I have lectured on Jewish Artists of the Belle Epoque many times in the past. What never fails to amaze me is the difference between the dozens of Eastern European lads from impoverished families on one hand and the elegant Italian Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), son of a very comfortable family, on the other.
Amedeo was born in Livorno/Leghorn, west of Florence in 1884. His parents were business and professional people, both sides of the family being Sephardim. Amedeo was their 4th and youngest child, frail throughout childhood. Bored witless in bed, it was then that he began to play with painting. Alas the young lad became seriously ill with typhoid fever and tuberculosis, and was close to death.
Portrait of Chaim Soutine, 1916, private collection
Eventually he recovered and had formal art training in Florence and Venice. But he already saw himself as tormented and on the path to self destruction. It was therefore quite risky when he decided to move to Paris in 1906 and to settle in Montmartre, the centre for Bohemian artists and writers. He settled in Le Bateau-Lavoir, a commune for impoverished artists where each person had at least enough space to sleep, paint and drink coffee. There probably wasn’t much food in the entire rambling building complex.
There Modigliani was thrilled by Paul Cezanne, the artist who came to exert a decisive influence on Modigliani’s early years, as did Pablo Picasso in his blue period. Of the sculptors, his greatest mentor was the Romanian Constantin Brancusi, another recent immigrant to Paris.
Modigliani was a sculptor who modelled his work on African art, particularly tribal masks. When he could no longer carry out the heavy physical work required by sculpture, he turned to painting. The use of strong line and elongated shapes, so typical in his African-inspired sculptures, was carried into his portraits. I am never quite sure if modern viewers find his style simple, powerful and expressive.. or childish and repetitive.
Modigliani's portraits, rather quickly completed, came out of the positive emotional connection between the artist and his model. Very often he would use his artist friends as models, presumably to save himself the cost of paying a modelling fee. Instead he would share his food with his artist-friends who had no food of their own. He exhibited six of these portraits at the 1910 Salon des Independants, allowing the public to see a groups of his works for the first time.
Portrait of the Painter Manuel Humbert, 1916, NGV Melbourne
The pre-WW1 period saw the Paris art scene shift south from Montmartre to Montparnasse. Picasso and Modigliani moved to rue Campagne-Première, joined by Miro and Kandinsky; Braque worked nearby. Belle Epoque cabarets gave way to WW1 coffee shops and bars, heaps of them along bvd du Montparnasse: the Coupole, Dôme, Select, Rotonde and Closerie des Lilas. Often frequented by impoverished artists and writers, I can imagine the bar owners agreeing to barter coffees and wines for drawings and quick paintings.
I have selected just two of Modigliani’s artist-friends who agreed to act as models. Chaim Soutine 1916, later hunted to death by the Nazis, was his closest friend. By applying the paint strongly and thickly, Modigliani made Soutine look like the unpretentious Eastern European man he was. Manuel Humbert 1916 was a Spanish painter of landscapes and also a friend of Modigliani. In this insightful portrait, Modigliani drew attention to Humbert's eyes and sensual mouth. In both cases, the artist captured the character of his friends with appealing simplicity.
For other Modigliani portraits, see Paulo Coelho’s Blog, The Bespoken: For Gentlemen, Chasing Light and Lines and Colors.
The sophisticated Italian was a role model for the other immigrant Jewish artists and went out of his way to be friendly to, and supportive of the younger men arriving in Paris from Eastern Europe. Moise Kisling and Simon Mondzain never forgot Modigliani’s kindness, and Andre Salmon lived across the street and often shared his meals. But no-one relied on Modigliani as much as Chaim Soutine did, professionally, socially and emotionally. Soutine was totally devastated when his friend and mentor died in 1920.
The book Modigliani: A Life was written by Meryle Secrest and published by Knopf just recently (2011). I have read many biographies of the artist, but Secrest is the first person to suggest that it was the struggle AGAINST tuberculosis that was the cornerstone of his decisions and behaviours, not the disease itself. And certainly not alcoholism or drug addiction. In a life that he knew to be short, Modigliani used alcohol and drugs only as the means by which he could keep functioning as a prolific painter.
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