ART: "Amedeo Modigliani"
Eugenia Garsin and Flaminio Modigliani had a strong sense of family and the good fortune of affluence, up until the birth of Amedeo Clemente, their fourth child, on July 12, 1884. In that year, a business crash struck Italy, and the Modigliani family fortune was wiped out. Bankrupt, the family was being dispossessed of their home and belongings. According to an old provision in Italian law, authorities could not remove the bed that a woman had given birth in or was to give birth in, and such, the Modiglianis placed their most precious possessions on her bed. It is said that at the moment authorities entered the home, Eugenia Garsin Modigliani began labor pains with Amedeo. Years later she would recount this as a “bad omen.”
Amedeo’s youth was fraught with illness. With long periods of convalescence after typhoid and pleurisy, Amedeo filled his time with drawing, painting, reading and dreaming. This delighted his mother, who became his strongest proponent of devoting himself to art as opposed to the classical education of his brothers. Indeed, it was his mother who pulled from the modest family income to send Amedeo to art school–to study throughout Italy–to purchase marble for his sculptures–and eventually, for his move to Paris at the age of 22. Modigliani, keenly aware of the sacrifices his mother had made for him, vowed to repay her in fame and fortune.
In late 1908 or early 1909, Modigliani moved to Montparnasse, a bohemian section of Paris, and continued to live there with some interruptions until his death in 1920. The artistic community that developed in Montparnasse during the first two decades of the twentieth century had a distinctive character due, in large part, to the number of foreigners who had settled there. By 1913, it had evolved to a point where one writer referred to the area as a “little international republic.” Another writer that same year remarked that Montparnasse had been “invaded by numerous colonies of foreign painters.” Marcel Duchamp called the community of Montparnasse “the first really international group of artists we ever had.” The international group to which Duchamp refers included the Spaniards Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso; the Italians Georgio de Chirico and Modigliani; the Poles Alice Halicka, Henri Hayden, Moise Kisling, Louis Marcoussis, and Elie Nadelman; the Bulgarian Jules Pascin; the Mexican Diego Rivera; the Hungarian Joseph Csaky’; the Dutchman Piet Mondrian; the Americans Jacob Epstein (who became an Englishman), Stanton MacDonald-Wright, and Morgan Russell; the Russians (from present-day Ukraine) Alexander Archipenko, Sonia Delaunay, and Chana Orloff; Russians (from present-day Belarussia) Marc Chagall, Maria Vorobieff Marevna, Chaim Soutine and Ossip Zadkine; Russians (from present-day Lithuania) Jacques Lipchitz and Marie Vassilieff; and the Rumanian Constantin Brancusi.
This multinational group of artists brought with them a wide range of artistic histories, traditions, and backgrounds, and created a remarkably lively, cosmopolitan and sophisticated environment. Of his own generation, Modigliani can be linked to artists Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Jacques Lipchitz, underscoring his firm place within the avant-garde. In fact, Modigliani rendered Matisse’s portrait in 1916, and exhibited with the artist on numerous occasions. The rich colors of most of Modigliani’s paintings demonstrate a definite awareness of Matisse’s liberation of color as an expressive force. In addition, both artists reduced their figures to essential elements.
Modigliani’s closest artistic and social affinities were reserved for the Cubist artists, especially Picasso. Indeed, Modigliani’s artistic life was intertwined more closely with that of Picasso than with any other artist; exhibiting together no fewer than six times between 1916 and 1919.
To a great extent, Cubism was a reaction to photography. With photography, one was able to reproduce a subject perfectly. Therefore, for many artists there was no point in attempting to capture an exact likeness. Rather, Cubists used the image as a jumping-off point or source of inspiration, often breaking elements apart or taking other artistic liberties. Cubism was a catalyst to another mode of expression for almost all modern artists, including Modigliani, who eventually departed from Cubism and developed his own style.
Apart from the Cubists, many of the artists with whom Modigliani associated were Jewish, like himself: Chagall, Epstein, Indenbaum, Kisling, Lipchitz and Soutine. Many individuals have commented on the importance of his Jewish heritage to Modigliani, including his main patron, Dr. Paul Alexandre, and one of his principal dealers, Paul Guillaume. According to both, Modigliani saw himself as a Jewish artist and felt that his art was Jewish. Jews had always respected the Old Testament teachings of not creating graven images, and perhaps Modigliani was expressing his awareness that he was part of the first major group of Jewish artists to become established in the art world.
