Little Things Mean A Lot

In this blogpost I want to share examples of the work of two artists who helped convince me that little things can be – and often are – the substance of significant art.

Giorgio Morandi was an artist frequently referred to as “a painter’s painter.” This is a term used to describe a painter admired by other painters because they have stayed true to the purest ambitions of the media over a long period of time. They build their career day by day, painting by painting, in the studio without resorting to fashionable trends or attention grabbing devices. Using paint and straightforward brushwork to tell their stories. Modest, but at the same time very competent. An exact description of Morandi.

Giorgio Morandi still life painting

Giorgio Morandi was a twentieth century Italian painter known for his simple still life arrangements of vases, bottles, bowls and a few rectangular box shapes. All these arrangements appear to be on a table top a few feet from the viewer. The colors are limited and muted. The light is uniform across the entire surface. There is no sense of deep or even significant space. The compositions are generally conservative – a cluster of objects in the center of the painting with a few simple space divisions in the background that suggest a table and wall. At first glance it seems like there is nothing much happening. But…

Giorgio Morandi still life painting

When you consider all the elements in a Morandi painting as components of a single visual statement you can see that here is a perfect example of the sum being greater than the parts. The limited color and value range encourages your eye to easily enter the composition and wander freely among all its elements. The simplified cluster of objects gently draws your attention to the center of the composition but does not trap you there. The point of view is conservative but far from boring. With one painting after another, Morandi nudged shapes into evermore perfect configurations and fine tuned the color/value relationships of his compositions. His modest paintings of simple forms are like an obvious truth being expressed by someone who has great experience. Every composition is about unity, balance and understated perfection.

Edward Weston was a twentieth century American photographer known for his precise and somewhat stylized compositions. His subject matter included landscapes, portraits, nudes and simple objects such as seashells and vegetables.

Photograph of a nautilus shell by Edward Weston

Weston worked exclusively with a large format camera that used single sheets of 8”x10” film. His bulky camera required a tripod to keep it steady and a cloth hood that allowed him to see a faint upside down image on the focusing glass. The lens was connected to the camera’s body by a bellows made of paper and fabric. The lens moved in and out, up and down…and it could tilt. In addition, the lens also controlled the precise amount of light and the focal point for each exposure. The large sheets of film he used in the camera and developed in his darkroom were difficult to handle and time consuming to process. This laborious set-up was hard to master but gave Weston total control over each photograph.

Photograph of a bell pepper by Edward Weston

Through the use of lighting and compositional framing, Weston was able to make the most humble objects seem both monumental and sensual. By the time he started photographing shells and vegetables he had already developed his signature approach of treating natural objects as abstract forms. When he photographed these simple shells and vegetables he brought that same appreciation for form and abstraction to each new composition. A single small object fills the frame as though it were the most important item in the room. Light slowly wraps around the form and recedes into the infinite space of the background. The graceful curves of a seashell could easily be mistaken for a monumental rock formation in a canyon wall. Small variations on the surface of a bell pepper suggest the arms, legs and torso of a nude model in a compact gesture. For Edward Weston, forms – wherever he found them – were universal in their importance.

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