By Olaf Mextorf
Prestel. 110 pages. £9.99. ISBN 978-3-7913-8659-1
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Olaf Mextorf’s introduction to this book quickly establishes a picture of a man who, whatever else he did, became a model for the notion of the doomed artist: “He was handsome, reckless and dangerously ill”. He drank and drugged to excess, “women found him irresistible”, and he was talented. He might well have gone down as one more bohemian character who cut a path through artistic Paris in the early years of the twentieth century and was then largely forgotten, but for one thing. The “talent” which, in the form of his paintings, assured him of immortality. He wasn’t just a proficient artist with an assured touch when it came to applying colour to canvas. Modigliani created something new and original and left behind paintings which are recognisable as only his.
Born in 1886 in Italy, Modigliani was rarely free from illness as a child, a factor which, when added to the tuberculosis he later suffered from, probably shaped his desire to live life to the full while he could. He was known to admire the writings of Verlaine and Rimbaud, and even when an art student frequented brothels and regularly used alcohol and cannabis. He identified with the role of the artist “on the edge of society”. It was inevitable that he would soon move to Paris, which he did in 1906. The city was then the centre of the art world and teeming with painters and sculptors from many countries. And it was the focus for new ideas. Impressionism had changed attitudes in many ways, and other movements soon followed – post-impressionism, symbolism fauvism, cubism.
Modigliani became friendly with the German artist, Ludwig Meidner, and with Maurice Utrillo who shared his liking for a lifestyle often revolving around drink. But he was painting, and in 1907 exhibited at the Paris Salon d’Automne, and in 1908 at the Salon des Indépendants, both of which highlighted the works of the current avant-garde. I think it’s true to say that Modigliani was still formulating his own style at this time. His 1907 painting, “Jewish Woman”, puts me in mind of works by Picasso from his Blue period. Mextorf says that he “mixed with Jewish artists in Paris, where he may have met the young woman who posed as a model for him”.
Montmartre, where Modigliani initially lived when he arrived in Paris, was being replaced by Montparnasse as the area where artists and writers congregated, and he moved there in 1909. He had met the painter Chaim Soutine, who became one of his drinking companions, and the sculptor Brancusi. I think we now tend to primarily look at Modigliani the painter, but he did produce many sculptures, some of them showing how he was influenced by non-European cultures. It’s said that he had been friendly with Italian construction workers in Paris, and that they loaned him tools for sculpting and provided the materials from which he chiselled his heads
An early item that particularly caught my attention is a drawing from 1911 of the Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. Its simplicity is striking, being little more than a “few thinly spaced lines” and a small head. Mextorf suggests that there is some affinity in this work with that of the “British illustrator and graphic artist, Aubrey Beardsley”. The deftness with which Modigliani creates a personality with seemingly little effort certainly does have some resemblance to Beardsley’s work.
Modigliani lived in poverty in Paris, and it was during this period that he met the British painter, Nina Hamnett, whose portrait he painted in 1914. It shows an attractive woman and is certainly a world away from photographs of the Hamnett who is mostly remembered as an alcoholic habitué of the Soho watering holes of the 1930s and 1940s. Hamnett, in turn, introduced him to the writer Beatrice Hastings, with who Modigliani had a “tempestuous affair”. Her early impression of him hadn’t been favourable, but she soon declared herself “completely crazy about the pale, brutal bastard”. His portrait of Hastings is curious and has a “secretive, somewhat melancholic aura…….In parts of the canvas, an almost brittle application of colour makes the picture appear like a slowly fading memory”. Was Hastings fading from Modigliani’s life when he painted her picture?
Modigliani may now be noted for his paintings of nudes, but when they were first exhibited in Paris they attracted the attention of the police and had to be withdrawn from public display. A lot of the fuss seems to have centred around the pubic hair that all the models clearly have. It was a convention that nudes usually had that part of their bodies either hidden or clean-shaven. Did Modigliani deliberately seek to cause a scandal by showing the pubic hair? He certainly liked to shock the bourgeoisie with his behaviour, and it may be that he would have been aware that the sight of the tufts would invite a reaction.
It might be worth adding at this point that it was often assumed that Modigliani usually had “more than just an artistic interest in his models”. And it does seem true that what he captured on canvas wasn’t only a matter of form in terms of curves and colour. There does appear to be a suggestion of sexuality in the way the models are posed. Look at the 1918 “Young Woman in a Shirt”, of which Mextorf says: “The painting’s transience corresponds to the fragile moment of intimacy that Modigliani is aiming to express. It is uncertain which role the painter himself played in this context”. He also discusses the 1917 “Reclining Nude”, and says that Modigliani’s approach to the subject can be seen as “reducing nudity to sex”. Are his models “objects of degraded male fantasies?”. He adds: “opinions oscillate between transcendence and a suspicion of pornography”.
