Issue Number: 91
Amedeo Modigliani’s sensuous nudes and portraits are as captivating as the artist’s legendary life story, argues Kenneth Wayne
Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920) has a reputation as a tragic figure: a handsome womaniser who was consumed by alcohol and drugs, and who died young, poor, and relatively unknown. But legends sometimes lie. From the evidence available, Modigliani appears to have been a serious and ambitious artist who, although he only had one solo show in his lifetime, exhibited widely in group shows, was supported by at least two loyal dealers in Paris, was recognised by his peers and enjoyed moderate success. His bourgeois Italian Jewish background meant he was both an insider and an outsider. It gave him cultural references spanning the history of art, literature and religion that made him a model citizen of Montparnasse – the avant-garde Paris enclave that artist Marcel Duchamp called ‘the first really international group of artists that we ever had.’
Amedeo Modigliani, Reclining Nude, c. 1919.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, this square mile of the Left Bank seemed magically to transform the creative people who lived there, inspiring them to make work that extended beyond boundaries. Artists such as Constantin Brancusi, Jacques Lipchitz and Piet Mondrian saw their style mature quickly and inevitably towards Modernism . One could state, only partly in jest, that the address of a given artist indicated the level of modernity contained in his or her work: the closer to the Café du Dome in the centre of Montparnasse, the more modern the work. Modigliani lived in the heart of it, moving there from Montmartre in 1908–9, after arriving in Paris from Italy in 1906. He became closely identified with this area for the rest of his life.
Born in the melting pot city of Livorno in Tuscany, which, as an international trading port, included communities of Englishmen, Greeks, Moroccans and Jews, Modigliani was cosmopolitan to the core. His once wealthy Sephardic Jewish family claimed descent from the philosopher Spinoza and played a prominent role in public life. His father had been a business man, his brother was a socialist MP who later fell foul of Mussolini, and a cousin was a director of the Brera Gallery in Milan. His French-born mother raised him to be trilingual and nurtured his early love of art. When he suffered from tuberculosis in his teens, she took him on a Grand Tour of southern Italy to recuperate, visiting the famous sights of Naples, Rome and Florence where he gained his first appreciation of the great art of the Italian Renaissance, especially that of his fellow Tuscans, Giotto and Botticelli.
Livorno had been a renowned centre for Jews ever since the Medici had invited them to live there and gave them equal rights with other citizens so that they would contribute to its international commercial activity. Unlike other cities in Italy and Europe, Livorno did not have a ghetto and before World War Two, it contained the second largest community of Jews in Italy after Rome, and the second largest synagogue in Europe after the one in Amsterdam.
Modigliani’s Jewish heritage was very important to him personally and artistically. He referred to himself as a Jewish artist according to both his first patron Paul Alexandre and his dealer Paul Guillaume. But what does this mean? First, it seems to have meant to him that it was possible to be both a Jew and an artist. There had not been many Jewish artists both because of the Old Testament edict against making graven images and the anti-Semitism which had kept Jews out of academies and guilds in Europe for centuries. Camille Pissarro was the only famous Jewish artist to precede him. Modigliani’s dedication to his Jewish heritage was evident in his art, and, among other things, he drew mystical Jewish symbols on his drawings.
Modigliani portrayed a large number of Jews in his works and their names, written directly on the canvas, would have made them instantly recognisable as Jews: Adolphe Basler, Leon Indenbaum and Moise Kisling. He also wrote the names of non-Jewish sitters on the canvas, famously Picasso and Guillaume. It is as if he wanted to say they were all equal in the eyes of art and to celebrate the Jewish community in Paris and their contribution to contemporary culture. His self-confidence might have been a result of his upbringing as both a practising Jew and prominent member of society – he saw no reason to hide who he was. It might also have been a reaction to his first encounters with anti-Semitism in Paris and a gesture of solidarity with Jewish émigrés from Eastern Europe, such as artists Chaim Soutine and Jacques Lipchitz.
