by Rafaela Hadjiyiangou
The Livornian painter, Amedeo Modigliani, was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of 16, a disease that would slowly kill him for the next 20 years.
During his lifetime Modigliani desired, above all, ‘’une vie brève mais intense” (‘’brief but intense life’’) as he announced to his friend Jacques Lipchitz, a Lithuanian sculptor.
Little did the 21 year old Modigliani know about the turbulent life he would have in Paris. Upon arriving in Paris, Modigliani quickly adopted the pose of the flamboyant bohemian. He frequented artist hangouts in Montmartre and Montparnasse where he met the greatest artists of the Avant-garde era. Among them: Renoir, Degas, Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse.
While his contemporaries succeeded in exhibitions, sold various paintings at big auctions and made names of themselves in the upcoming circles of Paris, Modigliani failed at every attempt of recognition. With only one exhibition ending before it began, a brief shift in sculpture only to make a dynamic comeback in painting did not guarantee the success Modigliani was hoping for. The rate for this painting was a little as $10 and the interest in his work was limited. However, Modigliani’s Nu couché (Reclining Nude/painting on the right) is now one of the most expensive paintings ever sold at Christie’s New York at Christie’s New York, for $170,405,000 in 2015..
Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Nu couché, 1917-18. Oil on canvas.
In his short but intense life, the master of elongated faces and figures, saved his family from ruin. According to an ancient law, creditors could not seize the bed of a mother with a newborn child. The bailiffs entered the family’s home when Eugenia (Modigliani’s mother) went into labour. So, the family protected their most valuable assets by piling them on top of her.
While his birth saved his family, his death brought the death of another, his 8-month pregnant lover who was expecting their second child. In January 4th 1920, Modigliani died in bed holding Jeanne Hébuterne’s hand. The cause of his death was tubercular meningitis which he suffered for more than 20 years. Two days later, Hébuterne threw herself out of the fifth-floor window of her parent’s house killing herself and unborn child. The two lovers were buried in differen cemeteries and it wasn’t until 1930 that her resentful family allowed her body to be moved next to Modigliani’s in Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Now, a single tombstone honours them both. His epitaph reads: “Struck down by Death at the moment of glory.” Hers reads: “Devoted companion to the extreme sacrifice.”
Jeanne Hébuterne, portrayed here, was a 19 year old art student when she met Modigliani. Hébuterne was Modigliani’s long lasting relationship regardless of the many affairs he had during his life. It was a hard price to pay as she was renounced from her devout Roman Catholic family for associating with a debauched derelict and a Jew. Shortly after they moved in a dilapidated flat on Rue de la Grande Chaumière. Apparently the flat was in such a state as “one could see the sunlight shining through part of the wall.”, as a later tenant confided.
As her portrait conveys, she was slender with almond-shaped eyes, a pale complexion and long brown hair. In contrast to Modigliani, she was quite reserved and softly spoken. Whereas Modigliani carried himself as an aristocrat despite his 5 feet 6 inches.
Like a true nobleman, Modigliani made his appearance in Paris for the first time in 1920, emerging from his second-class train carriage wearing a neat tailored black suit and a dramatic black cape. In this luggage he had a well-worn copy of Dante and a painting by Vittore Carpaccio, Two Courtesans. Both of which have played a crucial part in his art.
Justifying his newly found nickname, Modi, a pun on peintre maudit (accursed painter), he became addicted to drugs and alcoholism. He got involved in frequent affairs, used absinthe and hashish and drank heavily. He was appointed the epitome of the tragic artist which led to his posthumous legend being almost as well-known as that of Vincent van Gogh.
One of the most famous affairs before his long lasting relationship with Hébuterne was with Anna Akhmatova. Born Anna Andreevna Gorenko, she was forced to change her last name due to family disputes. Her father, belonging in the upper class, demanded that she wrote under a pseudonym so that she wouldn’t shame the family name. She became famous for her poems and hang-outs at literati places of Moscow such as Stray Dog Café.
Modigliani met Akhmatova when she arrived in Paris with her husband in 1910. Even though the couple were on their honeymoon, Akhmatova’s meeting with Modigliani was “a meeting of hearts and minds” as Richard Nathanson describes it. Modigliani drew Akhmatova 16 times, although many paintings have been lost over the years. Nathanson claimed that “Once you look at the connection [between them], you see it everywhere in his paintings.”
Could the connecting be the elongation in Modigliani’s signature strokes? While in Paris during 1911, Modigliani frequently took Akhmatova to the Louvre’s Egyptian gallery. Akhmatova wrote in her journal that “He [Modigliani] used to rave about Egypt. He drew my head bedecked with the jewellery of Egyptian queens and dancers, and seemed totally overawed by the majesty of Egyptian art.”