It’s Modigliani’s portraits that seem to me to me to hold more interest, skilled and provocative as the nudes may be. As a prominent member of the Montparnasse artistic community he frequently painted his friends and associates. Early portraits such as those of Paul Alexandre (an enthusiastic patron and collector of Modigliani’s work) and Baroness Marguerite de Hasse de Villers (a socialite with an occasionally difficult character) are both accomplished, though the Baroness rejected her portrait. His portrait of the Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, “deviates from his otherwise typical stylisation”, and a portrait of Picasso is described as “curious” and “characterised by a sketchy and fleeting application of colour”.
The Polish art dealer Léopold Zborovski had been introduced to Modigliani by the artist Moise Kisling, and he and his wife helped to look after him in his final years. Modigliani painted portraits of both Leo and Anna Zborovski. With Leo, he captured a man with a quizzical expression on his face. Is he weighing up the artist or the world in general? When it came to Anna, known as a woman who was “cultivated, self-controlled and reserved,” he saw her as “at peace with herself and unapproachably beautiful”. Mextorf says that, although she disapproved of Modigliani’s lifestyle, she “repeatedly posed as a model for him”. She was presumably someone in whom his interest didn’t get to extend beyond the artistic.
Others painted by Modigliani included Soutine and the portrait has “restless brushwork that appears to echo Soutine’s personality, described as unrefined”. When he produced a portrait of the Russian sculptor Jacques Lipschitz and his wife Berthe, he charged “only ten francs and some alcohol”. With the poet, critic and painter Max Jacob – “Jewish, a homosexual and a drug addict” - he saw someone whose “true feelings…..seem to be hidden from view by an inner barrier”. There was also an expressive drawing of the Swiss poet and novelist Blaise Cendrars, author of, among other things, the wonderful long poem, “Easter in New York”. Cendrars had joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914 and had lost an arm in 1915. Like his drawing of Anna Akhmatova, Modigliani’s few lines pack in a great deal in terms of capturing something of Cendrars’ presence in the world.
Modigliani’s final years are probably those that many people may know about, the nature of his death and its consequences having been chronicled in various novels, films, biographies, and articles. He had never been without a female companion in his life, and in 1917 met Jeanne Hébuterne, a nineteen year old art student, “a beautiful young woman with blue eyes and thick, reddish brown hair”. There was an immediate attraction between them and it was not long before she had moved in with the thirty-two year old artist. He was achieving some success, but was still “entirely destitute”. To complicate matters even further her parents – staunch middle-class Catholics – disapproved of her relationship with the older Jewish bohemian painter.
There are two portraits of Jeanne in the book. One, a head-and-shoulders, brings out something of her fragile beauty, while the other, painted in 1919, shows her when she was carrying their second child. Life with Modigliani had never been easy for Jeanne. She was sometimes described as “quiet, weak and willing to make sacrifices”, presumably to hold on to his affections. He had continued to indulge in drink and drugs and to associate with other women. There must have been some inner depth in her character which enabled her to tolerate the unfaithfulness, poverty, and even the verbal and physical abuse Modigliani directed against her.
Things came to a head in January 1920. Modigliani had “caught a severe chill while waiting for friends in the rain”. He was taken to his studio where Zborovski and his wife looked after him. Jeanne was heavily pregnant and unable to help. But when on the 22nd January the Chilean artist Ortiz de Zárate, who lived below Modigliani, returned from travelling he found the painter “unconscious in the ice-cold studio”. He sent for a doctor who immediately had Modigliani taken to hospital. He died there on the 24th January 1920 without regaining consciousness. His death was ascribed to “meningitis, which had been brought on by a tuberculosis pathogen”.
It was left to Moise Kisling and André Salmon to raise funds to provide for a suitable funeral and on the 27th January the funeral procession made its way from Montparnasse to Père Lachaise cemetery. “Numerous artist friends, models, dealers and art lovers followed Modigliani’s coffin across the city”. The day after the funeral Jeanne jumped from a balcony at her parents’ home, killing herself and her unborn child. Her family had disinherited her when she went to live with Modigliani, and even in death they refused to let her be buried near him. She was also denied internment in the family vault because she had committed suicide.
As usual with bohemian tragedies there is the ironic fact that the paintings and other works that Modigliani was paid very little for soon began to accumulate in value. Death is a great stimulator for raising prices in the art world. It’s also a fact that it has always been difficult to ascertain how many works of art Modigliani created and what happened to some of them. Drawings he did while sitting in a café with friends were often given away or left on the table. They may not have been major works, but would be sought after now. As a consequence, any number of forgeries may be floating around. His style was so distinctive that it became relatively easy to copy.
It’s difficult to separate Modigliani’s work from his personal legend. The paintings were an integral part of his life, often chronicling through portraiture the friends and fellow-artists he moved among. They provide a picture of the Parisian bohemia of the first two decades of the twentieth century. Olaf Mextorf has managed to evoke not only Modigliani’s life and work in this excellent small book, but has also drawn attention to a lost world of artists and others who, even while the First World War raged just a few miles away, were attempting to preserve ideals of creativity and beauty.