Mohammed Sami: The Point 0; Giorgio Morandi: Masterpieces from the Magnani-Rocca Foundation – review

A door stands slightly ajar. Through it a pencil of light steals across an abruptly rucked carpet – as if someone had just tried to force their way in or out – and up the wall of a darkened room. The glow has a sinister crackle, just bright enough to illuminate the bottom of a large photograph of a military figure. His head is lost in the shadows.

Yet even in this loose painterly transcription of a photo, the stance, bulk and uniform immediately conjure Saddam Hussein. The carpet too, a nearly abstract array of marks, is apparently Arabic. What is happening on the other side of that door, however, might be going on anywhere in the world right now. Or so the picture implies, with its lingering ambiguities of time, place and light. Its title is Meditation Room.

Mohammed Sami was born in Baghdad in 1984, and was co-opted by the Ba’ath party to produce murals until he managed to escape, first to Sweden and eventually Britain. He is an outstanding painter, as strange as he is gifted. His scenes are set in a no man’s land somewhere between memory and dream. They partake of reality while inventing their own visual world.

A heap of mattresses – beautifully painted in all their minute differences of colour and design, as if to illustrate the Princess and the Pea – implies the bodies who once lay upon them. Ten Siblings is the melancholy title. A rack of black gowns, on hangers, so that the hooks stand in for heads, looks like a procession of deadly judges.

The Parliament Room is a brilliant conceit: the backs of empty chairs stretching into the distance like a cemetery of headstones. But more than that, it is a fascinating work of art, each shape painted with translucent delicacy as it disappears into a blood-red darkness; some still glimmer in the gloom, as if there were half-dead ghosts up ahead.

Weeping Walls III shows a pattern of diamond-shaped marks that suggests something like flocked wallpaper, in shadowy greys, greens and browns. But there is a panel of light – almost as if sunshine were shining through a window on to a rectangular patch. Look closer and you see a small nail that casts a stark shadow. This is where the mandatory photograph of Saddam once hung in every household. Its removal leaves an etiolated pallor, like that of creatures living under a stone.

Sami has a terrific gift for the visual pun and double take. A pot plant throws its shadow on the opposite wall, and it resembles spray-painted political graffiti. Is the box beneath a bed a suitcase, for ready escape, or a toolkit for torture? A green meadow of flowers doubles as a field of bright medals: implying both the killers and the dead.

It is not always obvious, in his art, what is up and what is down. A vast canvas of a city by night shows flakes of black ash – not depicted, so much as mysteriously embodied in the oil paint itself – raining down on the buildings below, and yet at the same time seeming to rise. A small monochrome canvas appears to show a body bent double beneath a load, but turns out to be the shadow cast by a pill packet lying askew on a stone ledge.

What seemed to be a nameless mass of flesh on an altar, dripping with blood, in fact shows a podium in a deserted conference chamber. Who might have made the address, and what about, is – so to speak – unspoken. The invisible presses urgently through the visual; and there are paintings here that are as freighted with clues, hints and mounting narratives as any fiction.

The largest work here, almost six metres wide, shows buildings picked out by a beam of golden light as the blue dusk fades. They are perched along the edge of a monumental cliff. You stand eye to eye with this massive wall of stone, the paint scraped and layered, modelled and smoothed, every variegation as attentively depicted as if it were as beautiful as the sky. Which it is, in its way, even though it stands between you and the view of hope above. That the title of Sami’s painting is Refugee Camp only adds to the multitude of nuances in this vision of what art – and freedom – might mean and be.

Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) is the perfect choice of artist to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the nearby Estorick Collection, home to modern Italian art in London. The Estorick already owns many of his spellbinding still lifes but they are here augmented by two further galleries of paintings and prints from the collection of Luigi Magnani, usually housed in a neoclassical villa outside Parma, and never before transported to Britain.

Magnani, a rich music professor, was almost as shy as the reclusive Morandi. His gentle attempt to commission a painting of a lute resulted in a defensive still life of a toy guitar triumphing over the face-down lute. After that, Magnani simply bought whatever Morandi allowed.

Some of these paintings are so odd – heavy roses, strange fruit, sharply metaphysical shadows – as to reveal a Morandi steeped in the art of immediate predecessors from Manet to De Chirico and Cezanne. But they heighten the joy of the more characteristic paintings around them. A tremulous jar stands apprehensively on the edge of the table. Four vessels, one shining with a stripe of coppery light, seem to gaze down on the depths below.

An assembly of vases, jugs and jars gathers in the pale light, hugger-mugger, the spout of one of them keeping lookout over the others. The atmosphere is conspiratorial, secretive.

Look deep into the paintings and it is not obvious how the objects connect. There is no formal logic, no measured intervals between Morandi’s vessels. Sometimes they blend into each other, or the colour of one seeps mysteriously into another. His tabletops turn into twinkling shadowlands in the many pin-sharp etchings collected by Magnani.

And to see these prints alongside the Estorick’s marvellous collection of drawings is to perceive all sorts of new affinities. Tall jugs resemble swaying poplars, short vases are as stout as the rocky hills in his pencil landscapes. Indoors and outdoors are bizarrely related in his unique imagination.

Morandi’s extraordinary revelation – couched in such mute colours and such subtle strokes – is that every tiny incident in a still life (and a landscape) can be psychologically thrilling. You see this over and again in this show, where three white vases resemble classical sculptures in the gloaming and a milk jug may appear to lord it over the teacups in an enthralling series of enigma variations.

Star ratings (out of five)
Mohammed Sami: The Point 0
Giorgio Morandi: Masterpieces from the Magnani-Rocca Foundation