STILL LIFE, MORANDI

 

 

When he finally opened his eyes, the light was grey. The bottles seemed to have moved again.

 

Since they first started moving, back in 1938, he had sketched them every day, just to keep a record.  Mostly they didn't move, but sometimes they definitely did. When he got bored with them, he rearranged them himself. But not too often, as it tended to confuse him.

 

The flat was cramped. The rooms were too high, too small, and the dado rail and cornice only went around two sides of his room. He imagined the cornice running out through the partition, into the flat next door. Eventually it came right back into his room again, over the window. The cornice actually had a pretty adventurous life, when you thought about it.

 

In July 1942 he started to colour the sketches. It helped him to identify the bottles, mainly. The range of colours in his paint-box was quite small, mostly beige and grey and brown. The bright colours, reds and blues especially, had all been used up by his brother for painting model soldiers, his brother who had joined the army. He wondered if his own life would have been different, if all the colours had been present, all the colours of the rainbow. He hadn't seen a rainbow for years.

 

One of the bottles was very special. It was really a porcelain bell, with a fluted tulip shape. What could it be for, a porcelain bell? If you tried to imagine ringing it, it shattered.

 

The bell was a bit like a full-length crinoline, a skirt like his mother had worn that time she came to see him. She had held him against the bodice, not a happy experience on the whole, since her silver filigree brooch had been most uncomfortable against his cheek and left a harsh red scar.

 

On the mantelpiece over the blocked up fireplace, there were three photographs in silver art-deco frames, one a fine daguerreotype of a wistful young woman, the others fading prints. One was at a funeral, and showed the corpse laid out in an open coffin in the front room of the flat.  He didn't know who it was, perhaps his grandfather. The other was a group photograph, and may have been a picture of the mourners. The photographer had herded them close together, to fit in his viewfinder, and they looked slightly uncomfortable, being so close together. Perhaps they didn't know each other that well. Morandi knew that the old photographers used a really long exposure, and the subjects had to stay still for half a minute or more. Perhaps that was why they were uneasy.

 

He'd arranged the bottles in the same close array, five in the back row and four in front, with the two smaller bottles in the middle of the front row. The bottles looked uneasy too.

 

He lay for some time, listening to the tinnitus in his left ear. If he opened and closed his mouth, he could alter the sound, rather like playing a Jew's harp. It was strange, because the fundamental note remained the same all the time, but the tune could be discerned droning along on top. It was very quiet on Sundays, and he could hear the whine of a Vespa on the other side of town.

 

The tune in his ear was a strangely happy one, and he decided to get up while the mood lasted. He would re-arrange the bottles today! He really felt like it! On a sudden impulse he reached for the edge of the window blind, pulled it back, letting a thin slice of daylight into the room. The bottles remained silent. He propped the blind back so that the light fell weakly across them, then noticed for the first time that the balcony outside had altered. A plant pot was sitting on his balcony!

 

A plant pot!  Strange. And in it, a plant. And on the plant, a single yellow flower. 

 

And so, on this day of days, he picked the flower. He placed it in his best bottle, and placed the bottle on the table. He cleared away the other bottles, and placed them carefully, in order, on the mantel.

 

And he painted like he had never painted before, the flower, the light flooding from right to left, even a hint of shadow on the table. Happily the paint-box still had a yellow paint cake, since there weren't any regiments with yellow uniforms.

 

Morandi slept that night peacefully beside his easel, a fresh canvas on a stretcher ready for the next day.

 

Next day, the flower was wilted. It was dying. It was dead.

 

How could you paint a Still Life of something that was dead? Was it a Still Death?  He looked at the picture of the dead man he looked peaceful, but very still, very dead. The tinnitus was playing a funeral march in Morandi's left ear. He took the dead flower into the little kitchen and laid it carefully on the draining board.

 

He went back into his room and sat in the half light as the clouds shadowed the creamy surface of the blind. Suddenly he moved; it wasn't a Still Death, it was a Still After-Life.

 

Carefully he began to place the bottles on the work table.

 

       Mark Carson 2008

 

 

Any similarity between this story and Morandi's actual life and circumstances is accidental/incidental. Only the pictures are real.