Painted in 1960, Natura morta shows the great ambition and tireless creative drive that characterized Giorgio Morandi's celebrated late pictures. Recognizable in this subtle composition are some of the most iconic elements of Morandi's still lifes: the bulbous blue bottle with the white elongated neck, the blue and green Ovomaltine and olive oil cans and the strange, round object which Morandi was painting in his last work. At the centre of the picture, Morandi has placed a more unusual, unexpected object: a long white, open tin box. Screening off what one would assume to be the main point of focus in the still life, this intriguing object deliberately disrupts the centred spatial arrangement of the composition.
Natura morta is the last from a series of four still lifes all exploring the same motif of the white box (Vitali, vol. 2, nos. 1189-1192). During the last twenty years of his career, Morandi had started to work his subjects in series, investigating a certain theme or idea until he had reached the satisfying exhaustion of its possibilities. Even when the number of buyers grew, so much so that there was a large waiting list for his paintings, Morandi would still keep the finished works in his studio in order to study them as he developed new variations. Within the series, the present work appears to represent Morandi's final, solemn word on a subject he had rarely hitherto explored.
The power and magnetism of Morandi's still life compositions derive from their carefully constructed spatial relationships, which in the 1960s achieved an even more complex intellectual dimension. Asymmetrical, partially cropped and pushed to the forefront, Natura morta is all the more striking for its deliberate disruption of spatial balance, especially in the form of the monochrome oblong box which dominates the composition. Simple enough to be apprehended in space, this group of objects articulate nevertheless an odd, yet entrancing cohesion, elusive in its inner mechanisms.
Already in 1957, Lionello Venturi was writing: 'Morandi is much more of an abstractionist than he believes himself to be' (L. Venturi, quoted in J. Abramowicz, Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence, New Haven, 2004, p. 197). Works such as Natura morta illustrate the great force which Morandi's still lifes acquired towards the end of his career, daringly pushing the limits of figurative painting towards a more ambiguous, intellectual realm.
In pictures such as Natura morta, Morandi managed to unite the timeless atmosphere of his still life compositions with the abstract idioms that were being adopted by so much of the avant-garde. Morandi's fascination with the abstract appearance of everyday life was finding new outlets, as his thirst for innovation continued to the very end: in 1964, just a few days before his death, Giorgio Morandi confessed to the art critic Roberto Longhi: 'If you only knew. How much I want to work. I have some new ideas that I would like to try out' (G. Morandi, quoted in Giorgio Morandi 1890-1964, exh. cat, Bologna, 2008, p. 338).