A century ago today, on 24 January 1920, Amedeo Modigliani died in hospital in Paris from tuberculous meningitis. Just two days later, his partner Jeanne Hébuterne threw herself from a fifth floor apartment, killing both herself and their unborn child. This double tragedy brought to an untimely end one of the most promising figurative artists of the early twentieth century.
Over the last three weeks, I have looked at a small selection of Modigliani’s works, and traced his brief career. At the end of this short tribute, I list those articles with links.
When I started researching these articles, I knew that Modigliani was too important an artist not to cover, but I must admit that I wasn’t convinced that I was going to appreciate his work. Over those weeks, as I have looked at more of his drawings, paintings and sculpture, they have grown on me. Unlike some of his contemporaries, his people are real and his depictions full of grace and calm. His stylistic exaggerations and faired forms work to create portraits and nudes which we can really enjoy.
Although he seems to have largely abandoned sculpture in 1914, when the outbreak of war must have made materials scarce, this limestone Head of a Woman from 1910-11 serves as an ideal introduction. These stylised heads have multiple influences: ancient Mediterranean civilisations, masks from the French Congo, Cambodian carvings, maybe even Easter Island monumental statues or moai, brought together with the mentoring of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși.
This drawing of one of his Caryatids, intended to support his ‘temple to humanity’, shows Modigliani’s emphasis on clean form, its faired curves revealing a pure geometry.
Although referring to Manet’s portrait of a Spanish dancer which had been rejected by the Salon, Modigliani’s Lola de Valence is more closely related to his earlier sculpture.
Those same forms transfer to this double portrait of a fellow sculptor and his wife.
And on into the face, shoulders and breasts of his lover Beatrice Hastings, in this Seated Nude from the middle of the Great War.
His unique series of nudes painted around 1917 was commissioned by his dealer Zborowski, who provided and paid the models, gave Modigliani his materials, and even let the artist live and paint in his apartment in Montparnasse, Paris. In return, Modigliani was paid a mere 15-20 francs per day, and produced paintings which went on to bring the police to deal with their ‘indecency’ when some were exhibited in the artist’s only solo show during his lifetime.
Under the oil paint, Modigliani remained true to his anatomical geometry.
Modigliani’s figures are stylised by vertical exaggeration, giving them tall heads and long necks like his sculptures. The head is typically cocked to one side, and the eyes are an even blue-grey without pupils. They have quiet gracefulness and a deep air of calm. Above all, these are gentle people.
Modigliani was introduced to the young and beautiful art student Jeanne Hébuterne in the Spring of 1917. She was quiet and shy, but they were soon living together in an apartment. When they left Paris and stayed in Nice, she gave birth to their daughter, also named Jeanne.
Modigliani’s lifestyle was never going to see him into old age. Like Vincent van Gogh, his star burned intensely for but a few years. His consumption of alcohol and drugs didn’t help his health, but it was tuberculosis which he had contracted at the age of sixteen which stopped his art short, less than twenty years later. The disease was known as King Death, and continued to kill the brilliant, artists, poor workers, mothers, those from every part of society, for another twenty-five years, until immunisation got under way and there was effective treatment.
Previous articles tracing Modigliani’s life and work:
I hope that you have enjoyed seeing his graceful people as much as I have.