Published  08/11/2006

Breaking the Myths

Breaking the Myths

Modigliani and His Models
Royal Academy of Arts, London
8 July-15 October 2006

Amedeo Modigliani's (1884-1920) premature death at the age of 35, as a consequence of bohemian excess, overshadowed a proper analysis of his work for many years. His brief career nonetheless produced a unique and distinctive body of work, mostly portraits, his style immediately recognisable, with elongated necks, and sensual nudes imbued with aspects of classical and primitive sculpture.

In his short career, Modigliani's artistic gifts and his contribution to Modernism were only understood by a small number of fellow artists. The exhibition, 'Modigliani and his Models', is the first major exhibition of the painter and sculptor to be held in the UK for over 40 years. It comprises some 52 pieces, from public and private collections around the world. The emphasis of the exhibition is on portraits, mostly of friends and mistresses. Together, the works form a remarkable record of life in Montparnasse, the epicentre of Paris's art world. The portraits resemble the sitters, but they are also all unmistakably Modigliani's. The portraits are stylised, formalised and mostly devoid of an analysis of the individual. They are also a unique combination of Modernist principles, form and colour, yet there were many references to art from the past and from a wide range of different cultures. Modigliani's portraits are primarily characterised by elongated necks, oval faces and blank, almond-shaped eyes.

On entering the show, one is granted access to the intensely private world of a unique artist and the coterie of artists who lived in Montparnasse in the Belle Epoque: Picasso, Juan Gris, Paul Guillaume, Chaim Soutine, Diego Rivera, Jacques Lipchitz, Léon Bakst, Jean Cocteau and many others. Conjuring a fascinating picture of Paris in the first 20 years of the 20th century, Modigliani's work is presented within the broader context of his own life, which, in turn, epitomised the notional Romantic agony of the artist. Friendship, love affairs and artistic dialogue run parallel to the development of Modigliani's superb and original vision, and his tragic fall from grace. A particular aspect of Modigliani's work - his relationship with English art and artists - is discussed in an essay by Kenneth Wayne in the catalogue of the exhibition, published by the RA.1

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani was born in Livorno on 12 July 1884, the fourth child of a middle-class, intellectual family. His Italian father and French mother, both with Sephardic Jewish/Spanish roots, provided their children with a sophisticated cosmopolitanism that would stand Modigliani in good stead when he moved to Paris. The family were liberal-minded and unconventional; his mother had taught him impeccable French. It is likely that the family were also involved with the English community in Livorno, which would explain Modigliani's interest in English art and artists later in his life. Although both of his parents' families had been bankrupted, and were quite penniless when raising their family, the four children all went on to great success in their respective fields. Amedeo was stylish and adaptable, unphased by the tribulations that a bohemian life as an artist would invariably present. He seemed to posses a certain aristocratic confidence that enabled him to move seamlessly from one experience to another. It was his maternal grandfather, in fact, who introduced the young Amedeo to literature, poetry and meditation. He took him to museums, where he became acquainted with a wide range of cultures. When his stepfather, Isaac Garsin, died in 1894, Amedeo was deeply affected. Due to the nature of his home education, he did not have the support of a circle of friends, which invariably led to his outsider status as an adult. In both his personal life and in his art, Modigliani was a non-conformist and a loner.

Modigliani had a natural affinity for the art of many different cultures: Cycladic, African and Cambodian sculpture; Oceanic and Gothic art; Michelangelo; the Italian Primitives; Jewish mysticism and the cabbala; French Impressionism; Paul Cézanne; Paul Gauguin; Henri Rousseau; Symbolism; Cubism; Fauvism and English art.1 He was an exceptional portraitist and painter of nudes - his works en masse have a rare and compelling quality. His life, however, has been mythologised, aspects of which were the stuff of fiction. It has been extremely difficult to establish historical accuracy.

The myths surrounding Modigliani's life and art began in the decade after his death, emphasising the 'fact' that the good-looking Modigliani was apt to recite Dante's Divine Comedy; his aristocratic demeanour and penchant for poetry linked him to his artistic forbears, Leonardo and Michelangelo. Early literature on Modigliani emphasised his Italian identity and aesthetic. Modigliani had, in fact, been introduced to Dante when he was convalescing from illness, by his aunt Laura (1898), and it became a favourite, which he used to inscribe a number of his paintings. In fact, he was Italian, French and Jewish. The last two years of the 19th century were spent at the studio of painter Guglielmo Micheli, the former leader of the Italian Impressionist movement. Then, in 1900, Modigliani suffered a tubercular haemorrhage after one of a series of lung diseases, and nearly died. Against medical advice, his mother took him to Naples and Capri to convalesce, the family having restored their financial position by this point.