The Kneeling Blue Caryatid is said to have particularly influenced by the visits in the Louvre. Modigliani’s depiction of Akhmatova as an Egyptian goddess with her elongated body, thick fringe and serpentine nose reveal a remarkable sensitivity. His friend, writer and artist Jean Cocteau said “Modigliani never consciously stretches faces, exaggerates their lack of symmetry, gouges out an eye or lengthens a neck. All that happens in his heart.”
Paradoxically, his addiction is what defined him as a true artist. In 1920, Modigliani’s career took off and Andre Salmon credits drugs and alcohol with the dawn of Modi’s style. Salmon described Modigliani as a totally pedestrian artist when sober. In his words: “…from the day that he [Modigliani] abandoned himself to certain forms of debauchery, an unexpected light came upon him, transforming his art.
From that day on, he became one who must be counted among the masters of living art.” In reality, many art historians claim that these self-indulgences have stopped Modigliani from achieving ‘greater artistic heights’. As they are nothing but speculations, we can only assume what he might have been able to achieve had he not been a broke, alcoholic that destroyed his early work due them being “Childish baubles, done when I [Modigliani] was a dirty bourgeois.”
Modigliani worked at a furious pace sketching up to a hundred drawings a day. He sketched everyone and everywhere. Unfortunately, most of the drawings have disappeared due to the constant changes of address, some were given to girlfriends. His paintings were even exchanged for drinks, meals at restaurants and even confiscated by a landlord in lieu of rent which he then used to patch old mattresses.
The ‘misunderstood bohemian painter’ as Tamar Garb, an art historian at University College London, describes met with Paul Alexandre, a young surgeon and dealer who ran a low-budget art colony. After an arrangement, Modigliani would paint in a studio rent-free while Alexandre would take the canvasses for 10 to 20 francs each ( $2 to $4) and his sketches for about 20 centimes (4 cents).
Modigliani painted three oil paintings of Alexander. Among the most the famous one, is the one depicted here which the artist painted from memory. It is described as uniquely “Modiglianiesque” due to the elongated face, black eyes and rapid brushwork that became his signature strokes.
It wasn’t until he met the Polish art dealer and self-styled poet, Leopold Zborowski that ‘Modigliani was able to get some monthly income in exchange of a regular number of paintings. In addition, Modigliani would get a room along with studio space, food and painting materials. With Zborowski’s help, Modigliani started painting nude portraits of women which later on became memorable additions to his collection. Despite having multiple affairs with women, Modigliani’s
nude paintings solely portray models that Zborowski hired for him.
The nude pictures proved “problematic” and were hard to sell. Zborowski, however, managed to sell one for 300 francs ($60) which was a lot more than the usual going rate for Modigliani’s pictures back then.
Griselda Pollock, an art historian at University of Leeds in England, claims that “Modigliani is a deeply Italian painter, and he’s clearly interested in the language of the body, which is the language of Italian art.” She continues by saying “When you stand in front of some of Modigliani’s nudes, you are literally embarrassed being in the presence of such frank physicality.”
Such was the reaction of Franco Carco’s concierge upon entering his bachelor flat and seeing Modigliani’s nude painting. Carco, writer and friend of Modigliani, claimed “she nearly dropped dead on seeing the picture over the bed.”
Modigliani’s nudes and generally his paintings, embody the notions of defiance and disorder which are considered to be the only route to true creativity. A belief he developed after being introduced to Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Carducci, Comte de Lautreamont among others.
It wasn’t until 1916 that Modigliani started painting nude pictures with the encouragement of Zborowski. But where did the new shift in painting come from?
In 1907 and 1908 Modigliani entered several paintings in Salon d’Automne and Salon des Indépendants exhibitions respectively. Unfortunately there was not much interest apart from Alexandre, his art dealer then. Therefore he decided to take on sculpting, influenced by his friend and neighbour Constantin Brancusi, a Romanian sculptor.
For the most part he carved on limestone which he stole from building sites. Shortly after his lungs were weakened, yet Modigliani’s carved heads were perceived as too strange to attract buyers.
Tamar Garb claims that “Sculpture helped him [Modigliani] think about how you can simplify forms, how you can show the essence of something using the simplest possible means.” So when he concentrated on painting again around 1914, his work had a new energy and confidence.
Nu couché, brought nothing but disobedience and chaos in the modernist era. It belongs in a famous series among other nude paintings that were included in Modigliani’s first and only exhibition at Galerie Berthe Weill. The police shut down the month-long exhibition before it officially begun on the pretence that “Ces nues . . . ils ont des p-p-poils!” (“These nudes . . .they have b-b-body hair!”) as the inspector in charge exclaimed.
On their trip to Nice arranged my Zborowski, Modigliani, Foujita and other artists tried to sell their works to rich tourists. Modigliani managed to sell a few pictures, but only for a few francs each (less than $10). Who would’ve thought back then that the oddly distorted paintings that often averted people from looking at them would be one of the most expensive paintings ever sold?