Amedeo Clemente Modigliani, born July 12, 1884 in Livorno (Kingdom of Italy) and died January 24, 1920 in Paris, is an Italian painter and sculptor attached to the School of Paris.
Amedeo Modigliani grew up in a bourgeois but penniless Jewish family that, at least on his mother”s side, supported his early vocation as an artist. His formative years took him from Tuscany to Venice, passing through the Mezzogiorno, before settling in 1906 in Paris, then the European capital of artistic avant-gardes. Between Montmartre and Montparnasse, closely linked to Maurice Utrillo, Max Jacob, Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, Jacques Lipchitz, Moïse Kisling or Chaïm Soutine, “Modi” became one of the figures of the bohemian scene. Around 1909, he turned to sculpture – his ideal – but abandoned it around 1914 due to his lung problems: he returned exclusively to painting, produced a lot, sold little, and died at the age of 35 of tuberculosis contracted in his youth.
He embodies the cursed artist who sank into alcohol, drugs and stormy relationships to drown his malaise and misfortune. Although not without foundation, these clichés – reinforced by the suicide of his pregnant companion Jeanne Hébuterne (1898-1920) the day after his death – have long replaced a biographical reality that is difficult to establish, as well as an objective study of the work. Jeanne Modigliani (1918-1984), daughter of the couple, was one of the first to show in the 1950s that her father”s creation was not marked by his tragic life and even evolved in the opposite direction, towards a form of serenity.
Modigliani left some 25 stone sculptures, mostly female heads, executed in direct carving perhaps in contact with Constantin Brâncuși and evoking the primitive arts that the West was then discovering. A stylized sculptural aspect is found precisely in his paintings, infinitely more numerous (about 400) although he destroyed many of them and their authentication is sometimes tricky. He essentially limited himself to two major genres of figurative painting: the female nude and especially the portrait.
Marked by the Italian Renaissance and classicism, Modigliani nevertheless drew from the currents of post-impressionism (fauvism, cubism, the beginning of abstract art) formal means to reconcile tradition and modernity, pursuing his quest for timeless harmony in a fundamental independence. His continuous work of purification of lines, volumes and colors made recognizable among all his ample and sure line, all in curves, his drawings of caryatids, his sensual nudes in the warm tones, his frontal portraits with the forms stretched until the deformation and with the glance often absent, as turned towards the interior.
Centered on the representation of the human figure, his aesthetic of a contained lyricism made Modigliani, post mortem, one of the most appreciated painters of the twentieth century by the public. Considering that it did not mark the history of art in a decisive way, the critics and the university were more slow to recognize in him a leading artist.
Amedeo Modigliani, who confided little, left letters but no diary. His mother”s diary and the biographical note she wrote in 1924 are partial sources. As for the memories of friends and relations, they may have been altered by forgetfulness, nostalgia for their youth or their vision of the artist: André Salmon”s monograph in 1926 in particular is at the origin of “the whole Modigliani mythology. Little attracted by the work of his father as an art historian, Jeanne Modigliani has tried to trace his real path “without the legend and beyond the family distortions” due to a kind of condescending devotion to the deceased. The biography of which she delivers a first version in 1958 contributes to reorient the researches on the man, his life and his creation.
Youth and training (1884-1905)
Amedeo Clemente was born in 1884 in the Modigliani family”s small mansion in Via Roma 38, in the heart of the port city of Livorno. After Giuseppe Emanuele, Margherita and Umberto, he was the last child of Flaminio Modigliani (1840-1928), a businessman who had suffered a setback, and Eugenie née Garsin (1855-1927), both of whom were from the Sephardic bourgeoisie. Amedeo was a child of fragile health, but his sensitive intelligence and lack of schooling persuaded his mother to accompany him as a teenager in an artistic vocation that would soon take him out of the narrow confines of his native city.
Eugenie”s family history and her diary in French help to correct the rumors that Amedeo himself had occasionally spread about his father being descended from a line of wealthy bankers and his mother from the philosopher Baruch Spinoza.
Probably originating from the village of Modigliana, in Emilia Romagna, the painter”s paternal ancestors resided in Rome at the beginning of the 19th century, providing financial services to the Vatican: although they were never “the Pope”s bankers” – a family myth revived in times of crisis – they acquired a forestry, agricultural and mining estate in Sardinia that in 1862 covered 60,000 hectares northwest of Cagliari. Flaminio worked it with his two brothers and lived there most of the time while managing his branch in Livorno. In 1849, their father, expelled for his support of the Risorgimento or angry at having had to dispose of a small piece of land because he was Jewish, left the Papal States for this city. Since 1593, the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 had enjoyed an exceptional status there, as Livorno”s laws granted “merchants of all nations” a free right of movement, trade and ownership.
Fleeing the persecutions of the Catholic Kings, Eugenie Garsin”s ancestors settled in Tunis, where one of them founded a renowned Talmudic school. At the end of the 18th century, a merchant Garsin settled in Livorno with his wife Regina Spinoza – whose relationship with the philosopher of the same name, who died childless, is not proven. One of their bankrupt sons emigrated before 1850 to Marseilles, where his son, married to a Tuscan cousin, raised his seven children in an open, even free-thinking Judeo-Spanish tradition: educated by an English governess and then at Catholic school, Eugenie received a solid classical culture and was immersed in a rationalist environment that was keen on the arts, with no taboos, particularly on the representation of the human figure.
Unbeknownst to her, she was promised by her father to Flaminio Modigliani, who was thirty years old when she was fifteen, but richer. In 1872, the young bride moved to Livorno to live with her parents-in-law, where four generations lived together. Disappointed by a luxurious lifestyle but subject to rigid rules, she felt uncomfortable in this conservative family, very patriarchal and of strict religious observance: judging the Modiglianis pretentious and ignorant, she will always praise the spirit of the Garsins. Her husband was moreover preoccupied by his business, which was failing and no longer sufficient to cover the expenses of a large household: in 1884 he went bankrupt.
During the night of July 11-12, Flaminio had the most precious objects of the house piled up on his wife”s bed: in virtue of a law forbidding the seizure of what was on the bed of a woman in labour, this at least escaped the bailiffs who had arrived in the morning with the baby. The baby was named Amedeo Clemente, in homage to Eugenie”s younger and favorite brother and their younger sister Clementina who had died two months earlier.
Very close to his mother, “Dedo” knows a pampered childhood and, notwithstanding the material difficulties, his desire to become an artist does not cause any conflict, contrary to what André Salmon thought.
Eugenie Garsin settles with her children in a house in via delle Ville, and moves away from her in-laws as well as from her husband. She soon welcomes her widowed father – a fine scholar embittered to the point of paranoia by his commercial setbacks but adoring his grandson – and two of her sisters: Gabriella, who is busy with the household, and Laura, psychologically fragile. To supplement her income, Eugenie gave French lessons and then opened a small private school with Laura, where Amedeo learned to read and write at an early age. Supported by her intellectual friends and who loved to write, she also started translating (poems by Gabriele D”Annunzio) and literary criticism.
The legend says that Modigliani”s vocation was suddenly declared in August 1898, during a serious typhoid fever with pulmonary complications: the adolescent who had never touched a pencil would have dreamed of art and unknown masterpieces, the feverish delirium releasing his unconscious aspirations. It is more likely that he simply reaffirmed them, for he had already shown his taste for painting. In 1895, when he had suffered from a severe case of pleurisy, Eugenie, who found him a bit capricious – between shy reserve and bursts of exaltation or anger – had wondered whether an artist would not one day emerge from this chrysalis. The following year he asked for drawing lessons and at the age of thirteen, while on vacation at his father”s, painted a few portraits.
Initiated for a long time to Hebrew and to the Talmud, Amedeo is delighted to make his Bar-mitzvah but does not show himself in class neither brilliant nor studious: not without concern his mother lets him at fourteen years leave the high school for the academy of the Fine Arts – completing by there to fall out with the Modigliani, who disapprove of his activities as his support to his elder, socialist militant in prison.
After two years of studies in Livorno, Modigliani makes for his health and his artistic culture a journey of one year in the south.
At the Livorno School of Fine Arts, Amedeo was the youngest student of Guglielmo Micheli, who was trained by Giovanni Fattori at the Macchiaioli School: referring to Corot or Courbet, these artists broke with academicism to get closer to reality and advocated painting on the motif, color rather than drawing, contrasts, and a light touch. The teenager met, among others, Renato Natali, Gino Romiti, who awakened him to the art of the nude, and Oscar Ghiglia, his best friend despite their age difference. He discovered the great artistic currents, with a predilection for Tuscan art and Italian Gothic or Renaissance painting as well as for Pre-Raphaelitism. He sought his inspiration in the working class neighborhoods rather than in the countryside, and rented a studio with two friends where it is not excluded that he contracted Koch”s bacillus. These two years at Micheli”s will have little impact on his career, but Eugénie notes the quality of his drawings, the only remains of this period.
