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Modigliani: Misunderstood

A new exhibition positions the bohemian artist's work above even his operatic life story

Late in 1919, in a squalid Paris studio strewn with wine bottles, Amedeo Modigliani painted a wistful portrait of his 21-year-old lover, Jeanne Hébuterne. Afew months later, on January 24, 1920, the impoverished artist died of tubercular meningitis at age 35. The following evening, Hébuterne, eight months’ pregnant with their second child, leapt to her death from a fifth-story window.

During Modigliani’s short and difficult life, the going rate for his elegant, oddly distorted paintings was less than $10, and takers were few. Alandlord who confiscated some of his work in lieu of rent used the canvases to patch old mattresses. Last November an anonymous bidder at Sotheby’s auction house in New York City paid $31.3 million for the Hébuterne portrait.

One of the many ironies of Modigliani’s career is that so tortured a life could produce so serene a body of work. His art managed to bridge the stylistic chasm between classical Italian painting and avant-garde Modernism. The French poet Jean Cocteau, writing in 1959, some 40 years after the two had hobnobbed in Paris’ Montparnasse cafés, called Modigliani “the simplest and noblest genius of that heroic age.” Yet conventional art histories barely mention him. His work, it seems, is too hard to pigeonhole within the canon of 20th-century painting. Perhaps more important, his colorful, tragic life has overshadowed his accomplishments as an artist.

“Modigliani in his personal life is almost a caricature of the misunderstood bohemian painter,” says Tamar Garb, an art historian at University College London. “If Van Gogh is the quintessential mad genius, Modigliani is the quintessential tubercular alcoholic.”

A Modigliani retrospective (on view February 26 through May 29 at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.) attempts to get past his tabloid-worthy reputation as a dashing, drug-using, womanizing wastrel. Organized by the Jewish Museum in New York City, where it drew huge crowds last summer, “Modigliani: Beyond the Myth” offers a portrait of the artist as a serious, disciplined intellectual whose uniqueness as a painter mirrored his outsider status as an Italian immigrant and Jew in Catholic France. (The exhibition’s use of the word “myth” is a bit misleading, since Modigliani really was a dashing, drug-using, womanizing wastrel.)

Amedeo Modigliani was born in the Tuscan seaport of Livorno on July 12, 1884. He was a dreamy, precocious mama’s boy, the youngest of four children, in a family of cultivated, left-leaning intellectuals. His father, Flaminio, a failure in business, was absent for most of Modigliani’s childhood. To make ends meet, his mother, Eugenia, opened a school in the family home, teaching French and English, among other subjects. Asickly child, Dedo, as he was called, had several bouts with pleurisy and at 14 nearly died of typhoid fever. Two years later he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which would slowly kill him over the next 20 years. Though he rarely spoke of his condition, he seemed aware that his time was short. Later, in Paris, he would announce to a friend, Lithuanian sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, that he sought above all “une vie brève mais intense” (“a brief but intense life”).

In Italy as a young man, he enrolled in art schools in Livorno, Florence and Venice, where he dutifully studied academic painting and life drawing. He was entranced by the great artists of the Italian Renaissance, a passion that in Paris would set him apart from so many of his militantly modern peers. Still, he wanted to break new ground. At 17 he wrote from Venice to his Livorno friend Oscar Ghiglia: “Always speak out and keep forging ahead. The man who cannot find new ambitions and even a new person within himself . . . is not a man.” His own ambitions would take him to France. “As an artist,” Modigliani liked to say, quoting Nietzsche, “a man has no home in Europe save in Paris.”

Arriving there in 1906 at age 21, Modigliani emerged from his second-class train compartment wearing a smartly tailored black suit and a dramatic black cape. Though slight, he looked taller than his 5 feet 6 inches, and he carried himself like an aristocrat. In his suitcase he packed a well-worn edition of Dante (whom he was prone to recite from memory at high volume, day or night) and a small reproduction of Two Courtesans, a painting by the Venetian Renaissance artist Vittore Carpaccio, which he would tack to the walls of an endless succession of rented rooms. He brought enough money from mama to last a few months, if he was careful. But Modigliani was never careful.

In Paris, he discovered the work of Renoir, Degas, Gauguin and, among the younger, more radical set, Matisse and Picasso. Cézanne in particular he pronounced “admirrrable,” one of his favorite adjectives; whenever Cézanne’s name was mentioned, he’d pull a reproduction of the painter’s Boy in a Red Vest from his pocket and kiss it. His own early works were somber, Expressionist-influenced portraits with roughly applied gray green colors and heavy outlining that borrowed all too obviously from Cézanne and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Modigliani quickly assumed the pose of the flamboyant bohemian: he frequented the artist hangouts of Montmartre and later Montparnasse, wore a bright silk scarf knotted around his neck in place of a cravat or tie and answered to the nickname Modi, a pun on peintre maudit (accursed painter). Russian artist Chaim Soutine was a close friend, and Maurice Utrillo, later famous for his painted scenes of Montmartre, was a favorite drinking companion. Modigliani was also friendly with Picasso, though not part of his inner circle. Picasso, who affected a workingman’s look with his patched clothes and fisherman’s sweaters, seems to have admired Modigliani’s wardrobe more than his paintings; needing canvas, he once painted over a Modigliani work he had acquired. Modigliani, for his part, recognized the Spaniard’s genius but told a friend that artistic talent was no excuse for not dressing decently.

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