In Naples, Modigliani had the chance to see and study ancient and Classical art. Between 1910 and 1914, Modigliani worked almost exclusively in sculpture. This early experience with sculpture explains the subsequent work he did in painting. It also supports the notion of Modigliani as an artist who chose a most unique and, at times, solitary path. If one looks at examples of Cycladic marble figures, one sees the reaction of Modigliani, the triangular nose, perpendicular arms, globe breasts and long oval heads. These are so much the precursors of Modigliani's later signature style. In 1902, Modigliani enrolled in the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, and there he experienced the wonders of Italian Renaissance art, visiting the Uffizi and Pitti palaces on a regular basis. He continued his Classical training in art by visiting Carrara, where he worked in limestone, and Venice, where he attended the Scuola Libera di Nudo. He moved to Paris in 1906, a thriving and cosmopolitan centre of art. 'Caryatid' (1911-13) is a fine example of the influence of classical sculpture on Modigliani's painting in Paris. Although it is painted in oil on canvas, it conveys a strong impression of sculpted stone. 'Caryatid' comes from the Greek caryatides, which the priestesses of Artemis at Caryae used to support entablature. Modigliani's figure is paradoxical, in that she holds her arms upwards as if supporting a weight, but there is nothing there. Modigliani is using the strong sculptural form in its separated parts. A purely formal exercise then, each part of the figure is separated from each other. The pose has no purpose other than that of art. The caryatids reveal Modigliani's most abstracted and formalist intentions. A 'Head' (c.1910-11) is a fine example of the idol-like heads that Modigliani produced around this time. Given to the Victoria and Albert Museum, it became the first work by the artist to enter a British collection (it was subsequently transferred to Tate Liverpool). In 1925, the Manchester City Art Gallery obtained a Modigliani drawing, followed by numerous other acquisitions. No works by Picasso, it should be noted, were acquired by a British institution until 1933.

The beautiful and the damned coexisted in Modigliani's life of debauchery, alcohol and drug-induced ecstasy. Modigliani's fall from grace has been well documented. One cannot help but imagine what a long and productive career he would have produced, given his precocious and brilliant early work. Maurice Berger recently wrote of the significance of his life:

Modigliani has come to exemplify a decidedly unengaged and isolated Modernist character type: the bohemian …  He refuses to engage in routine, repetitive tasks of the labourer or serve the greedy bosses of industry and commerce … he looks to pleasure, passion and self-expression ... [he is] a person who suffers for art and pays a steep price for a life of debauchery, poverty and neglect.2

Modigliani suffered from congenitally weak lungs, having suffered from pleurisy and typhoid fever as a young man, which he aggravated by a life of excess. He died at the very young age of 35 of consumption, after alcohol and drug abuse weakened his constitution. In terms of his art, historians have attributed more significance to his promiscuous sex life than alcohol, for he did not paint under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The effect of his notorious promiscuity, however, has been examined by art historians, for Modigliani's nudes extended the bounds of erotic art. A 1917 exhibition at Berthe Weill's gallery in Paris was closed by police, until paintings were taken off the walls. Visitors to the opening night were effectively held hostage until the exhibition was dissembled. The outrage was precipitated by the precise depiction of pubic hair. The nudes were explicitly sexual. Modigliani believed that, 'when a woman poses for a painter, she gives herself to him'. Modigliani's nudes were uncompromising, drapes were discarded and the torso lifted and turned so as to be literally 'in your face'. The non-Western primitive used by Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse, was also a feature of Modigliani's eroticism, a sexuality free of Christian Puritanism and guilt.

… unlike his avant-garde contemporaries, Modigliani does no harm to the female person: he shuns the representation of disjointed body parts, laceration or scarification of the flesh or the projection of pain. Ultimately, his stylisations, the formalist curves, bends, protrusions and cavities, are the means to an end of an intense tactile sensation, a more naturalistic sensuous experience. Precisely because his gentle Modernism (too elegant for some) is much less 'advanced' than the radical deformations of his Parisian peers, it relinquishes the expressions of misogyny. Likewise, his evocation of lifelike flesh poignantly reminds one of the carnality of any body, female or male, and eliminates the distance between self and other.3

Women found him irresistible and he exploited his charm. His nudes reveal a certain comfort on the part of artist and model that does not exist in works by Picasso or Gauguin of the same period. They are neither goddesses nor whores; there is a degree of informality in the artist's relationship, even though he is on an artistic level preoccupied with form. The traditional passivity of the model has given way to a more naturalistic relationship between the artist and model:

The faces of Modigliani's nudes are not portraits, but neither are they standardised. The mask works both ways: it can intensify desire by suggesting the illicitness of the unknown, or protect the individual from full exposure. Modigliani's reliance on a mask like visage exempts him from a descriptive realism, as the face becomes congruent with the overall seductive schema of the tactile body. Even then, individuals emerge, and we can thus ascertain that some of the women posed for the artist more than once, and that some were quite plain, their homely features breaking through the stylised mould.4