Amedeo is a courteous boy, shy but already in seduction. Nourished by his mother”s ardent discussions, he reads Italian and European classics at random. As much as for Dante or Baudelaire, he is enthusiastic about Nietzsche and D”Annunzio, the mythology of the “Superman” undoubtedly meeting his personal fantasies – Micheli nicknamed him nicely so. From these readings comes the repertoire of verses and quotations that will give him in Paris his reputation, perhaps a little overrated. This metaphysical-spiritual “intellectual” “with mystical tendencies” will remain on the other hand all his life indifferent to the social and political question, even to the world which surrounds him.
In September 1900, suffering from tubercular pleurisy, he was recommended to rest in the fresh air of the mountains. Requesting financial assistance from her brother Amedeo Garsin, Eugenie preferred to take the budding artist on a Grand Tour of Southern Italy. At the beginning of 1901 he discovered Naples, its archaeological museum, the ruins of Pompeii, and the archaizing sculptures of the Sienese Tino di Camaino: his vocation as a sculptor seems to have been revealed at that moment, and not later in Paris. The spring was spent in Capri and on the Amalfi coast, the summer and autumn in Rome, which deeply impressed Amedeo and where he met the old macchiaiolo Giovanni Costa. He sent his friend Oscar Ghiglia long, exalted letters in which, brimming with vitality and “ingenuous symbolism”, he spoke of his need to innovate in art, his quest for an aesthetic ideal through which to fulfill his destiny as an artist.
In search of a stimulating atmosphere, Modigliani spent a year in Florence and then three in Venice, a foretaste of Parisian bohemia.
In May 1902, pushed by Costa or Micheli himself, Modigliani joined Ghiglia at the Free School of Nude that Fattori directed within the Academy of Fine Arts of Florence. When he was not in the studio – a sort of capharnaum where the teacher encouraged his students to freely follow their feelings in front of the “great book of nature” – he visited the churches, the Palazzo Vecchio, the galleries of the Uffizi Museum and the Pitti and Bargello Palaces. He admired the masters of the Italian Renaissance but also of the Flemish, Spanish and French schools. Christian Parisot situates there, in front of the statues of Donatello, Michelangelo, Cellini or John Bologna, a second shock revealing to the young Amedeo that giving life to the stone will be for him more imperious than painting. In the meantime, if there was no lack of literary cafés where artists and intellectuals could meet in the evening, the liveliness of the Tuscan capital would not satisfy him.
His enrollment in the Nude School of the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice, a cultural crossroads where he settled partly at his uncle”s expense, dates from March 1903. Not very assiduous, he preferred to stroll around Saint Mark”s Square, the campi and markets of the Rialto and Giudecca, “drawing in the café or brothel” and sharing the illicit pleasures of a cosmopolitan and “decadent” community of artists, occultist evenings in improbable places.
Here again he was less interested in producing than in enriching his knowledge in museums and churches. Still fascinated by the Tuscans of the Trecento, he discovered the Venetians of the following centuries: Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Carpaccio – whom he venerates -, Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiepolo. He looks, analyzes, fills his sketchbooks. He executed a few portraits, such as that of the tragedian Eleonora Duse, D”Annunzio”s mistress, which betray the influence of symbolism and Art Nouveau. It is difficult to know if all his early works were simply lost or if, as his aunt Margherita claimed, he destroyed them, which gave credence to the image of the eternally dissatisfied artist who was born to art only in Paris.
Modigliani is then a young man of small size, of a sober elegance. His letters to Oscar Ghiglia reveal, however, the anguish of the idealist creator. Convinced that the modern artist must immerse himself in the cities of art rather than in nature, he declares vain any approach by the style as long as the work is not mentally completed, sees in it less a material outline than a synthetic value allowing to express the essence. Your real duty is to save your dream,” he enjoins Ghiglia, “always assert yourself and surpass yourself, your aesthetic needs above your duties to men.” If Amedeo is already thinking sculpture, he lacks the space and money to get started. In any case, these letters betray an elitist conception of art, the certainty of one”s own value, and the idea that one should not be afraid to gamble with one”s life in order to grow.
During these three crucial years in Venice, interspersed with stays in Livorno, Modigliani made friends with Ardengo Soffici and Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, who would remain one of his best friends until the end and who introduced him to the symbolist poets or Lautréamont, but also to impressionism, Paul Cézanne and Toulouse-Lautrec, whose caricatures for the weekly magazine Le Rire were distributed in Italy. Both of them praised Paris as a melting pot of freedom.
An Italian in Paris: towards sculpture (1906-1913)
The name of Modigliani remains associated with Montparnasse, but he also frequented Montmartre, still a mythical district of the bohemian. Working independently with what the “undisputed capital of the avant-garde” had to offer in terms of artists from all over Europe, he soon sought his own truth in sculpture without totally abandoning his brushes. Although supported by his family, the proud dandy lived in poverty which, combined with alcohol and drugs, affected his health.
Far from the material and moral stability to which he perhaps aspired, Modigliani became, according to his friend Adolphe Basler, “the last authentic bohemian.
At the beginning of 1906, as usual in a new city, the young Italian chose a good hotel near the Madeleine. He went to cafés, antique shops, and bookstores, walking the boulevards in a black corduroy suit with laced boots, a red “artist” scarf and a Bruant hat. Practicing French since childhood, he easily creates links and spends without counting the cost, even if it means letting people believe that he is a banker”s son. Enrolled for two years at the Colarossi Academy, he haunted the Louvre Museum and the galleries that exhibited the Impressionists or their successors: Paul Durand-Ruel, Clovis Sagot, Georges Petit, Ambroise Vollard.
Having in a few weeks more than exhausted the nest egg drawn from the savings of his mother and the bequest of his uncle who died the year before, Modigliani took a studio in Caulaincourt street, in the “maquis” of Montmartre. Driven away by the rehabilitation of the neighborhood, he moved from boarding houses to garrisons with the Bateau-Lavoir as his permanent address, where he made appearances and for a time had a small room. In 1907 he rented a wooden shed at the foot of the hill, place Jean-Baptiste-Clément, which he lost in the autumn. The painter Henri Doucet then invited him to join the artists” colony which, thanks to the patronage of Dr. Paul Alexandre and his pharmacist brother, occupied an old building on the rue du Delta where literary and musical “Saturdays” were also organized.
From 1909 onwards, sometimes evicted for unpaid rent, he lived alternately on the Left Bank (la Ruche, Cité Falguière, boulevard Raspail, rue du Saint-Gothard) and the Right Bank (rue de Douai, rue Saint-Georges, rue Ravignan). Each time he abandoned or destroyed some of his paintings, moving his trunk, his books, his equipment, his reproductions of Carpaccio, Lippi or Martini into a cart. Very soon, therefore, despite Eugenie”s mandates, her son began to wander in search of lodging if not food: some saw this as the cause, others as the consequence of his addictions.
Even though it was widespread in artistic circles at the time, hashish was expensive and Amedeo perhaps took more of it than others, though never while working. He especially took to red wine: having become an alcoholic in a few years, he found a balance in drinking in small regular doses when he painted, without apparently ever considering detoxification. Contesting the legend of the genius sprung from the exalting power of drugs, the painter”s daughter rather touches on the psychophysiological springs of his drunkenness: already altered organism, shyness, moral isolation, uncertainties and artistic regrets, “anxiety to ”do quickly””. Alcohol and narcotics would help him moreover to reach an introspective plenitude favourable to his creation because revealing of what he carries in him.
The reputation of “Modi” in Montmartre and then in Montparnasse is partly due to the myth of the “handsome Italian”: sleek, always clean-shaven, he washes himself, even with ice water, and wears his worn-out clothes with the allure of a prince, book of verses in his pocket. Proud of his Italian origins, and Jewish although he does not practice, he is haughty and lively. Under the effect of alcohol or drugs, he could become violent: around New Year”s Day 1909, on the rue du Delta, he would have scarred several paintings of his comrades and caused a fire by burning punch. Probably hiding a certain malaise behind his exuberance, he was spectacularly drunk and sometimes ended the night in a garbage can.
In the Dome or in La Rotonde, Modigliani often imposes himself to the table of a client to make his portrait, that he sells him some pennies or exchanges for a drink: it is what he calls his “drawings to drink”. He is also known for his generosity, as when he drops his last bill under the chair of a poorer person than him, arranging for him to find it. In the same way, the composer Edgard Varèse remembers that his “angel” side as well as his drunkenness earned him the sympathy of “the tramps and the miserable” whose path he crossed.
