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Modigliani: Misunderstood

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

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Of course it is Modigliani’s stylized interpretations of languid, melancholy women that are best-known today. But what makes many of his portraits linger in one’s memory is the unease clouding his subjects’ faces. “All are like hurt children, albeit some of these children have beards or gray hair,” wrote Russian novelist Ilya Ehrenburg, who had also known the artist in Paris. “I believe that the world seemed to Modigliani like an enormous kindergarten run by very unkind adults.” The vulnerable-looking child wringing her hands in Little Girl in Blue had, in fact, just been scolded. The artist had sent her out for a bottle of wine, and she’d returned with lemonade.

Perhaps the unease reflected, too, the burden of Modigliani’s own poverty. He was evicted from a series of rooms in Montmartre and Montparnasse and slept in one-franc-anight hotels, train-station waiting rooms and abandoned buildings. He managed, however, to maintain his elegance whatever his finances and attracted a number of lovers, though his relationships tended to be stormy and brief. Unlike his artist friends, he refused to work odd jobs, though his efforts to sell his own work often ended badly. Writing in 1925, painter Maurice de Vlaminck recalled Modigliani showing some drawings to a dealer who had tracked him down in his studio: when the dealer angled for a discount, “Modigliani, without a word, picked up the pile of papers and straightened them carefully, made a hole through the entire pile, threaded a string through the lot and went and hung them up in the lavatory.”

Aside from small sums that his mother occasionally mailed him from Livorno, Modigliani survived mainly on quick sketches of people in cafés that he traded for coins, a meal, or a drink. Vlaminck remembered Modigliani’s casual dignity as he worked the Café de la Rotonde: “With the gesture of a millionaire he would hold out the sheet of paper (on which he sometimes went so far as to sign his name) as he might have held out a banknote in payment to someone who had just bought him a glass of whisky.”

In 1916, Modigliani befriended a small-time art dealer named Leopold Zborowski, a Polish émigré and self-styled poet who managed to provide the artist with a small monthly allowance in return for a regular allotment of paintings. The arrangement boosted the painter’s spirits as well as his income. As part of the deal, Zborowski gave the artist a room, food, painting materials and studio space, along with coal to heat it. The coal proved essential in the chilly winter of 1917, when, with Zborowski’s encouragement, Modigliani painted a string of large nudes that are among the artist’s most indelible works.

“Modigliani is a deeply Italian painter, and he’s clearly interested in the language of the body, which is the language of Italian art,” says Griselda Pollock, an art historian at England’s University of Leeds who wrote about the nudes for the Jewish Museum’s exhibition catalog. “When you stand in front of some of Modigliani’s nudes, you are literally embarrassed being in the presence of such frank physicality. Yet even though he’s reputed to be this dashing man with lots of lovers, these were typically models hired for him by Zborowski. He didn’t know them.”

Zborowski sold one nude for an unprecedented 300 francs ($60), but in general they proved problematic. Francis Carco, a writer friend of Modigliani’s, acquired one for his bachelor apartment. “The next morning,” he recalled, “when my concierge came to do the room, she nearly dropped dead on seeing the picture over the bed.” For Modigliani’s first and only one-man show, at Paris’ Berthe Weill gallery in December 1917, a large nude was placed in the shop’s front window, across the street from a police station. Noticing a crowd gathering on opening night, the police investigated and ordered all the nudes removed. When Weill demanded an explanation, the inspector fumed, “Ces nues . . . ils ont des p-p-poils!” (“These nudes . . . they have b-b-body hair!”) The planned month-long show was shut down before it had officially begun, although Weill did manage to sell two drawings. (Forty years later, Modigliani’s women were still raising blood pressure. Postal authorities in New York City deemed a GuggenheimMuseum postcard of one of his reclining nudes unfit for the U.S. mails in the 1950s.)

When Modigliani met his last and most devoted lover, Jeanne Hébuterne, in 1917, she was a promising art student of 19. She promptly moved in with him, leaving her petit-bourgeois family aghast that she had taken up with a failed artist, and a Jewish one at that. The couple shared a ramshackle apartment on Rue de la Grande Chaumière where, according to a later tenant, “one could see the sunlight shining through part of the wall.”

Hébuterne was slender with almond-shaped eyes, a pale complexion and long light-brown braids. She was so reserved that Zborowski’s wife, Hanka, later could not recall ever having heard her voice. Modigliani introduced her as his “best beloved”—an endearment he’d apparently never used with the other women in his life—and he pledged in writing to marry her (although he never followed through). Hébuterne’s love for Modigliani was apparently unconditional; she even condoned his drinking and barhopping.

In 1918, with Paris under German bombardment, Hébuterne pregnant, and Modigliani’s always fragile health worsening, Zborowski organized an artistic retreat in Provence, for himself, his family and a group of artists (including Modigliani and Hébuterne), that lasted nearly a year. There, Modigliani’s palette grew brighter and his compositions bolder. Hébuterne gave birth to their daughter, Jeanne, in Nice on November 29, 1918. By summer 1919, she was pregnant again. “I’m getting fat and becoming a respectable citizen of Cagnes-sur-Mer,” Modigliani told an artist friend that summer in mock-horror. “I’m going to have two kids; it’s unbelievable. It’s sickening!”

His art was finally getting noticed. That summer, Modigliani and Utrillo were the stars of a major art exhibition in London. The influential novelist and critic Arnold Bennett wrote in the exhibition’s catalog that Modigliani’s portraits “have a suspicious resemblance to masterpieces.”

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