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Modigliani: the cautious art of a painter leading a wild life

Amedeo Modigliani created a unique style, corresponded to his idea of beauty, conceived as essential and minimalist, and mostly recognizable in the luscious and sensual female subjects usually depicted with slender and sinuous bodies, long and thin necks and almond-shaped eyes.

Considered as one of the major portraitists of contemporary art, Amedeo Modigliani created a unique style in the first two decades of the 20th century. This style corresponded to his idea of beauty, conceived as essential and minimalist, and mostly recognizable in the luscious and sensual female subjects, usually depicted with slender and sinuous bodies, long and thin necks and almond-shaped eyes.
The Tate Modern in London set up “Modigliani”, an exhibition dedicated to the artist with more than 100 artworks on display, including the room “The Ochre Atelier”, a virtual reality reconstruction of the painter’s studio, thus creating the largest retrospective that has ever celebrated the artist so far. The exhibition opened on November 23, 2017, and will close on April 2, 2018.

Modigliani, a movie-like life

The artist was nicknamed Modì, the short version of his name whose sound is similar to French maudit meaning “damned”. In fact, the painter lived as a bohemian in the Paris of the early 20th century, impersonating the archetype of the damned artist who destroyed his life with alcohol and drugs, a life already marked by tuberculosis since he was an adolescent.
However, the artist’s dissolute life, mainly lived on the edge of poverty in the freezing ateliers in Montmartre and Montparnasse, was very different from his art, which on the contrary was elegantly moderate.

Amedeo Modigliani, Gypsy Woman with Baby, 1919, National Gallery of ART, Washington.

Paris

In 1906 a 22-year-old Modigliani, who was born in Livorno, arrived in Paris, where he spent the rest of his short life. During those years, many avant-garde movements were founded in the cultural capital of the world, and almost all the major artists of the time adhered to them. Differently from the others, Modigliani kept being independent from any artistic movement; nonetheless, he fully lived his time, from which he learned the new features that he reinterpreted following an individual artistic path.

The importance of sculpture

The sole and constant theme of Modigliani’s art was the human figure, which he studied seeking the simplicity of the forms and through a stylization that, as time went by, became more and more extreme. However, the artist achieved stylistic autonomy between 1909 and 1914, when he left painting aside to favor sculpture: inspired by the meeting with the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, Modigliani made some stone heads similar to tribal masks. These sculptures were characterized by an archaic and solemn simplicity, elongated, thin and with sharp profiles whose noses resembled arrows. Moreover, the strict compositional scheme of these creations, exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1912, recalls African art, which was very fashionable in Paris at that time, and the Cycladic figures of the Bronze Age.

Amedeo Modigliani, Woman’s Head, 1912,  The Met, New York.

The return to painting: the art of portraits

Modigliani definitively abandoned sculpture for health reasons; however, it was precisely from sculpture that his mature pictorial language arose, in which drawing showed a sharpness that was typical of sculptures. The simplicity of the heads led the artist to a portraiture where physiognomy tended to abstract. Actually, until 1917 Modì devoted himself entirely to portraits, immersed in vague timeless settings and characterized by the typical elongation of the facial features defined by pronounced lines and almond-shaped eyes, which sometimes were empty. Not only did he portray anonymous models, but, most of all, he portrayed his friends and acquaintances, including the writer Béatrice Hastings, with whom he had a tumultuous relationship, and the leading figures of the Parisian avant-garde: Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Chaïm Soutine, Jacques Lipchitz and many others.

The Nudes and the scandal

In 1917, the Polish poet and art dealer Leopold Zborowsski, who in the last years had become Modigliani’s patron, prompted him to the realization of his famous series of nudes, which were displayed in the artist’s first and only solo exhibition, organized at the Berthe Weill Gallery. The exhibition was opened and closed on the same day due to protests of both police and audience, who were scandalized by the eroticism of Modigliani’s female bodies.

Love and Death

In the same year Modigliani met Jeanne Hèbuterne, a young painter that he had depicted in many portraits. The two fell madly in love and had their daughter in 1918. Their relationship was so intense that the day after Amedeo’s death, which occurred on January 20, 1920, when he was only 35 years old, a 9 months pregnant Jeanne committed suicide by jumping off a window.

Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hebuterne, 1919, The Met, New York.

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