Women like Amedeo. His male friendships, however, are sometimes more of a companionship of uprooted people than an intellectual exchange.
He charmed from the beginning by his frank attitude, remembers Paul Alexandre, his first great admirer, who helped him, provided him with models and commissions, and remained his main buyer until the war. Barely older than him, a supporter of moderate hashish consumption as a sensory stimulant – an idea that was widely shared at the time – he was the confidant of the painter”s tastes and projects, who would have introduced him to primitive arts. Sincerely linked, they go together to the theater, that the Italian adores, visit museums, exhibitions, discovering in particular at the Palais du Trocadéro the art of Indochina and the idols brought back from Black Africa by Savorgnan de Brazza.
Modigliani had a great affection for Maurice Utrillo, whom he met in 1906 and whose talent, innocence and spectacular drunkenness touched him. Faced with the difficulties of the life and the art, they comfort each other. In the evening they drank from the same bottle, shouting bawdy songs in the alleys of the hill. “It was almost tragic to see them both walking arm in arm in unstable balance”, testifies André Warnod, while Picasso would have had this word: “Just to stay with Utrillo, Modigliani must be already drunk.
The Spaniard seems to esteem the work but not the excesses of the Italian, who for his part displays a superbness mixed with jealousy towards him because he admires his blue period, his pink period, the bold stroke of the Demoiselles d”Avignon. According to Pierre Daix, Modigliani would have drawn in this example and in the one of Henri Matisse a kind of authorization to go out of the rules, to “do badly” as Picasso said himself. Their friendship in the café stopped at the threshold of the studio and the word “SAVOIR” that Modigliani inscribed on the portrait of his willingly peremptory comrade surely had an ironic value. Their artistic rivalry is expressed in small perfidious sentences and “Modi” will never be part of “the gang to Picasso”, excluded thus in 1908 of a memorable party given by this one in honor – to make fun a little?
Amedeo is much more complicit with Max Jacob, whose sensitivity, facetiousness and encyclopedic knowledge, whether in the field of arts or Jewish culture more or less esoteric. The poet drew this portrait of his late friend “Dedo”: “This pride bordering on the unbearable, this appalling ingratitude, this arrogance, all this was only the expression of an absolute requirement of crystalline purity, of an uncompromising sincerity that he imposed on himself, in his art as in life. He was as brittle as glass; but also fragile and as inhuman, if I dare say.”
With Chaïm Soutine, whom Jacques Lipchitz introduced to him at the Ruche in 1912, the agreement was immediate: Ashkenazi Jew from a distant shtetl, without any resources, Soutine neglected himself, behaved like a boor, shaved the walls, was afraid of women, and his painting had nothing to do with that of Modigliani. Modigliani nevertheless took him under his wing, teaching him good manners… and the art of drinking wine or absinthe. He painted his portrait several times and lived with him in the Cité Falguière in 1916. Their friendship will nevertheless wither: moved perhaps also by an artist”s jealousy, Soutine resents having pushed him to drink while he was suffering from an ulcer.
Over the years, not counting his compatriots or art dealers, Modigliani rubbed shoulders with and painted in a kind of chronicle almost all the writers and artists of the Parisian bohemia: Blaise Cendrars, Jean Cocteau, Raymond Radiguet, Léon Bakst, André Derain, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Diego Rivera, Kees van Dongen, Moïse Kisling, Jules Pascin, Ossip Zadkine, Tsugouharu Foujita, Léopold Survage… but not Marc Chagall, with whom his relationship was difficult. “The real friends of Modigliani were Utrillo, Survage, Soutine and Kisling”, says Lunia Czechowska, model and friend of the painter. The art historian Daniel Marchesseau hypothesizes that he may indeed have preferred Utrillo or Soutine, still obscure, to potential rivals.
As for his many love affairs, none of them seems to have lasted or really counted for him during this period. They were essentially models, or young women he met in the street and persuaded to let him paint them, sometimes perhaps without ulterior motive. On the other hand, he had a tender friendship with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, whom he met during the carnival of 1910 while she was on her honeymoon and in July 1911: it is not known whether their relationship went beyond the exchange of confidences and letters or modern art and the endless walks in Paris that she later evoked with emotion, but he would have made about fifteen drawings of her, almost all of them lost.
Modigliani goes through some years of questioning: even his Venetian experience had not prepared him for the shock of post-impressionism.
In Montmartre, he painted less than he drew and groped in imitation of Gauguin, Lautrec, Van Dongen, Picasso and others. Marked at the Autumn Salon of 1906 by the pure colors and simplified forms of Gauguin, he was even more so the following year by a retrospective on Cézanne: The Jewess borrows from Cézanne or the “expressionist” line of Lautrec. The artistic personality of Modigliani was however formed enough that he did not adhere to any revolution when he arrived in Paris: he reproached cubism and refused to sign the manifesto of futurism that Gino Severini submitted to him in 1910.
Independently of these influences, Modigliani wished to reconcile tradition and modernity. His links with the artists of the School of Paris still in its infancy – “each in search of his own style” – encouraged him to test new processes, to break with the Italian and classical heritage without denying it and to elaborate a singular synthesis. He aimed for simplicity, his line became clearer, his colors stronger. His portraits show his interest in the personality of the model: Baroness Marguerite de Hasse de Villars refused the one he did of her as an Amazon, probably because, deprived of her red jacket and her rich frame, she displayed a certain morgue.
If he hardly evokes his work, Modigliani sometimes expresses himself on art with an enthusiasm that makes, for example, the admiration of Ludwig Meidner: “Never before have I heard a painter speak of beauty with so much ardor. Paul Alexandre pushed his protégé to participate in the collective exhibitions of the Society of Independent Artists and to present at the Salon of 1908: his chromatism and his concise line, personal without radical innovation, received a mixed reception. He only produced between six and eighteen paintings the following year, painting having taken a back seat for him; but the six he submitted to the Salon in 1910 were noticed, notably The Cellist, which Guillaume Apollinaire, Louis Vauxcelles and André Salmon,.
Modigliani returned in 1909 and 1913 to his native country and city: uncertainties remain about what happened there.
In June 1909, his aunt Laura Garsin visited him at the Hive and found him as unwell as unhoused: he spent the summer at his mother”s, who spoiled him and took care of him while Laura, who was “skinned alive, like him”, associated him with her philosophical work. The situation is different with his old friends. Amedeo judged them to be in a rut, too wise in their commissioned art, and they did not understand what he told them about the Parisian avant-garde or the “distortions” of his own painting: slanderous, envious perhaps, they gave him a cold shoulder at the brand new Caffè Bardi in Piazza Cavour. Only Ghiglia and Romiti, who lent him his studio, remained faithful to him. Modigliani made several studies and portraits, including The Beggar of Livorno, inspired by both Cézanne and a small 17th century Neapolitan painting, and exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants the following year.
It is probable that the first attempts of Modigliani to carve the stone date from this stay, his elder brother helping him to find a vast room near Carrara and to choose in Seravezza or Pietrasanta – on the traces of Michelangelo – a beautiful block of marble. Wishing to transpose some sketches, the artist would have tackled it in a heat and light he had lost the habit of, the dust raised by direct carving soon irritating his lungs. This did not prevent him from returning to Paris in September, determined to become a sculptor.
One day in the summer of 1912, Ortiz de Zárate discovered Modigliani passed out in his room: for months he had been working like a madman while leading a deranged life. His friends contribute to send him back to Italy. But this second stay, in the spring of 1913, was not enough to rebalance his dilapidated organism nor his fragile psyche. He was once again confronted with the mocking incomprehension of those to whom he showed photos of his Parisian sculptures. Did he take their ironic suggestion literally and throw the ones he had just made into the Fosso Reale? In any case, their reaction may have been a factor in his later decision to abandon sculpture.
In spite of the seniority of his vocation, Modigliani launches out in the sculpture without formation.
For many years he considered sculpture to be the major art form and his drawings as preliminary exercises in chisel work. In Montmartre, he would have practiced as early as 1907 on sleepers, the only authenticated wooden statuette being however later. Of the few works in stone produced the following year, a woman”s head with a stretched oval remains. 1909-1910 marked an aesthetic turning point: he threw himself wholeheartedly into sculpture without completely ceasing to paint – a few portraits, a few nudes between 1910 and 1913 -, especially since coughing due to dust from cutting and polishing forced him to suspend his activity for periods. Drawings and paintings of caryatids accompany his career as a sculptor like so many aborted projects.
