Art Styles in 20th century Art Map

 






Amedeo Modigliani


 

 




(1884 - 1920)
 





The Poetry of Seeing


 
 
   

 



He was Our Aristocrat

 

 

 

 

The development of photography, as well as the desire for artistic autonomy, meant that by the beginning of the twentieth century the genre of portraiture had lost much of its original function of depicting the likeness of a person. Modigliani is the only artist of classical Modernism who still concentrated almost exclusively on the actual subject. And yet the portrait had once been considered the source of painting. The Renaissance art historian, Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), relates a legend, The Daughter of Butades, on the emergence of painting. It was a legend that would remain familiar well into the nineteenth century. It tells how in the distant past a young woman, grief-stricken at having to part from her lover, sketched the outline of his silhouette on a wall, thereby at least retaining a picture of him. What is interesting about this myth is that it defines painting as the depiction of something which is past, something which places before the eye that which is absent, and finally that it originates from love and offers comfort.
Portraits therefore have the function of reminding one of a person and of depicting them.

   
 
Victoria 
1916 
   
 
Portrait of a Woman in a Black Tie 
1917 
   

 

 This demands a certain similarity between the portrayed subject and their likeness, a similarity which can lie both in the external physiognomic features as well as in the symbolic depiction of the subject's character. Every portrait, however, says as much about its painter as its subject. The portrait can thus be considered as that genre of painting in which two individuals are eternally fused. In Modigliani's portraiture, this fusion is particularly conspicuous. Over the years, he developed a number of stylistic features, such as the strong emphasis he places upon lines and the surfaces that they enclose, his elegant elongation and distortion of bodies, and the almond shapes which he gives the often asymmetrically-placed eyes. The schematic stylisation of facial features is each time applied to the persons depicted. These are often named in the pictures in awkward handwriting. The unmistakable pictorial language in which Modigliani captures his subjects passes, in the writing of their names, into the literal form of the letters of the alphabet. The inscriptions, in emulation of the inscriptions on Renaissance portraits, indicate that, after the demanding process of painting a portrait, the distance between artist and model has once again been established.
Modigliani's view of the people captured in his portraits changed in the course of his work. In the portraits of Dr Paul Alexandre and the Baroness de Hasse de Villers from 1909 (The Amazon), the status and character of the subjects can be read from the way in which they are presented. In a more expressive portrait, such as that of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera (1866-1957), Modigliani's brushwork seems to have been influenced by his subject's powerful appearance and legendary volcanic temperament. In his subsequent portraits, which show an increasing stylistic smoothness, Modigliani is more interested in outward appearances than in character. In his two portraits of his friend, the poet Max Jacob, Modigliani brings out his distinctive features - his bald head, unusually large nose, narrow face and small mouth - with great, almost plastic, clarity. The individual forms are outlined with strong contours, resulting in a contracted view, visibly influenced by Cubist painting. In other portraits from the years 1915/16 there is a similar geometric stylisation, reminiscent of Modigliani's sharp-edged sculpted heads. In the painting Bride and Groom, Modigliani's play of lines almost results in a caricatured depiction of the bridal couple. In his emphasised rendering of mouth, nose and eyes, Modigliani's portrait of Beatrice Hastings also reveals a light irony. The English writer, Beatrice Hastings, who was Modigliani's mistress between 1914 and 1916, is presented as Madam Pompadour in this painting. The reference to Louis XV's most famous mistress and her transformation into an English "madam" was meant to wittily depict Hastings' role in Modigliani's life. This explains the exaggerated characterisation of the eccentric poetess as well as her very old-fashioned hat, whose origins are as bourgeois as those of the Marquise de Pompadour, elevated by the king to the aristocracy - much to the horror of the Versailles court. The playful and unofficial character of this portrait resulted from the close - and, as described by Hastings - dramatic relationship between the painter and his model. She had come to Paris in April 1914 to write a column entitled "Impressions de Paris" for the London-based journal The New Age. English readers were apparently just as interested in gossip about Parisian Bohemia as in discussions of current events. Under cover of a pseudonym, Beatrice Hastings delivered many casually-written pieces, revealing her intimate knowledge of the scene. She also offered a candid account of her impression of Modigliani: "A complex character. A swine and a pearl. Met him in 1914 at a cremerie. I sat opposite him. Hashish and brandy. Not at all impressed.