Modigliani was an exception to the rule where the nude was concerned. The nude was no longer an accepted art form by the beginning of the First World War. Cubism removed carnality from the nude, geared as it was to dynamism and simultaneity. The Italian Futurists, in their manifesto in 1910, banned the nude. As Emily Braun states forcefully in her essay, 'Carnal Knowledge':

Finally, we should ask, just who is gazing at these pictures from 1916 to 1918? Where are the men supposedly enjoying the female sex of Modigliani's big nudes? Most young men of procreative age were away fighting in the war. While he painted in relative comfort in his studio, drugging his already tubercular self to death, one and a half million Frenchmen lost their lives in the trenches, and three times as many were brutally and forever injured …
Herein lies the offence of Modigliani's nudes, their affront to common decency. What is truly obscene is that Modigliani painted such gorgeous female bodies, whole and sensual, flushed rose by the vitality of a beating heart and pumping arteries, while several miles away the limbs of men were being blown to bits. That marks their gender difference in 1917.5

Apart from numerous sexual encounters, there were three important women in Modigliani's life. The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in 1910, and the South African poet and journalist Beatrice Hastings survived two tempestuous years with him before he and the young Jeanne Hébuterne had a love affair that ended in tragedy. Hébuterne adored him and, confronted with his inevitable decline and death, was too distressed to call a doctor. As the mourners returned from Modigliani's funeral two days after his death, they found that she had thrown herself from the fifth floor, nine months pregnant. When she grew up, Jeanne Modigliani, the daughter who had been 14 months old at the time of her parents' deaths attempted to put the record straight. She wrote Modigliani: Man and Myth, a carefully researched account. So many rumours and anecdotes had been created that Modigliani's life had become mythologised, like that of Van Gogh.

During the decade that followed his death, Modigliani's demise was gradually written into legend as only the last act in an inexorable decline that began a few years after his arrival in the French capital.6

Absinthe and cognac, opium and ether made for a toxic brew. 'There was something like a curse on this very noble boy. He was beautiful; alcohol and misfortune took their toll on him'.7 Within hours of Modigliani's death, dealers and collectors jostled desperately to buy his work. There was no widow to respect and so an unseemly contest to acquire his work began.

Modigliani's creative intensity and romantic persona inspired a remarkable artistic outpouring as well as a destructive force. The portraits combine simplified, mask-like qualities inspired by African and Iberian sculpture, and the lessons of Cubism. Yet, the personalities and physical likenesses of Beatrice Hastings, Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau were captured with a tender and marvellous humanism. Portraits and single figure paintings account for some 90% of his oeuvre. From 1913 to 1920 he produced over 250 oils, most of his extant paintings. This is most extraordinary, given that in the four years during the First World War there were shortages of both materials and commissions. There is a considerable range of styles within his recognisable oeuvre - from the angular Jean Cocteau to the ebullient portrait of Diego Rivera, who lived in Paris from 1911-20.

Modigliani's 1914 portraits of Rivera illuminate the character of his subject, his energy and his 'savage' look, through the use of a wild. Expressionistic brush stroke, and a kind of Pointillism, in blue and black against an ochre background. Rivera's large round head with dark curly hair sits on top of his huge rounded shoulders. To achieve the work's unusual perspective, Modigliani apparently sat on the floor while he painted with his subject towering over him.8

Fourteen paintings were made of Beatrice Hastings, not one of which reveals their tempestuous relationship. When in 1918 Modigliani's health deteriorated, his dealer Léopold Zborowski arranged for Modigliani and his lover Jeanne Hébuterne to move to the Côte d'Azur. There, he chose to paint local individuals and close friends. There is a sublime quality in the portraits done at this time, a humanist quality that rises above the particular. Modigliani painted his final portraits in 1919. In the same year, he painted his only self-portrait. Even in this, the eyes are characteristically black. His back is partly turned, giving off a sense of a man requiring privacy, retreating into an inner world. The brushstrokes are short and almost Pointillist. There is a stillness and candour in this, probably his very last work, of the eulogy.

Modigliani died on 24 January 1920 of tubercular meningitis. A short, intense life, ended by consumption, is the archetypal bohemian tragedy. It is important to view Modigliani's art and life together and yet, the art is characterised not by excess or passion, but by measure, control and harmony.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Wayne K. 'Modigliani and England'. In: Modigliani and His Models, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2006.
2. Silver KE. 'Too Many Last Words!: The Myth of Modigliani'. In: ibid: 23.
3. Braun E. 'Carnal Knowledge'. In: ibid: 57.
4. Ibid: 58.
5. Ibid: 61-62.
6. Silver KE. Op cit: 22.
7. Gustave Coquoit reporting on Modigliani's death in Paris in 1920. In: ibid: 23.
8. Kathleen Brunner. 'Biographies of Modigliani's Models'. In: ibid: 153.

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