In these years of infatuation with “negro art,” Picasso, Matisse, Derain, many tried their hand at sculpture. Whether or not to join Constantin Brâncuși, whom Dr. Alexandre had introduced to him, Modigliani moved to the Cité Falguière and obtained his limestone from old quarries or from the construction sites of Montparnasse (buildings, metro). Although ignorant of the technique, he worked from morning to night in the courtyard: at the end of the day he lined up his sculpted heads, watered them carefully and contemplated them for a long time – when he didn”t decorate them with candles in a sort of primitive staging.
Brâncuși encouraged him and convinced him that direct carving allows one to better “feel” the material. The refusal to model plaster or clay first undoubtedly also appeals to the young neophyte by the irremediable character of the gesture, which forces to anticipate the ultimate form I will do everything in marble,” he writes, signing his letters to his mother “Modigliani, scultore.”
Modigliani found his style from what he admired – ancient and Renaissance statuary, African and Oriental art. In March 1911 he exhibited several heads of women with sketches and gouaches in the large studio of his friend Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso. At the Autumn Salon of 1912 he presented “Heads, Decorative Ensemble”, seven figures conceived as a whole after numerous preparatory sketches: wrongly assimilated to the Cubists, he was at least recognized as a sculptor. As for the caryatids – a deliberate return to antiquity – if he left only one, unfinished, he dreamed of them as the “columns of tenderness” of a “Temple of Voluptuousness”.
Modigliani abandoned sculpture little by little from 1914, continuing from afar until 1916: the doctors advised him against direct carving many times and his coughing fits now go as far as the malaise. Other reasons may have been added: the physical strength required by this technique, the problem of space which forced him to work outside, the cost of materials, and finally pressure from Paul Guillaume, whose buyers preferred paintings. It is possible that these difficulties and the reactions of the public discouraged the artist: as early as 1911-1912, those close to him observed that he was increasingly bitter, sarcastic, and extravagantly antics. Roger van Gindertael also invokes his nomadic tendency and his impatience to express himself, to complete his work. To have to give up his dream will not have contributed in any case to cure him of his addictions.
The passions of the painter (1914-1920)
On his return from Livorno, Modigliani found his friends, his misery and his marginal life. His health deteriorated but his creative activity intensified: he began to “paint for good”. From 1914 to 1919, appreciated by the merchants Paul Guillaume and then Léopold Zborowski, he produced more than 350 paintings, even if the First World War delayed this recognition: caryatids, numerous portraits and resplendent nudes. His mistresses included the volcanic Beatrice Hastings and above all the tender Jeanne Hébuterne, who gave him a daughter and followed him in death.
Wandering, alcoholism and drug addiction increasing, stormy love or without tomorrow, aggressive exhibitionism: Modigliani will embody “the burned youth”.
Returning to Paris in the summer of 1913, he resumed “his cage on Boulevard Raspail” and then rented studio apartments north of the Seine (Passage de l”Élysée des Beaux-Arts, rue de Douai) while spending his days in the Montparnasse district, where the artists of Montmartre had gradually migrated and which, up until then, had been rural, but was now undergoing a complete renovation.
Instead of the Dôme or La Closerie des Lilas, he prefers La Rotonde, a meeting place for craftsmen and workers whose owner, Victor Libion, lets artists stay for hours over the same glass. He had a habit at Rosalie”s, known for her cheap Italian food and generosity, and to whom he repeated that a penniless artist should not pay. Poor Amedeo!” she recalls. Here, he was like at home. When he was found asleep under a tree or in a ditch, he was carried to my house. Then we would lay him down on a sack in the back room until he got over his drunkenness. During the war he also frequented the “canteen” and the evenings of Marie Vassilieff, who however feared his outbursts.
More than ever, “Modi” is drunk – when he doesn”t combine alcohol with drugs – and boasts, launching into lyrical tirades or altercations. When he fails at the police station, the commissioner Zamarron, a painting enthusiast, gets him out or buys him some canvas or drawing: his office at the prefecture is decorated with works by Soutine, Utrillo, Modigliani, regulars of the police station.
At the time of the mobilization of August 1914 Modigliani wants to engage, but his pulmonary problems prevent his incorporation. He remained somewhat isolated in Montparnasse, despite the return of those discharged for serious injuries: Braque, Kisling, Cendrars, Apollinaire, Léger, Zadkine… Contrary to those of Picasso, Dufy, La Fresnaye or the German expressionists, his works do not contain any allusion to the war, even when he paints a soldier in uniform.
He multiplied the adventures, especially since, Rosalie recalls, “how beautiful he was, do you know? Holy Virgin! All the women ran after him”. His relationship with the artist Nina Hamnett, the “Queen of the Bohemians”, probably did not go beyond friendship, but with Lunia Czechowska, whom he knew thanks to the Zborowskis and painted fourteen times, perhaps. Among other flings, Elvira, known as “La Quique” (“La Chica”), was a coachwoman from Montmartre: their intense erotic relationship gave rise to several nudes and portraits before she abruptly left him. As for the Quebec student Simone Thiroux (1892-1921), who gave birth in September 1917 to a son that Modigliani refused to recognize, she opposed in vain to his rudeness letters in which she humbly begged for his friendship.
The painter lived, on the other hand, from the spring of 1914 to 1916 with the poetess and British journalist Beatrice Hastings. All witnesses speak of a love at first sight. Beatrice had allure, culture, an eccentric side, and a penchant for cannabis and drink that made us doubt that she had slowed Modigliani down, even if she said that he “never did anything good under the effect of hashish. From the outset tumultuous, their passionate relationship made of physical attraction and intellectual rivalry, scenes of terrible jealousy and flashy reconciliations, feeds the gossip. Beatrice inspired many drawings and a dozen oil portraits. “A pig and a pearl” she will say of him, tired of their quarrels more and more violent. The art of Modigliani didn”t gain less in firmness and in serenity “.
The impossibility of sculpting undeniably stimulated the pictorial creativity of Modigliani: the era of the great masterpieces opens.
Modigliani continued his pictorial activity in margin of the sculpture, in particular drawings, gouaches or oils representing caryatids. It remains that he paints more and more frenetically from 1914 and 1918-1919, searching feverishly without concern of the avant-garde to express what he feels. In November 1915 he wrote to his mother: “I am painting again and selling.
In 1914, perhaps after a brief patronage of Georges Chéron that boasted to lock Modigliani in his cellar with a bottle and his maid to force him to work, Max Jacob introduced his friend to Paul Guillaume and of modern art exhibited unknowns in his gallery of the street of the Faubourg-Saint-Honoré: only buyer of Modigliani until 1916, all the more that Paul Alexandre was to the front, he made him participate in collective exhibitions. He never took him under contract – both had little affinity – but will make him known after his death to Americans, starting with Albert Barnes in 1923.
In July 1916, only three works were among the 166 exhibited by André Salmon in the private mansion of the great couturier Paul Poiret on Avenue d”Antin. It is rather in December, during an exhibition in the studio of the Swiss painter Emile Lejeune on rue Huyghens, that Léopold Zborowski discovers the paintings of Modigliani against a background of music by Erik Satie: it seems to him to be worth twice Picasso. The Polish poet and art dealer became not only a fervent admirer but also a faithful and understanding friend of the painter, and his wife Anna (Hanka) one of his favorite models. They will support him until the end in the measure of their means: daily allowance of 15 francs (about 20 euros), hotel expenses, plus the freedom to paint every afternoon at their home, 3 rue Joseph-Bara. Modigliani recommended Chaïm Soutine to them, whom they agreed to take care of out of friendship, even though they did not appreciate his manners or his painting.
Too independent and proud to be a worldly portraitist like Kees van Dongen or Giovanni Boldini, Amedeo conceived the act of painting as an emotional exchange with the sitter: his portraits retrace the history of his friendships. Françoise Cachin judges those of the “Hastings period” to be of great psychological accuracy. Painted until 1919 in unguarded poses, they feed the public”s fantasies of a libertine Modigliani.
On December 3, 1917, at the Berthe Weill gallery on rue Taitbout, the opening of what would remain her only solo exhibition of some thirty works took place. Two female nudes in the window immediately provoked a scandal reminiscent of that of Édouard Manet”s Olympia: holding an idealized representation, the local police commissioner ordered Berthe Weill to remove five nudes on the grounds that their pubic hair was an affront to public decency, which may come as a surprise half a century after Gustave Courbet”s L”Origine du Monde. Threatened with closure, she complied, compensating Zborowski for five paintings. This fiasco – two drawings sold for 30 francs – actually brought publicity to the painter, attracting in particular those who did not have, not yet, the means to afford an impressionist or cubist painting: Jonas Netter had been interested in Modigliani since 1915, but the journalist Francis Carco saluted his audacity and bought several nudes from him, the critic Gustave Coquiot also, and the collector Roger Dutilleul commissioned his portrait.
