Artist Project: Mediated Morandi

5.5 / Slapstick and the Sublime

Artist Project: Mediated Morandi

By Will Brown July 9, 2014

Will Brown is a collective that experiments with various modes of exhibition making while researching and manipulating histories as a part of their practice. After mounting an exhibition of Giorgio Morandi reproductions, Will Brown became acutely aware of how often facsimiles of these paintings appear in various outlets of popular culture—particularly film. "Mediated Morandi" is an ongoing search for Morandi paintings inserted into film backgrounds, and it investigates how the context of an artwork evolves through various levels of mediation at the hands of multiple authors.

Born in Bologna, Italy, in 1890, Morandi is often considered the greatest master of Natura Morta (still life) in the 20th century. His distinctly subtle paintings depict the modest arrangement of bottles, vases, boxes, and pitchers stripped of all detail except light and color. As the painter’s popularity grew toward the end of his career, his work became synonymous with class, wealth, and refined sensibility.

Michelangelo Antonioni. La Notte, 1961 (film still); 02:02:00. Courtesy of Nepi Film and Lopert Pictures Corporation (USA). 

Morandi’s images are buried in Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961), illustrating Giovanni Pontano’s financial success as a writer as a form of currency in Luca Guadagnino’s Lo Sono l’Amore (I Am Love) (2009), and in Tommy Wiseau’s cult smash, The Room (2003), as something that simply looked like “art” in the most general sense. Italian film director Federico Fellini paid homage to Morandi by displaying two paintings in Steiner’s Salon in his 1960 film La Dolce Vita. An avid Morandi admirer, Fellini stated that he featured the works as the ultimate symbol of sophistication.1 Fellini’s treatment of the Morandi is the most considered because of the role it plays in the film’s story arc.

It is 1960s Rome. Marcello Rubini, a journalist for a gossip magazine, arrives at the extravagant high-rise apartment of Steiner, a confident intellectual gentilezza. Steiner is holding a gathering of poets, folk singers, artists, and other ingénues, to which Marcello has been coveting an invitation. Steiner, a wealthy, charming man with a beautiful wife, two children, and meticulously quaffed hair, represents the pinnacle of success in Marcello’s eyes. Steiner’s salon is a grand white room accented with numerous books and objects arranged with exactitude, while Italy’s elite lounge about swilling wine, chain smoking, and spouting literary references at rapid intervals. Marcello directs Steiner’s attention to a large (by Morandi’s standards) Morandi painting on the wall. Steiner quickly exclaims, “Oh yes! He’s my favorite painter. The objects are bathed in the light of the sun. They are painted with a distance and such precision that they almost become tangible.”2 While lighting a new cigarette, Marcello quickly agrees.

Luca Guadagnino. Io sono l’amore (I am Love), 2009 (film still); 01:54:00. Courtesy of First Sun and Magnolia Pictures (USA). 

In this scene, the Morandi painting becomes a validation of Steiner’s class and sophistication, and in his agreement, a validation of Marcello’s interest in such things. By merely acknowledging the “magnificent Morandi,” Marcello gained Steiner’s respect. Perhaps more importantly, Steiner’s statement about the painting exposes a certain darkness in him that was not previously visible. This moment is a major turning point for Steiner, which leads to his eventual murder–suicide. Immediately after his conversation about the painting’s serenity, Steiner says, “Peace frightens me; perhaps I fear it most of all. I feel it is only a façade hiding the face of hell.”3 By placing the Morandi painting and the conversation about it at the exact midpoint of the film, Fellini uses it as a catalyst to drastically alter the plot and destroy its characters, while giving Morandi’s work a new context and tone. Further still, when an image (with its corresponding subtitle) is removed from the context of Morandi’s studio and Fellini’s film, a second transformation occurs in the way the image is read and interpreted visually. A scene that was previously replete with expressions of such exactitude becomes benign once removed: Two men dressed in suits stare at a painting with the subtitled statement, “Oh yes, he’s my favorite painter” visible at the bottom of the image.4

Tommy Wiseau. The Room, 2003 (film still); 01:33:00. Courtesy of Wiseau-Films.

Initially, the artist arranged objects and rendered them on canvas. Over time, various Morandi “stills” were inserted into moving image works. And here, on these pages, they have been removed and refrozen as elements of a larger, intentionally arranged still life.

There is nothing grand or sensational about Giorgio Morandi or his paintings. He slept and painted in a single room. He painted in modest scale. He was a painter’s painter. His work captures reality through the familiar. This familiarity and his remarkably unremarkable aesthetic is, perhaps, what makes him the perfect choice to furnish the sets of films, the walls of dorm rooms and first apartments, and the rarely visited salons of the wealthy. There is an approachable truth and beauty that is unique to the ubiquitous elements in life. Morandi is famously quoted as saying, “I have a secret crush on painting. And I’m ok with that.” Will Brown has a secret crush on Morandi. And we’re ok with that.

Federico Fellini. La Dolce Vita, 1960 (film still); 03:00:00. Courtesy of Riama Film and Astor Pictures Corporation (USA). 


  1. Mauro Zanetti, La Natura Morta de La Dolce Vita, (Istituto Italiano di Cultura: New York City, 2008).
  2. Federico Fellini, La Dolce Vita (Astor Pictures, 1960).
  3. Fellini, La Dolce Vita (Astor Pictures, 1960).
  4. Fellini, La Dolce Vita (Astor Pictures, 1960).

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