Modigliani also closely associated with a large group of renowned writers, of whom he created many portraits. Beatrice Hastings, a South-African born English journalist, was perhaps Modigliani’s first principal lover in Montparnasse. Their relationship lasted from 1914 to 1916. Ms. Hastings killed herself in the English town of Worthing, near Brighton, in 1943, by filling her apartment with gas from her oven.
A novella, “Minnie Pinnikin,” penned by Ms. Hastings, details the author’s relationship with Modigliani. In a letter dated September 17, 1936, Ms. Hastings described the novella to Modigliani biographer Douglas Goldring: “I tell the story [of my relationship with Modigliani] in ‘Minnie Pinnikin,’ an unpublished book that I can’t be bothered about with Musso[lini] and Hitler preparing to shake hands and bust up Europe,” In that same letter, Ms. Hastings wrote: “I was Minnie Pinnikin and thought everyone lived in a fairyland as I did.” In her letter to Goldring, Ms. Hastings indirectly confirms that the “fairyland” quality of “Minnie Pinnikin” is an escapist reaction to the horrors of World War I.
In addition to underscoring the spirit of Montparnasse during World War I, “Minnie Pinnikin” provides a sense of the literary trends that Modigliani might have been exposed to during 1914 to 1916, the period when his art matured and his signature style developed. Considered in the context of Modigliani’s critical response at the time–which repeatedly stressed the anti-naturalism of his canvases–“Minnie Pinnikin” helps to suggest that Modigliani was developing a proto-Surrealist art form.
Two other women would leave a significant mark on the life and work of Amedeo Modigliani. Simone Thirioux, a French-Canadian artist, had a son with Modigliani in 1917. Although Modigliani never officially recognized the child as his, testimonials from friends make it clear that the boy was in fact his. Ms. Thirioux died several years later of tuberculosis, soon after Modigliani. The child was adopted, and may still be living today, although probably unaware that he is the offspring of Amedeo Modigliani. No photographs or portraits of Ms. Thirioux are known to exist.
Modigliani’s final lover was an art student named Jeanne Hebuterne. The couple met in 1917 and were together until the end of their brief lives. They had a daughter together in 1918, and Ms. Hebuterne was nine months pregnant with a second child by Modigliani when, despondent over Modigliani’s death on January 24, 1920, she leapt to her death from the fifth-floor window of her parent’s Paris apartment. Their daughter, also named Jeanne, was raised by relatives. She became an artist and art historian–studying Van gogh–and wrote an important biography of her father in an attempt to weight fact over fiction. She died in 1984. Two daughters were known to have been her offspring.
Given the birth of Modigliani’s children in 1917 and 1918, and impending fatherhood, it is not surprising that the depiction of children and young people became a major subject in the artist’s work in the years 1918 to 1919. These paintings show incredibly well Modigliani’s signature style; the figures have the same glow and spiritual quality found in works by Renaissance masters, which Modigliani would certainly have seen during his studies in Florence. These paintings also demonstrate his interest in a new, unexpected source: non-Western art. Modigliani’s children often have the same small eyes, pronounced eyebrows and round faces found in Oceanic masks. Like African masks, they can also be found with empty, hollowed-out eyes. This feature serves to give the works a mysterious, visual allure.
In these poignant portraits, Modigliani gives children a monumentality, grandeur and nobility never-before seen. He elevates children and young people in their level of importance and in doing so, extends the portraiture tradition; previously, portraiture had been reserved for the wealthy and powerful. Modigliani had become, in a sense, “the people’s painter.”
Of all the Montparnasse artists, Modigliani had perhaps the widest range of artistic sources: archaic Greek, Egyptian, African, Oceanic, Khmer, and Medieval art–mixed with elements of Renaissance, Symbolist, Fauvist, and Cubist art. Other sources of inspiration were French, German, Italian, British and American literature, as well as the kabala and Jewish mysticism. He used this wide range of influences to modernize and update the Western portrait and nude traditions, and the practice of sculpture.
Modigliani was the quintessential artist of Montparnasse, that tiny area–about a mile square–which seemed to magically transform artists who moved there. The editors of a special Montparnasse magazine, published on the tenth anniversary of the artist’s death, discussed Modigliani’s special place in Montparnasse history: “While he will always be the handsome, tempestuous painter, a passionate and unconventional man, Modigliani has become, with the posthumous admiration of thousands, the center of religion, so to speak. He shined, he suffered and died, but not without leaving us a legacy. His legend is essentially the cornerstone of Montparnasse.”
Nearly a century after Amedeo Modigliani arrived in Paris, Modigliani & the Artists of Montparnasse will be on exhibition at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York from October 22, 2002 through January 12, 2003. Organized by Albright-Knox curator, Kenneth Wayne, the exhibition will travel to the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, California.