Modigliani lived the last three years of his life with Jeanne Hébuterne in whom he may have seen his last chance for fulfillment.
If it is possible that he had already met her at the end of December 1916, it was in February 1917, perhaps during the carnival, that Modigliani seems to have fallen in love with this 19-year-old student of the Colarossi Academy, who was already asserting herself in a painting inspired by Fauvism. She herself marveled at the fact that this painter, 14 years her senior, courted her and was interested in what she was doing.
Her parents, petty-bourgeois Catholics supported by her brother, a watercolorist of landscapes, radically oppose this affair of their daughter with a failed artist, poor, foreign and sulphurous. She nevertheless braved her father to follow Amedeo into his hovel and then settle down with him permanently in July 1917: convinced, like others, that she would be able to pull her friend out of his suicidal spiral, Zborowski provided them with a studio on rue de la Grande-Chaumière.
Small, with chestnut-red hair and a very pale complexion that earned her the nickname of “Coconut”, Jeanne had clear eyes, a swan”s neck, and the appearance of an Italian Madonna or pre-Raphaelite: she surely symbolized for Modigliani luminous grace, pure beauty. All their close relations remember her frightened reserve and her extreme softness almost depressive. Of his lover, physically worn, mentally degraded, more and more unpredictable, she supports everything: because if he “can be the most horribly violent of the men, is also the most tender and the most torn”. He cherishes her like no other before and, not without machismo, respects her as a wife, treats her with respect when they dine out but then sends her away, explaining to Anselmo Bucci: “The two of us go to the café. My wife goes home. The Italian way. As we do at home.” He never represented her naked but left 25 portraits of her, among the most beautiful of his work.
Apart from the Zborowski couple, the young woman is almost the only support of Modigliani during these years of torment against the background of the war that drags on. Plagued by illness, alcohol – one glass is enough for him to be drunk -, money worries and the bitterness of not being recognized, he shows signs of imbalance, entering, for example, into mad angers if someone disturbs him while he is working. It is not excluded that the painter suffered from schizophrenic disorders hitherto masked by his intelligence and his straightforwardness: would go in this direction his sickly tendency to introspection, the incoherence of some of his letters, maladjusted behaviors, a loss of contact with reality which makes him refuse any food work, thus when he is offered a job as an illustrator for the satirical newspaper L”Assiette au beurre.
Jeanne and Amedeo seemed to live without storms: after the disorders of wandering and his affair with Beatrice Hastings, the artist found a semblance of rest with his new companion, and “his painting is illuminated with new tones. He was nevertheless very disturbed when she became pregnant in March 1918.
Faced with rationing and bombing, Zborowski decided in April to take a trip to the Côte d”Azur, to which Modigliani agreed because his cough and continuous fevers were alarming. Hanka, Soutine, Foujita and his companion Fernande Barrey are on the trip, as well as Jeanne and her mother. In constant conflict with his mother, Amedeo hung out in the bistros of Nice and stayed in a hotel where he had prostitutes pose.
In Cagnes-sur-Mer, while Zborowski was scouring the chic places of the region to place the paintings of his protégés, the painter, always tipsy and noisy, was gradually chased away from everywhere and put up with Leopold Survage. He then spent a few months at the home of the painter Allan Österlind and his son Anders, whose property adjoined that of Auguste Renoir, their long-time friend to whom Anders introduced Modigliani. But the visit turned out badly: the old master having confided in him that he liked to caress his paintings for a long time like a woman”s buttocks, the Italian slammed the door, replying that he did not like buttocks.
In July, everyone returned to Paris except Amedeo, Jeanne and her mother. They celebrated the 1918 armistice in Nice and then, on November 29, the birth of little Jeanne, Giovanna to her father, but he forgot to declare her to the town hall. A Calabrian nanny took care of her, as her young mother and grandmother were unable to do so. After the first euphoria, Modigliani returned to anguish, drinking and incessant demands for money from Zborowski. On May 31, 1919, leaving behind his baby, his companion and his mother-in-law, he joyfully returned to the air and freedom of Paris.
The artist would have needed a tranquility free of material uncertainties, but nevertheless worked hard during this year in the South, which reminded him of Italy. He tried his hand at landscapes and painted a lot of portraits: some maternities, many children, people of all conditions. The soothing presence of Jeanne favored his production overall: his large nudes attest to this, and if the portraits of the “Hébuterne period” are sometimes judged less artistically rich than those of the “Hastings period”, the emotion that emerges from them.
The year 1919 is for the artist the year of the beginning of his notoriety and the irreversible decline of his health.
Full of energy in the spring of 1919, Modigliani did not take long to fall back into his drunken excesses. Jeanne who joined him at the end of June was pregnant again: he committed himself in writing to marry her as soon as he had the necessary papers. Lunia Czechowska, a model and still a friend, takes care of their little girl at the Zborowskis” home before she leaves for a nurse near Versailles. Sometimes Amedeo, drunk, rang the doorbell in the middle of the night to ask about her: Lunia did not usually open the door. As for Jeanne, exhausted by her pregnancy, she went out little but always painted.
Zborowski sells 10 paintings by Modigliani for 500 francs each to a collector in Marseille, then negotiates his participation in the exhibition “Modern French Art – 1914-1919″ held in London from August 9 to September 6. Organized by the poets Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell in the Mansard Gallery, under the roof of the department store Heal & Son”s. The Italian was the most represented, with 59 works that were such a critical and public success that his dealers, learning that he had suffered a serious illness, assumed a rise in prices if he died and considered suspending the sales. Before that, Modigliani would have sold more if he hadn”t been so shady, refusing to be paid twice as much for a drawing as he asked, but capable of telling a stingy dealer to “wipe his ass” with it, or of disfiguring with enormous letters the one that an American wanted to see signed.
He worked a lot, painting portraits and once painting himself – his Self-portrait as a Pierrot of 1915 was only a small oil on cardboard: he represented himself with his palette in hand, his eyes half closed, looking tired but rather serene or turned towards his ideal.
He surely sensed his end: pale, emaciated, with sunken eyes and coughing blood, he suffered from nephritis and sometimes spoke of returning to his mother”s house with his daughter. Blaise Cendrars met him one day: “He was a shadow of his former self. And he didn”t have a penny. Of a growing irascibility even with Jeanne, the painter hardly mentions his tuberculosis and stubbornly refuses to treat himself, so when Zborowski wants to send him to Switzerland. “In the end, declared the sculptor Léon Indenbaum, Modigliani committed suicide”, what Jacques Lipchitz had tried to make him hear. The daughter of the painter estimates however that his hope to heal, to start again, disputed it to his distress: in his last letter to Eugenie, in December, he planned a stay in Livorno.
His tubercular meningitis had worsened considerably since November, but this did not prevent him from wandering around at night, drunk and quarrelsome. On January 22, 1920, after four days in bed, Moses Kisling and Manuel Ortiz de Zárate found him passed out in his fireless studio, littered with empty bottles and sardine cans. Hospitalised urgently at the Charité hospital, he died the following day at 8.45 pm, without suffering or consciousness because he had been put to sleep by injection. After an unsuccessful attempt by Kisling, Lipchitz made his death mask in bronze.
Constantly surrounded, Jeanne slept at the hotel then meditated for a long time on the body. Returned to her parents” home, on Amyot Street, she was watched over the following night by her brother, but at dawn, as he had fallen asleep, she threw herself out of the 5th floor window. Loaded onto a wheelbarrow by a worker, her body made an incredible journey before being arranged by a nurse on rue de la Grande-Chaumière: her shocked family did not open their door and the concierge only agreed to the body being deposited in the workshop, of which Jeanne was not the tenant, on the orders of the district commissioner. Not wanting to see anyone, her parents set the morning of January 28 for her burial in a suburban cemetery: Zborowski, Kisling, Salmon got wind of it and attended with their wives, thanks to Modigliani”s older brother and friends, notably Fernand Léger”s wife, Achille Hébuterne agreed that his daughter would be laid to rest next to her companion in the Père-Lachaise cemetery.
The painter”s funeral had another dimension. Kisling improvised a collection, as the Modigliani family had not been able to obtain passports in time, but he asked them not to look at the expense: on January 27, a thousand people, friends, acquaintances, models, artists or not, followed the flowery hearse pulled by four horses in an impressive silence.
The same day, the gallery Devambez exposes place Saint-Augustin a score of paintings of Modigliani: “The success and the celebrity, which had been made desire of his life, were thereafter never denied”.
