When I know your soul – Modigliani

For just a few more days you have a chance to see the first large exhibition of this Italian painter/sculptor´s works at the Albertina Museum, together with selected pieces by some of his contemporaries, such as Pablo Picasso, André Derain, and the sculptor Constantin Brancusi. Their works are also juxtaposed by artifacts of prehistoric and non-European world cultures, from which Modigliani drew inspiration.

He was inspired by “primitive” sculptures, African, Egyptian, East Asian and Greek-archaic art, but his works also reference the Renaissance.

As a young man in Paris, between 1909 and 1914 Modigliani worked almost exclusively as a sculptor, though he was trained in painting. Cycladic sculptures from Bronze Age Aegean civilizations and and African sculptures inspired the elongated forms of his own sculptures, and the subtle smiles on faces were influenced by Asian art.

Amedeo Modigliani´s sculpture of a head (1911/12)

Because of lung disease the dust created during sculpting was harmful to Modigliani´s ambitions to continue as a sculptor. In 1914, the art dealer Paul Guillaume contracted Modigliani and persuaded him to turn back to easel painting.

Amedeo Modigliani´s “Large red bust” and “Caryatid”

Modigliani meant to shock the bourgeoisie with his works. What now seems quite tame to the 21st century viewer was once a radical break with the rules of artistic style. He was neither a Fauvist (like Henri Matisse, André Derain) nor a Cubist (like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque), and his artistic approach represents his own avant-gardist style that synthesized many influences, both antique and modern.

In his lifetime, Modigliani had just one solo exhibition, in 1917, and that became a big scandal because because of the open display of some twenty nudes, which sometimes featured, oh horror!, pubic hair. It is these nudes that have most impressed the art experts, with their bold intimacy, simplified silhouettes with geometric, but not completely abstract, shapes derived from Cycladic figurines.

Though they were painted later, they are much less stylized than Modigliani´s earlier caryatides. (Classic caryatides are supporting columns on buildings, sculpted in the form of draped female figures.)

Sadly, Modigliani was much affected by the scandal his exhibition caused, and for the rest of his life only painted another ten – now semi-clad – nudes along with nudes of his last life partner, the art student Jeanne Hébuterne.

Female semi-nude (1918)

When I know your soul, I will paint your eyes.

Amedeo Modigliani

His portraits, of friends, other artists, draw in style on his sculptures and those of other cultures, with their almond eyes, their geometric shapes and mask-like elegant faces with long necks. The artist painted many of his characteristic portraits of people with strangely blank blue eyes, lacking pupils.

Portraits of young women, between 1916 and 1918

As a portraitist, Modigliani excelled, sketching friends but also other artists and ordinary people. I love his long-necked portraits, which are at once so vibrant and elegant, as well as stylized and with a touch of mystery when the eyes stare at you without pupils, like those of ancient statues.

A portrait of Diego Rivera by Amedeo Modigliani (1914)

Suffering from illnesses throughout his life, it was ultimately chronic tuberculosis that killed him at the age of 35 in January 1920. His eight months pregnant fiancé, Jeanne Hébuterne, whom he had portrayed in several paintings, took her own life two days later, leaving behind their one-year old daughter. (The little girl, Jeanne (Giovanna) Modigliani, was adopted by Modigliani´s sister in Florence and died in Paris in 1984. She became a writer and historian of Jewish art and published a biography of her father, the book Modigliani: Man and Myth, in 1958.)

Jeanne Hébuterne (1919)

As is the fate of so many artists, Modigliani only became truly famous after his death at a young age. Despite working in the midst of the Paris Montmartre and the Montparnasse, and being in exchange with the greats of his time (he worked with and painted portraits of Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, Diego Rivera…), tragically he died as an outsider and loner in the artistic world, having created a bridge between modernity and the art from centuries past. Today he counts among the most expensive artists of history whose images cost hundreds of millions of Euros in the art market.

Left: Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne (1918)

The exhibition Modigliani – Revolution of Primitivism is curated by Marc Restellini, art historian and editor of the work directory of Modigliani´s paintings, on view at Vienna´s Albertina Museum until 9 January 2022. Don´t let this opportunity pass you by!

Sources: Albertina website, Wikipedia

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