 

 

 
Portrait of Diego Rivera 
1914 
   
 

The Mexican painter came to Paris in 1911 and was quickly accepted into Picasso's circle. Modigliani painted a number of portraits of Rivera, who in 1929 married the painter Frida Kahlo and in the 1930s became one of the major representatives of Mexican mural painting. The revolutionary emotive-ness and fiery temperament of the "impetuous Indian" have been captured by Modigliani in strong, free patches of colour.

   
 
Portrait of Diego Rivera 
1914 
   
 
Portrait of Diego Rivera 
1914 

 

 

 

Didn't know who he was. He looked ugly, ferocious and greedy. Met him again at the Cafe Rotonde. He was shaved and charming. Raised his cap with a pretty gesture, blushed and asked me to come and see his work. And I went. He always had a book in his pocket. Lautremont's Maldoror. The first oilpainting was of Kisling. He had no respect for anyone except Picasso and Max Jacob. Detested Cocteau. Never completed anything good under the influence of hashish."
In the portraits that Modigliani made of Beatrice Hastings and in the two portraits of Max Jacob, he developed an incisive method of portrayal that is above all indebted to his draughtsmanly use of line, giving concise, precise expression to the subject's essential characteristics. Other portraits, such as those of Chaim Soutine or Moise Kisling (1891-1953), show a painterly treatment of the subject. In these paintings, Modigliani reduces the information about the person to a minimum. His two Eastern European friends are depicted free of all extraneous details. On the whole, one notes an increasing tendency towards simplification and reduction in Modigliani's approach to portraiture. Max Jacob linked this to the character of the Italian artist: "For Dedo, simply everything was directed towards purity in art. His unbearable pride, grim ingratitude, arrogance; all of these expressed nothing else but his longing for crystalline purity, [nothing but] an absolute honesty towards himself in life as in art, and this did not exclude trust which had been placed in him. He was cutting but also as fragile as glass and, so to speak, as inhuman as glass. And that was very characteristic of this age, which spoke of nothing but purity in art."

   
 


Portrait of Moise Kisling 
1915 

 

 

 


Portrait of Moise Kisling 
1916 

   
 
Portrait of the Painter Moise Kisling
1915

 

 

 

What Max Jacob describes as purity is visible in Modigliani's paintings as the art of omission. In fact, by this point his portraits are almost easier to describe if one lists what they do not show. The intense concentration on the subject's physiognomy means that all decorative attributes, distinguishing gestures, suggestions of an existing space or narrative elements are left out. In this rigorous, self-imposed reduction, Modigliani's paintings really were unique for their time. There are approximate models to be found, however, in the art of earlier centuries: in that of the Italian Renaissance, an obvious source of inspiration for Modigliani, but also in the portraiture of Netherlands masters such as Frans Hals (1581/85-1666) and Rembrandt (1606-1669). Max Jacob's "purity" manifested itself in Modigliani's portraits as a leaning towards what lay outside of time, towards the eternally valid and thus to the classical. A persuasive example of this can be found in a comparison of the portraits of Jean Cocteau - the young all-round talent who had become known through his work with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes - painted by Modigliani  and Moise Kisling. Both paintings were done at the same sitting in Kisling's studio in the Rue Joseph Bara. While Kisling's portrait shows Cocteau within the ambience of the actual room, Modigliani lifts him into spheres removed from reality. Cocteau is brought closer to the viewer in a half-length portrait, lending prominence to his striking features. Cocteau is given a more upright pose here than in Kisling's portrait. The chair's high back reminds one of a throne and emphasises the aristocratic appearance of the 27-year-old, a promising artist who frequented the salons of the Right Bank.

   
 
Portrait of Beatrice Hastings 
1915
   
 
Portrait of Beatrice Hastings 
1915
   
 
Portrait of Beatrice Hastings 
1916 
   
 
Portrait of Beatrice Hastings 
1916 
   
 
Portrait of Beatrice Hastings 
1916 
 

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