Even more than his sculptures, it is difficult to date Modigliani”s pictorial works with precision: many of them have been post-dated, their value rising accordingly, which has lent credence to the idea of a total break from 1910 to 1914. In view of the paintings that Dr. Paul Alexandre had kept hidden for a long time, the painter”s daughter judged arbitrary the periodization often admitted (undecided resumption of painting; affirmation of the last years) because the manner of the end would already appear in certain works of the beginning. In any case, the critics agree with his analysis, shared by the writer Claude Roy: Modigliani”s torments, often put forward, did not affect his work nor his impulse towards an ideal purity, and his art, more and more accomplished, evolved in the opposite direction of his existence. It was his experience in sculpture that allowed him to develop his means of expression in painting. Focusing resolutely on the representation of the human figure “was to lead him to develop his poetic vision but also to distance him from his contemporaries and to make him worthwhile”.
In his global approach to art and from multiple sources, sculpture represented much more than an experimental parenthesis for Modigliani.
If his constant travels hinder their dating, the artist willingly showed his sculptures, even in photographs: but he did not explain himself about them any more than about his paintings. When he moved there, Paris was discovering cubism and primitive arts, from Africa or elsewhere. Thus L”Idole, which he exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1908, seems to be influenced by Picasso as well as by traditional African art. He essentially produced heads of women, more or less of the same size, 58 cm high, 12 wide and 16 deep for the one in the National Museum of Modern Art for example.
According to Max Jacob, Modigliani geometrized faces through cabalistic games with numbers. His sculpted heads are recognizable by their extreme sobriety and stylization, reflecting his quest for a purified art and his awareness that his ideal of “archetypal beauty” requires a reductive treatment of the model that may recall the works of Constantin Brâncuși, neck and face elongated to the point of deformation, lanceolate nose, eyes reduced to their contours, eyelids lowered like Buddhas.
“Modigliani is a kind of Negro Boticelli”, summarized Adolphe Basler. Characteristics such as the almond-shaped eyes, the arched eyebrows, the long nasal bridge would belong to the art of the Baoule of the Ivory Coast, Modigliani having had access to the collection of Paul Alexandre, as proven by certain preparatory drawings. Simplified fetishes from Gabon or the Congo seen at Frank Burty Haviland, archaic Greek, Egyptian or Khmer sculpture from the Louvre museum, memories of Byzantine icons and Sienna artists: so many models of which he mastered the mixture to the point that no primacy stands out.
Jacques Lipchitz denied the influence on his friend of the first arts but the majority of the critics admitted it. Alone with some other sculptors to still refer to it after Picasso, Modigliani would have drawn from it above all, as Henri Matisse, a dynamics of the lines thinks that he integrated graphic and plastic elements of the African and Oceanic statuaries because they were for him not “revealing instinct and unconscious, as for Picasso, but examples of an elegant and decorative solution to realistic problems speaks of a kind of paraphrase of the “primitive” sculpture without formal borrowings nor even real proximity with the “negro art”.
The kinship of these works, in which sharp lines and ample volumes are balanced, with Brâncuși”s curvilinear stripping seems obvious to Fiorella Nicosia. Their research followed parallel paths, but they diverged around 1912 in that Brâncuși challenged the sculptural illusion with a smoothing of the figures that made them almost abstract, while her emulator swore by raw stone. For Jeanne Modigliani, the Romanian will have especially pushed her to the body to body with the material. “The sculpture became very sick with Rodin, explained Modigliani to Lipchitz. There was too much modeling in clay, too much “gadoue”. The only way to save sculpture was to start cutting directly from stone again.”
Modigliani would be closer to André Derain, who also sculpted female figures and verbalized the conviction that many others shared: “The human figure occupies the highest rank in the hierarchy of created forms. He seeks to find the soul through these anonymous and inexpressive heads, and their elongation is not a gratuitous artifice but the sign of an interior life, of a spirituality. For him, modernity consists of “fighting against an invading machinismo by the use of raw and archaic forms” from other cultures. He is fascinated by these forms of the past that he finds harmonious, and his stone statues can make think of the sonnet of Baudelaire Beauty. Sort of “funerary steles almost devoid of a third dimension, similar to archaic idols, they embody an ideal of abstract beauty”.
For Modigliani, who did not want to “do real” but “do plastic”, sculpture was a crucial step: freeing him from the conventions of the realist tradition, it helped him to open up to contemporary currents without following the avant-garde. This part of his artistic production is nevertheless neglected by the critics because few works have been realized or found.
The plastic practice of Modigliani directed the evolution of his painting towards the reduction even a form of abstraction. Even if line and surface often overshadowed depth, his portraits and nudes, painted or drawn quickly, seemed like “sculptures on canvas”, which he did not hesitate to destroy if he was disappointed or felt that he had passed this artistic stage. Well-defined surfaces, faces and bodies with stretched forms, sharp features, eyes often empty or asymmetrical: Modigliani invented his pictorial style, linear and curvilinear, dedicated to inscribe in the timelessness the human figure that fascinates him.
Modigliani constantly practiced drawing, which allowed him to transcribe his intimate emotions, and his maturity manifested itself very early by a great economy of means.
A charcoal portrait of the son of the painter Micheli illustrates as early as 1899 the benefits that Amadeo derived from his apprenticeship in Livorno. But it is especially from 1906 and his passage at the Colarossi academy, where he took nude classes as well as at the Ranson academy, that he acquired a quick, precise and efficient pencil stroke: numerous drawings, spontaneous and lively, attest to his relative assiduity on the rue de la Grande-Chaumière, where the “quarter-hour nudes” were practiced.
During his first years in Paris, it was through drawing that Modigliani intended to find his artistic truth, trying to capture in a few strokes the essence of a character, an expression, an attitude. Concerning his “drinking drawings”, many testimonies agree on his way of melting on his model, friend or stranger, then of fixing it with a hypnotic glance while pencilling with a mixture of casualness and feverishness, before exchanging for a glass the work carelessly signed.
He used simple pencils, graphite or blue lead, sometimes pastel or Indian ink, and bought his paper from a dealer in Montmartre and another in Montparnasse. 50 to 100 sheets of mediocre quality and low grammage were sewn into notebooks of classic formats – pocket, 20 × 30 cm or 43 × 26 cm – with perforations allowing them to be detached. About 1,300 drawings escaped the artist”s destructive frenzy.
The former are still felt from his academic training: proportions, ronde-bosse, chiaroscuro. He moved away from them when he discovered primitive art, concentrating on the lines of force through contact with Constantin Brâncuși, and further purifying them past his “sculpture” period. He really flourishes in this activity, achieving great variety despite regularly frontal poses.
Modigliani obtains his curves through a series of tiny tangents suggesting depth. His drawings of caryatids, as if geometrized with a compass, are curvilinear and two-dimensional, which differentiates them once painted from the Cubist works, which their sober coloring could bring them closer to. Between pure graphism and potential sculptural sketch, certain dotted lines or lines that are not very strong evoke the poncification in painting.
The portraits are also stylized: a quick outline reduces the face to a few elements, then animated by small representative details or signs apparently gratuitous but balancing the whole. As for the nudes, if the first ones take after the stage artists of Toulouse-Lautrec, they are later either sketched with large lines as if the painter was noting his impressions, or methodically drawn: “He began by drawing from a model on thin paper,” reports Ludwig Meidner, “but before the drawing was finished, he would slip a new blank sheet of paper underneath with carbon paper in between and go back over the original drawing, simplifying it considerably.
Like “signs” whose safety already made the admiration of Gustave Coquiot, the drawings of Modigliani are in fact more complex than they appear and could be compared for their decorative dimension to the compositions of the Japanese masters of the ukiyo-e as Hokusai: Claude Roy places them to this title in the first rank of the history of the art. “Recognizable among all the other forms of non-academic experiences”, the stroke of Modigliani marks his deep commitment and his intuitive meeting with the model.
If Modigliani did not reveal much about his technique and suppressed many preparatory studies, his models or friends have testified to his way of working.
Here again, he distinguished himself by his speed of execution: five or six hours for a portrait, in a single session, two to three times more for the large nudes. The posture is agreed upon at the same time as the price with the model-sponsor: 10 francs and alcohol for Lipchitz and his wife, for example. The staging remains basic – chair, table corner, doorframe, couch -, the interiors being for the painter only a background. He sets up a chair for himself, another for the canvas, observes his subject for a long time, sketches it out, and then begins to work in silence, interrupting himself only to stand back and take a sip from the bottle, or else speaking in Italian, so absorbed is he. He works in one go, without repentance, like a man possessed, but “with a certainty and absolute mastery in the conception of the form”. Picasso admired the very organized side of his paintings.
