Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) painted bottles, lots of bottles, pictures with no apparent connection to the built environment. Yet on one level these paintings - their assorted bottles and jars huddled together, purposely placed and bounded - can be seen as medieval walled towns or as studies in composition, colour and tone. Their formal explorations relate to the visual and spatial experiences of cities in general or, more specifically, the arcades and squares of Bologna where Morandi lived and worked. But they are interesting for more than just their form.
Morandi had what is frequently described as a quiet 'monastic' life, living with his three sisters in the centre of Bologna in a very un-bohemian way. He was extremely prolific, working in various media (predominantly oils but also pencil, watercolours and etchings) on three different subjects - landscapes, flowers and still lifes. Despite their quantity (over 1400 oil paintings), the works are scattered, mostly in private collections and, certainly in England, rarely seen. This current exhibition at the Estorick Collection is a corrective.
34 oil paintings from the Giovanardi Collection are on show, all carefully chosen and hung to emphasise both the development of Morandi's still-life style and the artistic context in which he was working. His landscapes and flowers are seen alongside works of his Italian contemporaries, artists of the Novecento movement - Campigli, Carra, de Pisis, Licini and Strioni. But it is the bottles that draw the attention. These chalky little still lifes have the power to hold you still.
Morandi worked continuously from simple household pots and bottles, which had been painted to mask all labels, and over the years had collected a thick layer of dust. As his painting style developed, the bottles change from being individual objects within an overall composition to being part of an amorphous (but rigorous) abstracted mass. The boundaries merge and the objects, initially so singular and strong, become eroded at their edges and dissolve into the background; the paint has the control, not the bottle itself.
The equivalence for architecture is basic and clear: Morandi's exploration of the boundary, with its evolution from something definite to something questionable, invisible and unfixed, addresses our condition today. Where are our boundaries? Where lies the control? And in this increasingly privatised world, where buildings are guarded, roads gated, and facades tend towards an anonymous banality, it is the spaces in-between where we are left to live our lives. Such spaces have as much impact on the urban presence as the building does itself.
To see these works from the Giovanardi Collection alongside those of its host, the Estorick, is a treat. The collections are similar in conception and they both benefit from being seen in this quasi-domestic setting, not so different from where they came. The Estorick has re-hung its own works for the occasion and some 26 works on paper by Morandi are now on display. The quality and economy of line in the drawings is extraordinary.
The conditions for viewing at the Estorick are near perfect: the galleries are calm and, temporarily, the collections become your own. Silent, compelling, with a distinct aura, these Morandis are an invitation to empathise and reflect.
Sarah Jackson is an architect in London. Coinciding with this exhibition, though not acting as a catalogue to it, Prestel has published Morandi: Paintings Watercolours Drawings Etchings (£29.95). Its emphasis is on Morandi's later output, which is well-reproduced and sequenced to encourage the comparison of closely-related works The distributor is Biblios, tel: 01403 710851.