It wasn't uncommon for the artists who laid the foundations of modern art in early 20th-century Paris to recite poetry, womanise, drink and take drugs. But Amedeo Modigliani's handsome face, tragic love story and early death transformed the Jewish painter from Livorno into legend. Modigliani lived a short, intense life, as he had wished to.
“A lot of biographies and exhibitions focus on Modigliani’s life, not his oeuvre,” says Jean-Bathilde Lacourt, co-commissioner of Modigliani; The Inner Eye, at LaM, the museum of modern art in Lille. “We wanted to talk about his work, which is relatively disconnected from his life.”
Although Modigliani was influenced by post-impressionists, symbolists, expressionists, fauves and especially Cézanne, he espoused no theories and participated in no artistic movement.
The first part of the exhibition recounts Modigliani’s fascination with ancient Egyptian and Greek art, Ivorian masques and Khmer sculpture. The Khmer influence is visible in the contorted posture of his Caryatid drawing, and in female heads with slanted eyes and Bhudda-like smiles, executed in stone and marble in 1912-1913.
The Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi persuaded Modigliani to take up sculpture. But the dust worsened Modigliani’s fragile lungs, and he did not have the physical strength to cut stone, so he returned to painting, often endowing his portraits with sculptural forms.
The style elaborated by Modigliani was unique, instantly recognisable and accessible to a wide audience. In recent years, his paintings have fetched astronomical sums. On November 9th, 2015, a Chinese former taxi driver turned billionaire, Liu Yiqian, purchased Reclining Nude With Open Arms at a Christie's auction for about €158 million, the second highest price ever paid for a painting, after Picasso's Women of Algiers.
Lacourt suggests two reasons why the public so love Modigliani. “He was one of the few monstres sacrés of the 20th century, along with Picasso and Matisse, who continued to paint recognisably human figures. There is something calm and harmonious in Modigliani.”
In his 1985 biography, Claude Roy wrote that "Modigliani often expresses a serene and discreet melancholy, an exquisite tenderness, sometimes a mellifluous sensuality, never anything morbid or perverse."
Last year’s sale confirmed that collectors value Modigliani’s nudes far more than his portraits. All were painted in a short period between 1916 and 1917, probably at the urging of his agent and benefactor, the Polish poet and amateur art dealer Léopold Zborowski.
Modigliani showed the nudes in his first solo exhibition, in December 1917. Police were attracted by a commotion outside the Berthe Weill gallery. They ordered the gallery owner to remove the paintings from the window, on the grounds of public decency. When Reclining Nude with Open Arms made headlines last year, Fox News and Bloomberg censored the image, for much the same reason.
The LaM exhibition gives priority to Modigliani's portraits, including one of Roger Dutilleul, a distinguished-looking, grey-haired and mustachioed gentleman, painted in Cézanne-like style. Dutilleul was an early collector who bequeathed six Modigliani paintings, seven drawings and a marble sculpture to LaM.
Of the three nudes on show in Lille, two, on loan from Antwerp and Dallas, are shamelessly erotic. The third, left by Dutilleul to LaM, is atypical.
Modigliani had abandoned sculpture three years before he painted Nude with a Shirt. Lacourt says she “embodies Modigliani’s understanding of sculpture, and in particular of African art” with her long nose, concave face and masque-like eyes. “He sculpted the hair with the tip of his paintbrush. One has the impression he has returned to primitive, non-western sources.”
Modigliani’s other nudes seem to offer themselves to the viewer. This one clutches a white shirt to her bosom in a gesture of modesty, as in Renaissance paintings of Susanna at the bath.
The middle section of the LaM exhibition is devoted to what later came to be known as the École de Paris. The network of foreign artists in Paris was first called “Picasso’s gang”. It counted more poets than painters: Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, André Salmon, Moise Kisling and Modigliani.
Modigliani’s Self-Portrait as Pierrot reminds one of Picasso’s earlier self-portraits as a harlequin. The first time Modigliani would approach his great love, Jeanne Hébuterne, at a costume ball, he wore a Pierrot costume. Hébuterne bore him a daughter, then took her own life when Modigliani died. Modigliani, like Picasso before him, painted himself with one blank eye. When a sitter asked why, Modigliani responded: “You see the world with one eye, and you look inside yourself with the other.”