Upon arriving in Paris, Modigliani visited the museums and galleries there, voraciously absorbing inspiration from ever more wide-ranging sources: African, Cycladic, Oceanic, and Gothic art, not to mention Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Cubism and Fauvism. African elements can be discerned in his portraits’ elongated faces and noses, angular forms, as well as their empty eyes, which one finds in African masks. This non-Western influence, which he would have called primitive, can be seen in paintings such as his double portrait of Jacques and Berthe Lipchitz and the portrait of Oscar Meistchaninoff.
Modigliani painted everyone close to him, from his patrons and dealers, Paul Alexandre, Paul Guillaume and Leopold Zborowski who sustained him, to friends from his bohemian circle in Montparnasse, including Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Max Jacob. It seems Modigliani knew he was living in a special time and place and he wanted to record his group for posterity, much as Man Ray did in his photographs in the 1920s and ’30s. Sociable and intellectually curious, he connected with the other leading creative spirits of his day through his art.
Recent writers have asserted that Modigliani and Picasso were like oil and water. But this is untrue. They exhibited together on numerous occasions such as the 1919 Mansard Gallery exhibition in London and socialised together at Montparnasse haunts such as the Café de la Rotonde, the Dôme and the Closerie des Lilas. In addition, he made portraits of Picasso in painting and pencil. But Modigliani tried to be his own person artistically. What prevented Modigliani from becoming a card-carrying Cubist was most likely his love of Italian Renaissance portraiture and his commitment to being a Jewish artist. However, critics at the time had a liberal definition of Cubism – considering it to be anything non-naturalistic – and sometimes viewed him as part of that group. His inclusion in the famous ‘Salle des Cubistes’ in the 1912 Salon d’Automne undoubtedly reinforced this notion.
In the various accounts we have of Modigliani, he is portrayed as a womaniser, and he clearly had a wide range of amorous liaisons, including one with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. But he had two principal lovers: Beatrice Hastings (1879–1943), who was five years older than him, and Jeanne Hébuterne (1898–1920), who was fourteen years younger. Modigliani painted many portraits of both women, and each is represented in the RA exhibition. They both ultimately committed suicide after Modigliani’s own demise, which has contributed to the myth of Modigliani as a cursed artist. Beatrice Hastings was an independently wealthy writer and poet, born in London, raised in South Africa and based in Paris. Hastings was with Modigliani from 1914 to 1916, the years when his signature style developed, and she wrote about him regularly for The New Age literary magazine, in letters from Paris that charted her relationship with a tempestuous avant-garde artist. It is clear that their relationship was turbulent; they drank and fought and ultimately she left him for another artist. His early portraits of her are sweet and gentle, but they become increasingly angular. Her eyes become blanked out (in a manner now seen as typical of the artist), as though he is making a distance between himself and the sitter by refusing to engage with her personal expression.
With Jeanne, the eyes and the tenderness never disappear, probably because their relationship was not the meeting of two equally powerful forces but one of dominance and submission. She was a nineteen-year-old art student when she met the 33-year-old Modigliani, and she was known for standing by him, even when he became abusive. As a consequence, perhaps, his portraits of her show an angelic, girlish creature, who looks too young to be a mother and seems in awe of the painter. In images such as Jeanne Hébuterne Sitting, we can detect her personal features – her doleful blue-green eyes, auburn hair and bulbous nose persist, despite the exaggerations and abstractions of his portraiture. Her traits remained intact in the 25 paintings he made of her (more than he painted of anyone else) in their brief, ultimately tragic relationship.
Jeanne came from a bourgeois, Catholic family who disapproved of the much older Modigliani for his bohemian lifestyle and Jewishness. It didn’t help that at the time he was involved with Jeanne, Modigliani’s family could no longer support him. So he was an impoverished, physically unwell artist who became volatile when he consumed copious quantities of drugs and alcohol. But Jeanne, an impressionable young woman, fell hard for the artist’s good looks and charm, still visible in the archival photos of him that remain. They stayed together from mid-1917 until the end of his life in January 1920 and had a child together, although they never married.