By his own admission, Modigliani never resumed a portrait: thus, Leopold Survage”s wife had to go to bed during a pose, so he started a new one. On the other hand, he could paint from memory: in 1913 he left a portrait that he had done of himself at Paul Alexandre”s house without seeing him.
If he happens to reuse some, Modigliani generally buys raw canvases in linen or cotton, of more or less tight weft and that he prepares to the white of lead, titanium or zinc – this one mixed with glue for a support in cardboard. He then silhouettes his figure in very sure arabesques almost always “burnt sienna”. This outline, visible on the X-ray and refined over the years, is covered by paint and then partially ironed in dark strokes perhaps inspired by Picasso.
Modigliani abandons the palette in favor of colors pressed from the tube onto the support – five tubes maximum per painting, always new. His range is reduced: cadmium or chrome yellow, chrome green, ochres, vermilion, Prussian blue. Pure or mixed, spread with linseed oil, they will be more or less diluted with driers according to the time he has.
From a rather thick paste in his early work, laid down in simplified flat tints and occasionally worked with a brush handle, the artist has moved on to lighter textures, sometimes scratching the surface with a hard brush to discover the underlying layers or revealing the white and roughness of the canvas. At the same time as the material became lighter and the palette brighter, the brushstroke became freer, seemingly fluid: original, it crushed into a rounded shape while the subtle modeling was not obtained by impasto but by juxtaposing strokes of different values, leading “to a smooth, flat image, but animated and quivering.
After having transposed on the canvas the hieratic aspect of his stone works, Modigliani creates portraits and nudes, which in spite of a certain geometric formalism until 1916, are not cubist because never decomposed in facets. “His long search was accomplished by transposing onto the canvas the experience he had acquired through sculpture,” which helped him finally resolve “his line-volume dilemma”: he drew a curve until it met another that served as both contrast and support, and juxtaposed them with static or straight elements. He simplifies, rounds, grafts spheres onto cylinders, and inserts planes: but far from a simple formal exercise, the technical means of the abstract artist are intended to meet the living subject.
Modigliani left some 200 portraits emblematic of his art, “sometimes ”sculptural”, sometimes linear and graphic”, and whose manner followed his frantic quest for the “absolute portrait”.
Modigliani opened himself, but in all freedom, to various influences.
His portraits can be divided into two groups: friends or acquaintances of the painter dominate before and during the war, offering a sort of chronicle of the artistic milieu of Montmartre and Montparnasse; anonymous people (children, young people, servants, peasants) will be more frequent thereafter – and more sought after after his death. A “fiery search for expression” marked his early works (The Jewess, The Amazon, Diego Rivera). Modigliani”s ability to capture certain social or psychological facets of the model without concession was evident from the beginning, but paradoxically did not help to make him the portraitist of the Parisian elite.
His later works, where the line becomes simpler, are already less concerned with translating the character of the person than with details of his physiognomy. As for the subjects of the last period, they are no longer individualities but the incarnations of a type, even archetypes: “the young peasant”, “the zouave”, “the beautiful druggist”, “the little maid”, “the timid mother”, etc. This evolution culminates in the portraits of Jeanne Hébuterne, an icon stripped of all psychology, outside of time and space.
The first manner of Modigliani owes to Cézanne by the choice of the subjects and especially the composition, even if it seems at that time, following the example of a Gauguin, to construct his canvases more by the color than by “the cone, the cylinder and the sphere” dear to the master of Aix. Exhibited in 1910, The Jewess, The Cellist or The Beggar of Livorno keep traces of this “brushstroke with constructive colors” also reconcilable with the memory of Macchiaioli. The Cellist, in particular, can evoke The Boy in the Red Waistcoat and appear as the portrait of Modigliani that is both the most Cézanne-like and the first to bear his mark.
Those of Dr. Paul Alexandre done in 1909, 1911 and 1913 show that if he integrated Cézanne”s “chromatic and volumetric principles”, it was to better assert his own linear style, all in geometry and elongation: If in Paul Alexandre sur fond vert the color is responsible for raising volumes and perspectives, in the following the line is accentuated and the face stretched; the second is already more stripped but in Paul Alexandre in front of a window, the modeling is blurred and the forms are synthesized to go to the essence.
When he arrived in Paris, he also explored an expressiveness close to Fauvism, but in grey-green dominants and without really “fauvising”. There is nothing really cubist in his work either, except for the thick, reductive line and “a certain geometric rigor that is rather superficial, in the structure of some of his paintings and especially in the segmentation of the backgrounds”. It was the experience of sculpture that allowed him to find himself, through an exercise of the line that took him away from traditional proportions and led him towards an increasing stylization, noticeable for example in the portrait of the actor Gaston Modot.
If the first ambition of Modigliani was to be a great syncretic sculptor, then his portraits constitute “a kind of successful failure”. All in all, combined as much with the classical heritage as with the reductionism suggested by the “Negro art”, certain components of his portraits refer without losing their originality to the ancient statuary (almond-shaped eyes, empty orbits), to the mannerism of the Renaissance (elongation of the necks, faces, busts and bodies), or to the art of the icons (frontality, neutral frame).
The apparent simplicity of the style of Modigliani results from a whole reflection.
The surface of the painting is organized by the line according to large curves and counter-curves that are balanced around an axis of symmetry slightly offset from that of the canvas, to counteract the impression of immobility. The succinct planes and lines of the environment match those of the character while an accentuated color adjoins a neutral zone. Modigliani does not renounce depth because his curves occupy several superimposed planes, but the eye constantly hesitates between the perception of a flat silhouette and its physical thickness. The importance that the painter grants to the line distinguishes him in any case from the majority of his contemporaries.
The “deformations” – rather short torso, falling shoulders, hands, neck and head very elongated, this one small around the bridge of the nose, strange look – can go, without falling in the caricature that consume the rupture with the realism while conferring to the subject a fragile grace. Never in particular “the art of Modigliani was more clearly defined by the substitution of affective proportions to the academic proportions that in the twenty paintings dedicated to celebrate Jeanne Hébuterne”.
Beyond a family resemblance, his portraits offer great diversity despite the repression of narrative or anecdotal elements, very similar frontal poses. The character of the model determines the choice of graphic expression. For example, Modigliani painted Léopold Zborowski, Jean Cocteau and Jeanne Hébuterne at the same time: the dominant geometric element seems to be the circle for the first, the acute angle for the second, the oval for the third. More than in the portraits of men, often more rectilinear, the taste of the painter for the arabesques blooms in the portraits of women, whose distanced sensuality finds its apogee with those of Jeanne voluntarily dampened.
Faces more and more depersonalized, masks, introverted figures reflecting a kind of quietude: all would embody a form of duration. Of their almond-shaped eyes, often asymmetrical, without pupils or even blind – as is sometimes the case with Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse or Kirchner – the artist declared: “Cézanne”s figures do not have a look, like the most beautiful ancient statues. Mine, on the other hand, do. They see, even when the pupils are not drawn; but as with Cézanne, they want to express nothing more than a silent yes to life. “With one you look at the world and with the other you look into yourself,” he also replied to Leopold Survage who asked him why he always represented him with one eye closed.
“Modigliani, said Jean Cocteau, doesn”t stretch the faces, doesn”t accuse their asymmetry, doesn”t crush an eye, doesn”t lengthen a neck. He brought us all back to his style, to a type that he carried in and, usually, he looked for faces that resembled this configuration.” Whether the portraits represent humiliated beings or women of the world, it is for the painter to affirm through them his identity as an artist, to “make the truth of nature and style coincide: the obsessive and the eternal,” something essential to the subject as to the painting itself. His portraits are “at the same time realistic, in that they restore us the model in a deep truth, and completely unrealistic in that they are no more than pictorial signs assembled”.
“The model had the impression of having his soul bared and was in the curious impossibility of hiding his own feelings”, testifies Lunia Czechowska. Perhaps the empathy of Modigliani and his interest in psychology are however to be relativized: the physiognomy of the model, moreover always “resembling”, was more important to him than his personality. The strangeness of the gaze also prevents contact with the subject, and the eye of the spectator is brought back to the form.
Apart from the caryatids, Modigliani”s nudes, a fifth of his paintings concentrated around the year 1917, are of great qualitative importance, translating like his portraits his interest for the human figure.
