More than perhaps any other artist, the fame of Italy’s Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920) is based on a romanticisation of the bohemian lifestyle. His passionate, tragic life ended at age 35, on the brink of success. Modigliani’s broad oeuvre testifies to much more than bohemianism, though. His captivating portraits and other human depictions, mystical sculptures and sensual nudes attest to his status as an ambitious, refined international artist.
Modigliani lived and worked amid the tumultuous Parisian art world of the early twentieth century. His circle included painters, sculptors, authors, poets and composers. Modigliani was fascinated by poetry and other literature, and is said to have always carried a book in his pocket. His relationships with women – including the poet Anna Akhmatova, the art critic Beatrice Hastings and art student Jeanne Hébuterne – had a significant impact on Modigliani’s life and art.
Modigliani’s life was overshadowed by constant illness and awareness of the nearness of death. During his lifetime, his art was only once featured in a one-man show, one that was surrounded by controversy. He died nearly penniless, weakened by alcohol and drugs. However, the uniqueness of Modigliani’s art was soon understood and his reputation began to grow posthumously. Today Modigliani’s works sell for record-breaking sums at international auctions.
Amedeo Modigliani began his art studies in his hometown of Livorno in 1898. He was influenced by his visits to Rome and Florence. He remained in Venice for three years, studying in a life-model class at the Scuola Libera del Nudo. In his youth, Modigliani was often in poor health. In 1906, he moved to Paris and became acquainted with Pablo Picasso, whose Blue Period works have been compared to Modigliani’s early paintings. Around this time, Modigliani became particularly interested in the art of Paul Cézanne, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin.
PARISIAN CIRCLE OF FRIENDS
To find his own means of expression, Amedeo Modigliani worked intensively in drawing, painting and sculpture. He sometimes did hundreds of sketches a day, but destroyed most of them. Modigliani also gave sketches to his friends, who in turn drew portraits of him. These preserved drawings and portraits tell us much about the early twentieth-century artistic community in Paris and Modigliani’s circle of friends.
SOURCES OF NEW ART
Amedeo Modigliani admired and carefully studied non-European and ancient art. He often visited the Egyptian and Antiquities galleries at the Louvre Museum. At the Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadéro, he studied masks from Ivory Coast and art from East Asia.
After befriending the sculptor Constantin Brâncusi, Modigliani began to see himself as more of a sculptor. As sculpting material, he used porous limestone that he found at Paris Metro construction sites. The solemn figures and long faces of Modigliani’s sculptures were inspired by exotic cultures and prehistoric art, from African masks to dancers from the Angkor Wat temples. Elegant, elongated faces, almond-shaped eyes and exaggeratedly long necks recur in Modigliani’s sculptures and later in his paintings as well.
Female figures formed into columns, known as caryatids, can be seen in many of Modigliani’s drawings and sculptures. Their shapes allude to Egyptian art and the simplicity of Cycladic culture. The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966) served as the model for many of these caryatids. Modigliani did not however draw or paint directly using models, instead creating his works from memory. He wanted to create a new kind of beauty that would combine art of various eras and continents.
FROM SCULPTURE TO PAINTING
The Montparnasse neighbourhood of Paris became the centre of the international art world before the First World War. The history of modernism was formed in its streets. Artists such as Modigliani, Picasso, Poland’s Moïse Kisling, Japan’s Tsuguharu Foujita, Russia’s Chaïm Soutine and Oscar Miestchaninoff, Lithuania’s Jacques Lipchitz and
Romania’s Constantin Brâncusi met there. These avant-garde artists adopted Cubism, the angular, geometry-based style that can be seen in their sculptures and paintings. Through sculpture, Modigliani’s expression became freer and he found his own, distinctive formal language. He returned to painting in 1914–15.
Modigliani had many fleeting relationships with women until he met Beatrice Hastings (1879–1943) in 1914. She was five years older than him, a deeply literary British poet and art critic. Their stormy relationship lasted for two years, during which time Modigliani painted many portraitsof Beatrice, such as Woman with a Velvet Ribbon. That same year, 1915, Modigliani also painted the mysterious Self-Portrait as Pierrot, in which he depicted himself one-eyed and heavily stylised, in the avant-garde spirit.
AN ARTIST’S LIFE IN MONTPARNASSE
Amedeo Modigliani’s paintings reveal the diversity of Montparnasse’s bohemian life of the early twentieth century. The art scene revolved around cafés, many of which are still renowned, such as La Closerie des Lilas, the Café du Dôme and the Café de la Rotonde. Modigliani often painted portraits of his artist friends. He always had his own vision of each subject’s characteristics, which he emphasised and shaped. Thus the works turned into “Modiglianis,” as his friends described his working technique.
