Modigliani lived at various addresses in the bohemian district of Montmartre, not far from Pablo Picasso’s home. In the early days in Paris, Amadeo’s subjects included figures from the demimonde eg circus performers. But during the 13 years that followed, he struggled with the dark side which, in turn, strengthened his art.
Modigliani’s years of poverty were clear from the beginning – he was tubercular, hungry and poor. The consequences of his short and disordered life have resulted in debates amongst scholars, museums, dealers, auction houses and private collectors. His official catalogue raisonné is no longer 100% trusted because of disputed forgeries and subsequent court cases. But at least the authenticity of Dr Paul Alexandre’s wonderful collection of Modiglianis was never challenged.
The very handsome Amadeus Modigliani
Now the Tate Modern in London has brought together drawings, paintings and sculptures by Modigliani which might help with understanding his art. All the early work done in Italy was destroyed at Modigliani’s own request. So the Tate Exhibition consists of paintings and carved stone sculpture done during his chaotic, artistic life in Paris.
The paintings were sensitively hung in the Tate Modern galleries, with their colours creating a radiance. And the display reflected Amadeus’ progress over time. In 1909, he painted a very handsome portrait of his friend Paul Alexandre with layers of almost Turner-like brushwork. That same year he depicted the youth he referred to as a Young Gypsy with a stylised geometric angularity, posing him with legs spread apart and hands loosely resting in his lap. In 1918, Modigliani painted the Little Peasant with a simplified classicism but left him with the same rounded hands and arms a la Paul Alexandre but in a lighter palette.
What about the 12 nudes in the same section of the Tate, perfectly timed to mark the 100-year anniversary of Modigliani’s only solo show. That exhibit, at Gallerie Berthe Weill, was closed by police on its first day because of indecency. The heroic Mrs Weill’s impressive list of artists included Raoul Dufy, André Derain, Georges Braque, Kees van Dongen, Maurice Utrillo and Suzanne Valadon.
Was being Jewish in post-Dreyfus Paris a problem? Modigliani was not interested in the issue! While there were several memoirs that described Modigliani’s passionate response to anti-Semitism, there was no evidence that he felt himself an “outsider”. This cosmopolitan family had come from France, Tunisia, Italy, Algeria and Sardinia; national boundaries melted away. In Paris, his friends included many Jewish artists eg Lipchitz, Soutine, Chagall, Zadkine, Nadelman and Kisling, artists of mixed origin eg Diego Rivera, and non-Jews like Picasso, Laurens, Gris and Cocteau. If he was considered Italian, it was because of his dashing, aristocratic style.
The end was tragic. Amadeus’s young lover Jeanne Hébuterne was 36 weeks pregnant with their second baby. Suffering from acute kidney pain and spitting blood, Modigliani lay in bed and a frightened Hébuterne huddled by his side in their Rue de la Grande Chaumière flat. They were cold that winter, hungry and messy. When he finally fell into a coma, Modigliani was carried to hospital and tended by nuns while friends surrounded him.
Amadeus died and the artist’s brother paid expenses for a lavish funeral, where thousands of people gathered behind a horse-drawn carriage bearing his flower-covered casket. As the funeral cortege passed by, Hébuterne leapt out the 5th storey open window and died on the footpath below. At Cimetière du Père Lachaise, the Jewish funeral was packed out. Hébuterne’s Catholic parents arranged their daughter’s tiny funeral early the next day.
Decades after her parents’ deaths, Amadeus’ daughter Jeanne wrote a book called Modigliani: Man and Myth. Jeanne described her father as the pampered and indulged youngest son in an eccentric Italian family, his own bankrupted father, and Amadeus’ near-death experiences in childhood from pleurisy and typhoid. Perhaps by choosing the life of a Bohemian artist, he was toughening himself up physically while saving his poetic soul.
Sleeping nude by Modigliani
Modigliani was my favourite C20th Bohemian; he was an emotionally intense portrait painter, poet, philosopher, a consumptive and an uncontrolled son and lover. But until I see the exhibition myself, I am relying on Frances Brent in Tablet, The Tate, his daughter Jeanne’s book, Modigliani: Man and Myth and previous posts in this blog.