Nude, 1917. Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY
Rachel Hayward delves into the bohemian world of Modigliani and his nudes at the Royal Academy.
The first major exhibition in Britain for over forty years of the artist Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) runs at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until October 15 2006. Modigliani and His Models showcases the artist’s unique take on portraiture, the nude and sculpture. Indeed, no other modern artist focused so exclusively on the representation of the human form.
Born in Tuscany, Italy, Modigliani left his cultured Jewish family to study painting in Florence and Venice before moving to Paris in 1906. In Montparnasse, he lived amongst an avant-garde set of artists who were seeking to move beyond traditional Western ideas of art and Modigliani exemplified this cosmopolitan approach. His inimitable style drew from a variety of influences from the European figurative painting tradition to Egyptian and African art.
A meeting with the sculptor Constantin Brancusi encouraged Modigliani to look again at his early love, sculpture, and from 1910-1913, he rarely lifted a paintbrush.
Head (c.1911-12), made from limestone, is a highly finished piece and clearly demonstrates Modigliani’s interest in African art. Elements of ancient Greece, medieval Italy, Egypt and Asia can also be seen in Carytid (1911-1913) and Large Red Bust (1913). These works with their simple, linear forms and stylised features provided the basis for Modigliani’s later painting.
Caryatid, 1913. Private collection. Photo: Roy Fox
Whilst acknowledging the influence of Western movements, such as Pre-Raphaelitism, Fauvism and Cubism, Modigliani also admired Post-Impressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, with his flattened, graphic style of painting.
Modigliani’s portrait of fellow artist Picasso (1915) is an example of his focus on contemporary subjects who were part of the artist’s social milieu. Despite the distinctive style, the character of the sitter is still made clear. Could Picasso’s sly eyes be revealing a hint of artistic competitiveness?
Eyes are the window to the soul even in those of Modigliani’s portraits which lack any detail. Hanka Zborowska, who was also known as Anna, was the wife of Modigliani’s dealer, Leopold Zborowska, and sat for Modigliani. In a 1917 portrait, her posture follows a similar elegant, s-shape line of the body common to the artist’s other female subjects but the eyes are dark and empty. The slightly sneering tilt of the lips and other angular features of her body merely heighten the overall effect of cool, detached haughtiness.
Jeanne Hébuterne, 1919. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Nate B. Spingold, 1956 Photo: © 1985 The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Modigliani himself believed that ‘when a woman poses for a painter, she gives herself to him’ (and thus wouldn’t let his wife pose for Renoir!). This is certainly evident in his series of nude paintings which were displayed in his first solo exhibition in 1917 – closed down by the scandalized chief of police a few hours after opening.
Like all his other paintings, Modigliani’s sinuous nudes both draw on tradition and challenge it. Taking the nude as subject, Modigliani aligns himself with artists such as Botticelli and Titian. Nevertheless, Modigliani has his own take on tradition and gone are the mythological settings that somehow distance the subjects from the viewer. Instead, discretion is replaced by a stark sensuality that shocked the Parisian public and cemented Modigliani’s notoriety.
Draped Nude, and even more so, Nude (both 1917), show Modigliani’s signature style of a heavily outlined female form with an elongated body and neck. The earthy palette of background colours also roots these paintings in a non-Western tradition.
Beatrice Hastings in front of a door, 1915. Private collection. Courtesy of Ivor Braka Ltd Photo © Christie's Images Ltd., 2002
Declining health, exacerbated by alcohol and drugs, led to a stay in 1918 in the South of France. Modigliani’s portraits of local inhabitants show a master at work. The Boy (Youth in a Blue Jacket, 1919) is an example of a sympathetic and lighter, more naturalistic portrayal of ordinary people, providing a contrast to the darker, grandiose Parisian portraits in the exhibition.
In many ways, Modigliani’s fame – or rather infamy - precedes him. Moreover, his hedonistic lifestyle almost threatened to eclipse his artistic legacy. Women were drawn to this arresting young bohemian.
Beatrice Hastings, the English poet, journalist and critic who was Modigliani’s muse and companion from 1914-1916, described him: “A complex character. A pig and a pearl.” Their relationship was stormy and yet the painting Beatrice Hastings in front of a door (1915) gives little away. Hasting’s small facial features and long neck provide a mask to the inner emotions of the sitter. Indeed, she radiates control in a manner that is typical of Modigliani’s subjects.
Draped Nude, 1917. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, Belgium
Art student Thora Klincköwstrom met Modigliani at the Cafe de la Rotunde, the meeting-place of Cubists, in 1919 and subsequently sat for a portrait. “He was very handsome and romantic,” she wrote. “Nils [Dardel] told me that before the war Modigliani had magnificent beauty but that now he had lost it through debauchery and alcohol.”
Klincköwstrom was to be one of Modigliani’s last sitters. The artist completed her portrait at the end of 1919 whilst coughing up blood and was to die shortly afterwards on January 20 1920 of tubercular meningitis. He was 35 years old.
Portraits of Jeanne Héburtene, Modigliani’s final companion, are haunting, conveying a tragic sense of Héburtene’s vulnerable submission both to the artist and the man. For example, in a portrait of 1919, Héburtene’s angelic features – her blank, almond eyes of the palest blue, delicate, rosebud lips and billowing, white top – underline the fragility and innocence of this young girl who was doomed to an early grave like her lover. Overwrought at the artist’s untimely demise, she jumped from an upstairs window and killed both herself and the couple’s unborn child.
Self Portrait, 1919. Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil. Photo: Nelson Kon
Self-Portrait (1919) is a painful evocation of a man who seems keenly aware of his impending death. The emotional intensity of the painting is characteristic of Modigliani; the pinched features of the death-mask face are drawn downwards and hint at a life of excess. In spite of this, Modigliani’s right hand doggedly clings to the palette and challenges the viewer not to overlook the artist.
“The debauched artist is just a legend,” eulogised sculptor and friend Jacob Epstein. “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 Royal Academy exhibition shows why the legend of Modigliani deserves to live on.