In 1918, Modigliani’s dealer, Leopold Zborowski took them to the south of France in an effort to reignite interest in the artist after the crash of the art market in Paris towards the end of World War One. He also wanted to help Modigliani recuperate his health. While in Provence, Modigliani had a renewed burst of artistic energy. He painted peasants in a manner reminiscent of his hero Cézanne, especially visible in the blue tones and subject choice of The Little Peasant. He depicted them on a grand scale, imbuing them with a stature, colouring and structural composition that echoes Cézanne’s portraits. Children also became new subjects for his art, perhaps because of his recent fatherhood.
Modigliani never recovered his health and died of tubercular meningitis a few months after returning to Paris in 1920. The distraught Jeanne, perhaps influenced by his alleged delirious request to have his favourite model with him in paradise, killed herself the day after Modigliani died by throwing herself out of her family’s fifth storey window. She was heavily pregnant with their second child. Their surviving daughter, named Jeanne like her mother, was raised by Modigliani’s family; the Hébuternes wanted to sever all connections with the cursed artist.
Modigliani’s nudes are among his most striking paintings – utterly different from his images of Jeanne or of any of the friends who modelled for his portraits. Lush and painterly, they ooze sensuality. Rich scarlet backgrounds complete many of the carnal scenes. His lovers did not act as models for the nude paintings. Instead, various models were provided by his dealer Zborowski (who also provided paints, canvases and a daily stipend for the artist) and the painting of these works took place in the dealer’s apartment. Modigliani painted over 30 nudes for Zborowski in a period between 1917 and 1919.
While his dealer saw their sale potential, the subject of the nudes appealed to Modigliani because it tied him into art history and the long tradition of painting the nude by artists such as Botticelli, Giorgione and Titian. What makes Modigliani’s nudes especially arresting is their immediacy. He does not place them in a mythological context — while several imitate classic poses, such as that of Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, they are not Venuses. Instead Modigliani strips them of any historical references. They are pure flesh, pushed up close to the front of the picture plane and often cut off at the knees or arms, or squeezed into the canvas with little background, so that their torso is the focus of the gaze. This was jarring at the time – reputedly his only solo show in Paris was closed down because a nude in the window caused a public disturbance – and remains so today. Their exposed bodies are unabashedly sexy, with a centerfold quality that hovers on the verge of pornography but is prevented from falling into this by the formal qualities of his composition and the lack of personal expression that renders his subjects ‘Modiglianis’ rather than themselves. He is reported to have said, ‘To paint a woman is to possess her’ – whatever he meant by this, he has left us with their bodies rather than their souls. There are no names inscribed on the backgrounds, as in the portraits of his friends, no enduring personal traits. These paintings are about his art, rather than his life.
His portraits are not overtly emotional or expressionistic, but they are soulful. The luminosity of the paintings creates an inner light, a spirituality that seems at once modern and almost primal. Modigliani’s art is also highly-charged, tactile and engaging, which reflects his desire to move as far away as possible from facile, academic tradition.
There have been attempts to portray Modigliani as the Van Gogh of his generation: as an artist who lived tragically and died young, unknown and unappreciated. This characterisation tells us little of the art or the man. His contemporaries recognised that he was accomplished in three different media: painting, sculpture and drawing. Of Modigliani’s generation, only Picasso and Matisse were similarly gifted. As Modigliani’s friend the artist Jacob Epstein said, ‘The legend of the debauched artist is just a legend. What legend gives us is an implausible caricature of a man, a painter who left behind only a body of legends. Amedeo Modigliani left behind a life’s work in art.’ The current exhibition gives us the opportunity to look and learn.
Modigliani and His Models, The Sackler Wing, Royal Academy of Arts (020 7300 8000), 8 July–15 Oct
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