A Suffering Nude from 1908, whose expressionistic leanness recalls Edvard Munch, and the Seated Nude painted on the back of a portrait from 1909 prove that Modigliani quickly freed himself from the academic canons: his nudes will never correspond to their proportions nor to their postures or movements. The poses of the models of the Colarossi academy were more free than in a classical art school, like those he developed later with his own models. After the geometrical caryatids of the sculpture years, he rediscovers the living model. His production resumed around 1916 and peaked the following year before declining. The last ones are willingly presented standing and facing, joining the anonymous ones plunged in the contemplation of their existence.
For Modigliani “paints nudes that are still portraits and to the poses more expressive although not without modesty. If he does not try like his contemporaries to reproduce life and naturalness, his characters are well individualized. Otherwise, the same lack of staging as in the portraits, the same sparing use of color, the same tendency to stylization by means of an elegant line. In the reclining nudes, from the front or from the side, curves and counter-curves are balanced around an oblique axis and the space of the canvas, in its large format, is invaded by the body. Surrounded by black or bistre, the flesh has this particular apricot complexion common to certain portraits, warm and luminous, made of a mixture of orange, vermilion and two or three yellows. Modulating these constants, it is still the character of the model that determines his attitude as well as the stylistic choices.
The majority of critics recognize in his nudes “a voluptuous intensity”, a rare sensuality without morbidity or perversity. The scandal of 1917 at Berthe Weill”s house earned the artist a lasting reputation as a “painter of the nude”, at worst obscene because he suggested an eroticism without guilt through a frank and natural nudity, at best delightful because his sinuous curves seemed to express or imply carnal passion. However, his paintings never evoke his personal links with his models: they remain above all “a hymn to the beauty of the female body and even to beauty itself”.
As distant from the sensuality of a Renoir as from an idealization in the manner of Ingres, Modigliani revives a conception of the nude that precedes academicism and is situated in this tradition where it is a question, from Cranach to Picasso, passing by Giorgione or Titian, of “expressing a maximum of beauty and harmony with a minimum of lines and curves”. This is the case with the standing Elvira dated 1918, whose body does not know whether it absorbs or radiates light: this nude reminds us of the great masters and the painter seems to have synthesized the features of his own style.
According to Doris Krystof, the nude genre was for him a pretext to invent an ideal, in his utopian quest – like that of the symbolists and the Pre-Raphaelites – for timeless harmony, taking on a sculptural aspect even when they look mutinous, these stylized young women appear to be “modern Venusian figures. The painter projects an aesthetic pleasure, an almost mystical adoration of women, but always reflective and detached.
Modigliani, who left no still life, painted only four landscapes in his maturity.
From the time when he trained with Guglielmo Micheli, there remains a small oil on cardboard around 1898 entitled La Stradina (the little road): this corner of the countryside is marked by an already Cézanne-like rendition of the luminosity and delicate colors of a late winter day. Yet “Amedeo hated painting landscapes,” says Renato Natali. Several of his studio mates remember the painting sessions on the outskirts of Livorno, and his attempts at divisionism: he nevertheless destroyed these early works.
This genre of figurative art does not suit his tormented temperament”, he proclaimed in Paris during lively discussions, with Diego Rivera for example. In painting, the landscape has no more interest for him than still life: he finds them anecdotal, lifeless, needs to feel a human being vibrate in front of him, to enter into a relationship with the model.
During his stay in 1918-1919, the light of the South of France, brightening and warming up his palette, would have overcome his prejudices: he wrote to Zborovski that he was preparing to paint landscapes, which might seem a little “novice” at first. The four views finally painted in Provence are, on the contrary, “perfectly constructed, pure and geometrical”, reminiscent of Paul Cézanne”s compositions and even of André Derain”s more animated ones. They nevertheless appear as “an accident of his work” which is not modified in any way.
Fortune of the work
“Little by little these ideal forms appeared that make us recognize immediately a Modigliani”: this subjective creation, unclassifiable within the modern art, remains almost without influence nor descent.
Modigliani”s painting is less related to his time than to his own psychology: “In this sense, Modigliani is against the current of the great movements of modern art.
He knows basically only one theme: the human. It has been said that in most of his nudes he was less interested in bodies than in faces, and that his art would ultimately be a long meditation on the human face. That of his models becomes the mask of their soul, “that the artist discovers and reveals, by a line, a gesture, a color”. Pursuing in an obsessive way his aesthetic search without never dissociating it from that of the mystery of the being, he dreamed, according to Franco Russoli, to unite following the example of the mannerists “the incorruptible and beautiful form to the humiliated and corrupted figure of the modern man”.
“What I seek is not the real, nor the unreal, but the Unconscious, the mystery of the Instinctivity of the Race”, he noted in 1907 in a rather obscure way, undoubtedly under the influence of his readings of Nietzsche or Bergson and on the background of nascent psychoanalysis: to a rationalist vision of life, he opposed, according to Doris Krystof, a kind of vitalism, the idea that the self can accomplish itself in a creative expectation that expects nothing from the outside, which is evoked by the attitude of his characters entirely with themselves.
He was not an autodidact, but he did not graduate from any academy, and he did not belong to any movement or to anyone, his independence in this field bordering on distrust. At the end of his brief career, he was not unknown or even underestimated, but perceived as “shy”: he pleased his contemporaries, who recognized his talent, but did not understand his originality or consider him a leading painter. Seeking a personal mode of expression without really breaking with tradition, he was qualified as a “classical modern” and was later attached to the informal grouping of artists called the School of Paris.
“A gift: from some to many: from those who know and possess to those who don”t know nor possess”: what Modigliani wrote about life, perhaps he thought it of his art. Working in an intuitive way, he was aware of his contribution to the evolution of forms without theorizing it. His portraits in particular, at a time when this pictorial genre was in crisis, made him part of art history. His painting, however, “forming a whole and closed on itself, could not make him a leader. His increasingly strong work, completed in spite of everything, made him one of the masters of his time but had no influence on his contemporaries or his successors, except for a few portraits by André Derain or sculptures by Henri Laurens.
In a dozen years, Modigliani created a rich, multiple, unique work “and it is there his greatness”.
If the first connoisseurs to admire him (Salmon, Apollinaire, Carco, Cendrars) praised the plasticity of his line, the coherence of his constructions, the sobriety of his unconventional style or the sensuality of his nudes avoiding any unbridled eroticism, the writer and art critic John Berger attributed the lukewarmness of certain other judgments to the tenderness with which he seems to have surrounded his models and to the elegant and resigned image of the man that his portraits reflect. Nevertheless, from the beginning of the 1920s, the public was sensitive to Modigliani”s art and his reputation spread beyond France, particularly in the United States thanks to the collector Albert Barnes.
It is not the same in Italy. The Venice Biennale of 1922 showed only twelve of his works and the critics were very disappointed by these images distorted as if in a convex mirror, a kind of “artistic regression” that did not even have the “audacity of shamelessness”. At the 1930 Biennale, the artist was celebrated but, in the cultural context of Fascist Italy, it was for his “Italianness”, as heir of the great national tradition of the Trecento and the Renaissance: his teaching, said the sculptor and art critic Antonio Maraini, supporter of the regime, was to show others how “to be both ancient and modern, that is to say, eternal; and eternally Italian.
It was not until the Basel exhibition in 1934 and especially in the 1950s that his singularity was fully recognized, in Italy as elsewhere. During his lifetime, his paintings sold for an average of between 5 and 100 francs: in 1924, his brother, a political refugee in Paris, noted that they had become unaffordable, with some portraits reaching 35,000 francs (about 45,000 euros) two years later.
The painter”s value continued to rise at the end of the century and exploded at the beginning of the next. In 2010, at Sotheby”s in New York, the Nude seated on a couch (La belle Romaine) was sold for nearly $69 million and five years later, at an auction at Christie”s – where a sculpture by Modigliani had been sold shortly before for $70 million – the Chinese billionaire Liu Liqian acquired the large Reclining Nude for the record sum of $170 million, or 158 million euros.
Modigliani”s death had led to a proliferation of forgeries that complicated the authentication of his works. There were no less than five attempts at a catalog raisonné between 1955 and 1990, with Ambrogio Ceroni”s catalogue, published in 1970, being a worldwide reference. As it no longer seemed up to date, Marc Restellini undertook one in 1997 with Daniel Wildenstein, still awaited a quarter of a century later. This has not prevented research into Modigliani”s production and aesthetics from advancing at the same time.
Often still his unhappy life occults or is supposed to explain his creation, whereas this one is far from being tormented, pessimistic or desperate. What Modigliani”s work has “inimitable is not sentimentality, but emotion,” estimated Françoise Cachin: long neglected by an art history focused on the most revolutionary trends and the explosion of abstract art, this figurative work centered on the human, all in restraint and interiority, has made its author one of the most popular artists of the twentieth century.
Selective bibliography in French
: document used as a source for the writing of this article.