse.

Coldwell's own work stands up well in this game with Morandi's 'Still Life in Broad Strokes' (1931), perhaps a bold gesture by an artist-curator. Better perhaps than Ben Nicholson with his example chosen of 'March 1962 (Argos)', which appears to be from another planet or utopia.

There are other examples and comparisons given, but the above surely prove Coldwell's argument. Indeed, the exhibition and argument lays bare one of the major shortfalls among current British curators and their exhibitions of the past decade: the lack precisely of such connectivity between old and new. The short time-span of this exceptional exhibition, betrays only the bureaucratic approach still prevalent in some museum circles, replete with exhibitions, but devoid of critique and just ideas.

Michael Spens

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