In 1916 Modigliani met the Polish poet and art dealer Léopold Zborowski (1889–1932) and his wife Anna, whose nickname was Hanka. Zborowski became a passionate new supporter of Modigliani. He gained exclusive rights to Modigliani’s works and arranged his one-man show.
Modigliani’s portraits offer a view into the Parisian artist community and its flourishing subcultures. He was fond of depicting bohemian and androgynous characters, seeing them as distinctive, fascinating individuals. According to Modigliani’s view of humanity – which many of his contemporaries shared – artists were exceptional individuals, unbound by middle-class societal norms. During his lifetime, as today, Modigliani was best known as a painter of elegant women and sensual nudes. Modigliani rejuvenated the tradition of nude painting, which he had studied as a young man at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia.
LÉOPOLD SURVAGE, PAINTER
Léopold Survage (1879–1968) was one of Modigliani’s closest artistic friends. In 1908 Survage moved to Paris from Russia, where he had
been involved in avant-garde circles. Survage and Modigliani met at the Café Rotonde, a popular artists’ hangout in Paris’s Montparnasse district in 1911.
The portrait of Survage features the trademarks of Modigliani’s portraits: a strong use of lines and muted colours. He has stretched his subject’s face and neck and narrowed his shoulders. In his portraits, Modigliani was primarily interested in the model’s personality rather than his or her external features. When Survage asked Modigliani why he had only given him one eye, the artist is said to have replied: “because with one eye you look at the world, with the other you look into yourself.”
The wedge frame of the painting is inscribed with words referring to Survage as a Finnish artist. Survage was not however Finnish, although he had a connection to the country through his paternal grandfather. He had lived in the eastern Finnish town of Lappeenranta, where Survage carried out his military service. The family had roots in Denmark and Germany, but the artist’s parents were both born in Moscow, as was Léopold Survage – originally Stürzwage – himself.
Modigliani also painted a portrait of Survage’s future wife, Germaine Meyer, in 1918 – before Survage had met her. Modigliani was eager to paint Germaine’s portrait as soon as he met her in Nice. Survage did not meet her until 1921, with Modigliani’s portrait playing an important role in the couple getting together.
Portrait of the Artist Léopold Survage was acquired for the Ateneum collection in 1955. It is the only oil painting by Modigliani known to be in Finnish ownership, and one of the most internationally indemand works in the museum’s collection.
Beginning in 1901, Survage studied art in Moscow, where he became interested in new directions in modern art. Moving to France, he showed works at the autumn salon of 1911. His art approached cubism and constructivism: the key elements of his cityscapes of the 1910s are overlaid structures of geometric shapes. In 1912, he began to create completely abstract works that he called colour rhythms (Rythmes colorés). Survage was planning to use them for animated films, but the project was broken off by the outbreak of the First World War.
Survage’s works are now in many major museum collections. The Ateneum staged an exhibition of his works in 1961, and there is a painting by Survage in the parish hall of Martin’s Church in Turku, Finland.
Modigliani painted his friend’s portrait in Nice, where he worked in 1918–19. The Ateneum has a letter sent by Léopold Survage to the museum in 1956, in which he describes the painting’s creation process and ownership history as well as his own background. This correspondence refers to the purchase of the Modigliani work and its addition to the Ateneum collection.
In 1918, like many of his artistic colleagues, Amedeo Modigliani moved to the French Riviera. For the sickly Modigliani, Paris began to be too dangerous due to the war, constant bombing and the spread of the Spanish flu. He was accompanied by his lover Jeanne Hébuterne (1898–1920), who was expecting their first child.
Their daughter was born on 29 November 1918 and named Jeanne after her mother (1918–1984). In sunny Nice, Modigliani’s palette brightened – dark blues and brownish reds gave way to bright reds, yellows and greenish greys. Many of Modigliani’s portraits of children are from this era. The time in Nice and Cagnes-sur-Mer turned out to be highly productive in artistic terms and one of the happiest times of Modigliani’s life.
THE FINAL YEARS – AMEDEO AND JEANNE
After more than a year in the South of France, Amedeo and Jeanne returned to Paris with their daughter in May 1919. Modigliani showed four works at the Salon d’Automne, but at the same time his health began to decline dramatically. Modigliani was taken to hospital by his friends and Jeanne, who was soon expecting their second child. He died on January 24, 1920. Jeanne, unable to accept Modigliani’s death, leapt to her death out of the window of her parents’ flat.
Modigliani’s funeral at the Père Lachaise cemetery was a significant event, attended by many from the artistic community of Montmartre and Montparnasse. Jeanne Hébuterne was at first buried elsewhere, but in 1930, with the permission of her relatives, was moved to the same grave as Modigliani.