Friday, February 3, 2012

Edges and Edge Detection Part 4: The Genius

It has been, shockingly, almost two years since we discussed the links between edge, brain, line, and mind - the first three posts in this intermittent series are here, here, and here. I had one more entry to make on the subject. I would like to bring the work of Giorgio Morandi to your attention in the context of edges.

I didn't really understand what the fuss about Morandi was until I saw his work in person at the Met (I had a similar experience with Gaudi in Barcelona). Morandi (1890-1964) spent most of his life living in amiable semi-seclusion in Bologna, painting one still life after another of carefully arranged permutations of his collection of bottles, cups, vases, and other unremarkable domestic objects. The work is quiet and subtly colored. Reproduced in photographs, the quiet of the work is muted down to silence. Its subtle colors crumble nearly to monochrome. In person, it is little, and in photographs, nothing. Still, we will depend on photographs here:

Still Life, 1954

Up close, Morandi's paintings dissolve into that indecipherability I have been so interested in previously. There are several different ways to cover a canvas in paint in the context of visible brushwork. It is possible to produce a kind of a "wet" feeling by applying a sufficient amount of paint that a viscous layering occurs, leaving a sense of moisture to the completed piece. Karen Kaapcke, whose work we have discussed before, deploys this kind of generous visible brushwork here, using no thinners or mediums at all:

Self-Portrait Right After Taking a Shower First Thing in the Morning, 2012, oil on panel, 8" x 10"

Stephen Wright, another favorite of your loyal correspondent, goes farther, building up the paint beyond the limits of the approximately two-dimensional surface into heavy sculptural impastos - note particularly the yellowish highlight on the right:

Skull 6, 2011

Morandi goes in the opposite direction. Over much of his area, he thins his paint with turpentine in order to make a thin, parched glaze cover a large area. Consider the background of this painting:

Still Life, 1962

The striations in those scrubby brushmarks represent regions where the stroke of the brush caused the extremely liquid mix of paint and thinner to pool. It dried where it pooled, leaving the originating marks visible.

For foreground objects, he has applied paint a little more thickly, but only just. This almost watercolor-like brushwork produces a sense of agonized reaching, of the paint and painter struggling to grasp all the way to an image. Schiele frequently does the same thing:

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait, 1912

Morandi pushes this technique as far as it will go: the brushstrokes really look just awful - thin, scrubbed on, half-hearted and weak. Where there are lines, the lines are wobbly:

As we have seen repeatedly with art exhibiting rock and roll, one must only step back to have it leap into startling clarity. By now, there is no great mystery amongst us about this transmutation. It is difficult to do well, and many artists have done it well. But what I'd like to discuss about Morandi are those edges.

Reducing color and value contrasts as he does, and using frontal lighting, he has eliminated most of the markers by which our brains are stimulated to identify the modeling of forms. He lights everything as if it were directly illuminated by late afternoon light from an east-facing window. It is falling toward indistinctness, toward the palor of night. Now what benefiteth Morandi from his highly specific lighting situation?

He gets a sufficiently subdued context to produce dark edges. As rounded objects curve away from his eye, the frontal light dims, until at the very edges of objects, perpendicular to the light source, the objects are unlit. Like Ingres (see External Variables: 1), he has focused on a natural situation which results in the formation of real outlines. In our previous discussions of edge, we talked about how the circuitry of the brain produces outlines which frequently do not exist in nature. Rarely, they actually do exist, in the very situations upon with Morandi depends.

Having established a setup in which outlines naturally occur, Morandi opens up a language rarely available to the artist: its words consist in the distinctions between naturalistic outlines. Consider it - outlines are almost never naturalistic. When they are, they are generally too fleeting to afford deep consideration by the hand of the artist. When Morandi discovers the topography of his dimly lit tabletop, he enters an aesthetic universe which he has almost entirely to himself. Look at this one:

Still Life, 1955

Notice the astonishing variation of outlines in this seemingly simple image. The left side of the neck of the white bottle is outlined more thinly than the right side, because the light is coming from the left. Both partake of the warm grey of the background, and both are lighter than the outline on the right side of the body of the bottle. In this region, the darkest in the composition, a gap exists between the bottle and the yellow box on the right. Moreover, the bottle is casting a shadow on the box. The greys go steeply toward black here - but Morandi has carefully positioned his box so that the shadow is not too wide. He wants an edge, not a plane, for his darkest note. Compare this darkest-dark line with the outline of the body of the bottle on the left. Where the bottle is in front of the top pale object, the outline virtually disappears, becoming both thin and indistinguishable in value from the surrounding identically toned objects. The pale object is bouncing light onto the bottle, preventing the darker outlining of the neck above. There is, of course, another gap between the bottle and the orange-ish object on the bottom, yielding another steep, thick shadow line. Then there are the lines at the bottoms of objects, each colored by the bounce light from the objects themselves.

But what I really want you to consider are the outlines on the left sides of the leftmost objects. These are flat objects (bottom) or only slightly curved (top) - they don't produce natural outlines like the curving bottleneck. Nothing is casting a shadow on them on the left side. So what the fuck are those outlines?

Those outlines are where Morandi tips his hand. They don't exist in nature, but they sure as hell exist in your brain. Having manipulated nature so far as it will go to yield the outlines that interest him, he goes one step further where nature fails him, and directly paints the mechanism of visual cognition.

