PASSION FOR THE FEMALE FORM
Almost all of Modigliani’s greatest works are of the female form. His portraits of figures elongated and simplified are his hallmark, especially elongated necks in his portraits. But what distinguishes his work mostly is an unrelenting passion for Life, and a style unmistakably his own.
One could say all artists have their style. But is the individual’s style infused with this passion for life, original, and new? Most styles are copies of those greater ones that have been imprinted on our collective psyche. Modigliani is unique. Like El Greco, there was no one before or after quite like him.
Modigliani suffered most of his life with tuberculosis, and eventually, it got the better of him at the age of thirty-five. He lived hard. You could say he lived self destructively―in spite of his driving talent and lust for life. He drank a lot of alcohol and went to the opium dens. His lover and mother of his child, Jeanne Hébuterne, was with him the last three years of his life. They were soul mates it seemed. From a middle-class family who disapproved of her relationship with Modigliani, she pursued the arts herself.
Jeanne was studying sculpture when she met Modigliani, who was a guest instructor in one of her classes. Common in art schools, older professors often seduced their younger female students. Modigliani was smitten with her natural beauty. His medium at the time was marble and limestone sculpture. He had devoted a good period of his art life to sculpture already. But now, this woman came into his life blazing a swath of color that opened up his world.
Modernism was in full swing. Which meant more primitive forms were being explored. Ancient cultures we being discovered. There was an openness to use styles that pushed the norms. Modigliani was one of the cutting edge artists in the early 20th century who beaconed to a visual language all his own. The geometric simplicity of the face comes forth in a startling verticality. He would have been aware of the Cycladic Figures that cut to the very basics of an anatomical shorthand. Geometry, being discovered as a building block of nature, was being pushed to the limits of an austere expression. We get the picture in a kind of hieroglyph of geometric shapes that add up to make a human.
A Painter of the Feminine Design
Modigliani was a passionate man, a sensitive man, a fiercely independent man. He was also a poor man, or at least his addictive tendencies of using alcohol and hashish to mask his sever tuberculosis kept him in a state of impoverished rebellion. He did not seem to manage very well in this overwrought lifestyle. Some claim that it fed his creative edge. Others claim that he could have gone farther in his art and his life had he not indulged in his own path of self destruction.
Modigliani loved women. He had a close relationship with his mother, so I suspect he was always searching for this feminine nurturing. His reclining nudes have a voluptuousness, though verging on the abstract, that draws us in with a tactile invitation. This girl on a blue cushion is almost touchable. She is arousing. We almost cannot resist anticipating the coitus of of the artist with his model. Even more so with the Reclining Nude below. In his day these would have been almost considered pornographic. His show of nudes was actually raided and closed down by the police.
The feminine design was always on Modigliani’s mind. Whether nude or clothed, the female form was definitely his Muse that kept his brushes flowing and his chisels chipping away to reveal the Goddess of his aesthetic world.
Love for the Human Condition
The man was suffering, and perhaps his use of mind altering substances was the only way he could cope with his debilitating disease. Modigliani was a lover, and the human condition was part and parcel in this love, abject as it may have seemed. He received little recognition in his time on planet earth, but he painted and sculpted away in spite of being mostly oblivious to the art world that bought and sold new works of upcoming aesthetes. Now he is recognized as an early Modern Master, but in his day he was mostly thought of by his peers as a hapless, hopeless and belligerent drunk.
It is as if Modigliani was forced to find love in his human condition, no matter how psychologically disturbing it was. He had some good years with Jeanne Hébuterne. She was his closest relationship, no doubt, and the one whom inspired him onward in the last few years of his life. He had a child with her, and she was pregnant with a second when Modigliani died from tuberculosis in 1920. Bereaved and hysterical, she was taken into her family’s care. They had never approved of this “derelict artist,” and welcomed his passing out of her life. Only one day after Modigliani’s death, she threw herself and her unborn child out a fifth floor window of the family home, plummeting to her early death as well.
Although Modigliani never saw good fortune in his own lifetime, this painting, Nu Couché, achieved notoriety recently when a Chinese collector bought it for $170,405,000 at Christie’s, New York, on 9 November 2015. This sum was a record for a Modigliani painting and placing it high among the most expensive paintings ever sold. The purchaser was the Chinese businessman Liu Yiqian. Liu is believed to have paid for the painting using his American Express Card.Wikipedia: Nu Couché
The painting is one of a famous series of nudes that Modigliani painted in 1917 under the patronage of his Polish dealer Léopold Zborowski. It is believed to have been included in Modigliani’s first and only art show in 1917, at the Galerie Berthe Weill, which was shut down by the police. Christie’s lot notes for their November 2015 sale of the painting observed that this group of nudes by Modigliani served to reaffirm and reinvigorate the nude as a subject of modernist art.Wikipedia: Nu Couché
Summarizing His Output.
This Portrait of Jeane is telling. The extended neck; the elongated face; the almond shaped eyes, the simple background—all the hallmarks of a Modigliani, come together in this depiction of his beloved. Modigliani was a contradiction in terms, as he loved life, apparent in his paintings of the lovers and various female models in his creative world; and at the same time, he walked the path of perdition when it came to his personal matters. Jeanne represents the true Love of his life, embodied as a kind of lone Madonna. He was her true Love as well, more or less, making them soul mates or even twin flames.
But, like Van Gogh, Modigliani was too often an angry and anti-social misfit. He was twisted in his affliction toward the world we have to live in. Staying “up” on alcohol and hashish did not eliminate his demons, but rather enhanced them. Unfortunately, his disease of tuberculosis accompanied him most of his adult life. However, he still managed to paint 349 major works. Summarizing Modigliani is to wish for the atonement for his “suicide from inebriation.” And also there was no cure for tuberculosis at that time, so his self medicating with hashish and alcohol to paint over his pain is probably understandable.
I would overlook his tumultuous life of discontent, and appreciate the simplicity of these modern Madonnas who grace our concepts of feminine Divinity. He respects women far more than anyone else in the early modern era did, perhaps outside of Matisse. Other artists painted their Muse, but Modigliani elevated his to the level of the sacred feminine. We have these examples as a cavalcade of icons dedicated to the female presence. They are certainly a celebration of a lover who stands behind women, placing his hand on the shoulder of an era long passed away. With Modigliani, we have in these paintings the hope of redefining afresh the way we can see the female form—as the Goddess of all things bright and beautiful.