In Antonioni’s La Notte, Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) is in his study, aimless as usual, much as he drifts throughout the film. When he bends over his desk, a painting is visible on the wall behind him, not just any old painting but one by Morandi.
Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) is famous for his obsessive painting of grouped bottle and vases, an idea which preoccupied him all his life. He lived in Bologna, down the road (well, 50 kilometres) from Ferrara, where Antonioni was born and brought up. When Antonioni left home it was to go to study Economy and Commerce at Bologna University. There he began to develop his interest in art and theatre which led him to the cinema and Rome.
Did he encounter Morandi’s pictures during his time in Bologna? And in doing so, did he connect them with the paintings of Giorgio De Chirico, whose brief sojourn in Ferrara from 1915 to 1918 led to a number of his key paintings? If there is a metaphysical school of painting, De Chirico and Morandi are its most notable figures. But what connects them? De Chirico’s troubled reality is populated by architecturally strong but unadorned buildings: arcades and porticoes, such as Bologna is thronged with, especially attracted him, and in some of the Ferrara paintings the brute majesty of the Castello Estense. These townscapes are depicted with strong if colliding perspectives, and by their unexpected juxtapositions, they produce a surrealism before Surrealism. In the streets and piazzas figures are silently frozen in time. Morandi’s bottles and vases are in the ‘still life’ genre but stillness is an absent quality. He paints them so that they jostle with each other as if they were not always comfortable in each other’s presence. I have always thought of them as people, or at any rate objects with distinct characters of their own.
What connects the two painters? De Chirico turns the urban scene into a still life; Morandi takes stillness and sets it quivering. So, in that respect they contradict each other. On the other hand the atmosphere of the paintings in both feels melancholic, and often unsettled, even troubled. The ordinary aspect of things and of places is replaced with something spectral in De Chirico’s case, and in Morandi’s with something disconcerting. Both take everyday reality and make of it something strange, and it is in this I believe that they earn the title of ‘metaphysical realists’.
Film criticism has for some time now made the connection between Antonioni’s visual style and Metaphysical Painting, and I am especially grateful to Donato Totaro for alerting me to the echoes of De Chirico in Antonioni’s films.
While Antonioni’s film-making mindset was forged by the neo-realist films being made around him, and the intellectual atmosphere in which they were created, from the beginning his feature films looked for a different appearance of the world than the purely realist one. When filming interiors, he was very attentive to objects as adding a specific tone to a scene, and when he was filming places, or rather spaces, he wanted – and found – a new photographic language to depict people within them. There are echoes here of the exploration of perspective by Italian Renaissance painters whereby people were placed into a grid of lines. Antonioni sees the world if not geometrically then as planes and shapes to which his figures must conform themselves, rather than the other way around.
Can we speak of Antonioni as an exponent of metaphysical cinema because he was drawn to the metaphysical painting of De Chirico and Morandi? This feels insufficient. Nor is he ‘metaphysical’ in the sense of Bresson, Tarkovsky or Kieślowski, to take three important names who all look beyond realism for a spiritual realm. (See my essay ‘Kieślowski before Kieślowski’ at: http://www.timcawkwell.co.uk/kieslowski-before-kieslowski.) However, Antonioni’s metaphysical cinema is close to the concept of ‘metaphysical rebellion’ that Camus proposes is the proper position for artists of all kinds, as articulated in his book L’Homme Révolté / The Rebel, published in 1951. This rebellion is a “necessary blasphemy against the created order” which disputes “the end of man and of creation”. In Antonioni this did not produce revolutionary rage as it did in some, but it did produce a deep melancholy about human relations and human purposes. This attitude allowed him to distil something essential about the twentieth century.