Wait a minute, quoth you, every fool and his sister paints outlines:

Fruit, Every fool, and his sister, 1897

Yes, say I, but nobody except Morandi paints outlines in the context of an otherwise naturalistic lack of outlines, and goes to so much trouble to conceal that he is painting outlines:

Still Life, 1954

We learn from this that for Morandi, more than for most, his painting is not his medium. You are. Morandi's work, its seemingly paradoxical confluence of crudity and hyper-reality, stems from the fact that his subject is not his subject. The objects and scenes of his paintings are incidental. His real subject is how we see what we see; his real work as an artist is not the link between external object and emotion, but the link between seeing and emotion. The serene, even melancholy stillness of his work results trivially from what is in it, and maximally from the reduced-to-a-minimum interaction of light with how our eyes interpret light.

His main tools are subtle variation of value, and quality of outline. He is the genius of edges and edge detection.

Given all that, let's tackle the question of Morandi from the question of the life of an artist. After a certain amount of exploration in his youth, he settled into his preferred still lives and spent decades painting them. This restraint allowed the extremely similar to take on a diversity which we rarely notice in our ordinary, varied lives. How different is this piece from those we've studied above?

It looks very different now, but only because we've busied ourselves becoming sensitive to the scale of difference within which Morandi works.

The question, then, is how much sense it makes to restrict our scale of difference to the point that microscopic differences take on the sense of a complete change in theme and subject matter.

I have two conflicting answers to this question. The first is that it makes total sense, under the heading of a line which has never stopped haunting me. It comes from the novel Jakob Von Gunten, by Robert Walser, p. 64:

One of the maxims of our school is, "A little, but thoroughly."

This line recurs in the 1995 movie Institute Benjamenta, an adaptation of the book by the Quay brothers:

Institute Benjamenta, still, 1995

I am prepared to make a serious argument that this movie is, by a wide margin, the greatest movie ever made. But I will not make that argument here. Rather, I will emphasize that this one line, "A little, but thoroughly," has taken on an almost talismanic significance for me. As you know, I tend toward monism, and the idea that one can stare at a single thing, and by means of this single thing, see the entire universe, makes a great deal of sense to me. All of the information in the universe is implicit in any fragment of the universe. Who sees but this, sees all - or as Eliot has it, I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

This is one possible interpretation of the ascetic paintings of Morandi. Contrarily, we should consider a thought by Philip K. Dick. It comes from his final novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, written in 1982. Let me set up this thought for you. Philip K. Dick's work is a chronicle of insanity; Dick, like Artaud, is one of those rare writers insane enough to have experienced the depths of madness, and sane enough to write about it clearly. In his final work, his hero is faced with a choice between the labyrinths of paranoia characteristic of his earlier novels, and rejecting all that - all the miracles and conspiracies. And the hero rejects them. In this book, Dick himself has crossed the stormy sea of madness and reached the far shore. He is sane again. And here is how he describes that particular insanity which he calls the over-valent idea:

I speak of an idea that once it comes into the human mind, the mind, I mean, of a given human being, it not only never goes away, it also consumes everything else in the mind so that, finally, the person is gone, the mind as such is gone, and only the over-valent idea remains.

How does such a thing begin? When does it begin? Jung speaks somewhere - I forget which of his books it is mentioned in - but anyhow he speaks in one place of a person, a normal person, into whose mind one day a certain idea comes, and that idea never goes away. Moreover, Jung says, upon the entering of that idea into the person's mind, nothing new ever happens to that mind or in that mind; time stops for that mind and it is dead. The mind, as a living, growing entity has died. And yet the person, in a sense, continues on.

[pp. 104-5]

So has Morandi followed "a little, but thoroughly," or is he the zombie of an over-valent idea? Does he have the sanity of a Buddha, or is he barking mad?

My friends, this is very difficult to tell. And of course, the problem of distinguishing between these nearly identical states isn't a problem for Morandi. Morandi, after all, has done everything he is ever going to do, and now he is dead. The problem is yours; obsession is a characteristic vulnerability of artists and mathematicians.

I have a proposal for making a distinction, but I'm not at all certain that it can be applied from within the grip of a possible over-valent idea. My proposal is this: that if the Idea is holographic, if it is "a little, but thoroughly," and covers the universe by means of a single subject, then it ought to be linguistic: that is, it ought to have that property of language by means of which a finite toolset (words, grammar, and syntax) can be rearranged without bound to produce new meanings. Conversely, if it is an over-valent idea, then it should not be linguistic - it should amount ultimately to repetition, and the zombie of the idea gladly repeats it, because it is the last word, it is the Logos, it is the name of God. Once you have found the name of God what can you do but continue to sing it, and nothing else, forever?

I am by no means certain that this distinction is legitimate, or useful. I'm not even convinced that the dichotomy it addresses, between "a little, but thoroughly," and the over-valent idea, is a real dichotomy. I'm just performing a little casual reasoning from the known to the unknown. As ever, please apply your own judgment in reaching conclusions.



1. I know there are a few comments on previous posts to which I have not yet responded. I apologize - I've been terribly busy, and I felt like a priority should be getting through this post while it was on my mind and I had a minute. I'll reply as soon as I'm able.

2. Most of the Morandi graphics in this post come from, where many other Morandi paintings can be viewed.

3. The still from Institute Benjamenta comes from, at which many more images from the film are posted.


  1. I don't know if Morandi was barking mad, but he definitely wasn't marking bad. He achieved a kind of magical minimalism in representational painting. It's amazing how tangible he can make his objects, with the flattest of lighting and loose, brushy painting. It's Zen.

  2. Yes, Fred, and I apologize for the late reply - it is as if he conjured ceramic out of breath. A perplexing and profound magical discipline.