The critic André Warnod titled an article about foreign painters “L’École de Paris” in 1925. Modigliani was by then five years dead, but he was nonetheless labelled a member. The Japanese painter Foujita, the Russians Chagall and Zadkine, the Lithuanians Lipchitz and Soutine, and Van Dongen from the Netherlands were other important participants.
It was, Gertrude Stein wrote, the period when modern art was made by foreigners in Paris. Many were Jewish, and they were shunned by the French during the First World War. “Some French artists went to the front,” Lacourt says. “Those who remained were either foreign or too old to fight, like Matisse. Those who stayed were considered shirkers. During the war, avant-garde art was seen as an attack on French culture. The mainstream press called foreign artists boches (a derogatory term for Germans). This atmosphere made the artists stay together.”
Beatrice Hastings, a South African-born English poet and journalist for The New Age, had a violent, drink and drug-fuelled relationship with Modigliani for the first two years of the war. Modigliani was "half swine, half pearl", Hastings said.
Lacourt speaks of "the dichotomy between Modigliani's oeuvre, his artistic sensibility, and his ugly, violent behaviour when he was drunk or drugged".
The artists met at the soup kitchen established by the painter Marie Vassilieff in her atelier on the Avenue du Maine. Hastings reported food shortages, high prices and poor hygiene: "Montparnasse, a foreign quarter, is entirely mad," she wrote. "Every spot is more or less a hashish den now."
Modigliani became the semi-official portraitist of the foreign artists in Montparnasse. A 1915 portrait of Chaim Soutine, on loan from the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, is particularly evocative of their camaraderie, but also of the illness and poverty Soutine shared with Modigliani. In contrast to Modigliani’s often expressionless masques, Soutine has a mischievous smile and a twinkle in his eyes.
Zborowski called Modigliani "a child of the stars" and said he was "worth two Picassos". When the painter's health deteriorated and bombardments intensified in early 1918, "Zbo" sent Modigliani, his pregnant lover, Soutine and his family to the south of France. They lodged for a time near Nice, with Tsuguharu Foujita and his wife, Fernande Barrey. Modigliani's portrait of Fernande, a former prostitute with short, bobbed hair, posing regally in a blue dress, is the signature painting of the exhibition. Seated Girl with Dark Hair, also from 1918, is Modigliani's most Japanese painting, doubtless an homage to Foujita.
Amedeo Modigliani: The Inner Eye is at LaM until June 5th. musee-lam.fr
MODIGLIANI: A SHORT, INTENSE LIFE
1884 Amedeo Modigliani is born into a ruined but cultivated Sephardic Jewish family in the Mediterranean port city of Livorno.
1899 Leaves school to devote himself to painting. He will study in art schools in Florence and Venice.
1900 After suffering from pleurisy and typhoid in childhood, Modigliani is diagnosed with tuberculosis.
1906 Moves to Paris and settles in Montmartre, then Montparnasse.
1910-1911 Affair with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.
1914 Tries to join the Foreign Legion at the outbreak of the First World War, but is rejected because of tuberculosis. He abandons sculpture and becomes the portraitist of foreign artists in Montparnasse.
1914-1916 Stormy relationship with the South African-born English poet and journalist Beatrice Hastings.
1916 Meets the Polish art dealer Léopold Zborowski, who supports Modigliani in exchange for his entire output.
1917 Falls in love with art student Jeanne Hébuterne, 14 years his junior. Their daughter, Jeanne, is born in 1918.
1920 On January 24th, Modigliani dies of tuberculous meningitis. Two days later, Hébuterne, pregnant with their second child, throws herself from a fifth-floor window and dies.
2015 Reclining Nude with Open Arms is auctioned for €158.5m by Christie's in New York.
2016 Modigliani; The Inner Eye is expected to draw more than 150,000 visitors in four months to the Lille's museum of modern art.