Amedeo Modigliani was such a romantic character who lead such a tragic life. The legends about him abound, and one never knows how much credibility to lend to anyone of them. Modigliani was born in Livorno, Italy on July 12, 1884, of Sephardic Jewish parents. His mother, Eugenia Garsin, was French and spoke French, English and Italian. His father, Flamingo Modigliani, a cousin to his wife was a bankrupt small businessman. Although of aristocratic lineage, the Modigliani family had fallen on hard times and for the most part lived in abject poverty.
One of Amedeo’s brothers, Vittorio Emanuelle Modigliani was an active and influential lawyer and Italian Socialist leader until he died in 1947.
Amedeo in 1895 suffered a severe attack of pleurisy, a forerunner of tuberculosis which was later to end his life while still at school. After studying painting with Guglielmo Micheli and then briefly in Florence and Venice, he made his way to Paris in 1906, where he was to spend the rest of his life. It was to be a life of prodigious and stunning creative output as a dissipation, including excessive drinking drug abuse and numerous stormy love affairs.
In his more sober moments. Modigliani studied the works of Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Pablo Picasso as well as African sculpture, the latter of which he both admired and emulated in his sculpture in a simplified abstract style.
Addiction to drugs
Modigliani dissolute habits resulted partly from his entry into the cafe and nightlife of Paris and perhaps to gain relief from the pain of the illness which tortured him for the most of his life. In biographies, it is speculated that Modigliani took intoxicants such as hashish, cocaine, absinthe and ether because he felt he must “sacrifice everything if you would make art – health and life itself.” His addictions were often compared to the literary artist Edgar Allen Poe drinking as “a technique of work appropriate to his passionate nature,” when such artists “put aside their poisons, they put aside their genius.”
Whatever the cause of his dissolute habits, Modigliani managed to produce a large body of impressive work. While influenced by the artistic giants of his time, Modigliani developed a distinctive and independent style. Biographer Werner says that “those who knew him remarked alternately on his aristocratic air, his kindness, his hot temper, his drunkenness, his love of poetry, his compassion and his dedication to his work.”
Modigliani was born into an Italian Jewish community which was described as one of the most assimilated in the world. However, it was also a community where it was possible for Jews to be highly assimilated and to treasure their Jewish heritage.
While he was not raised in a traditional Jewish home, Modigliani was in Paris in the aftermath of the infamous Dreyfus which had intensified antisemitism in France. When Modigliani for the first time encountered antisemitism in Paris, he began to declare belligerently “Je suis Juif” “I am a Jew.”
Modigliani had never focused on his Jewishness in Italy he began to in Paris. It was not only in response to the antisemitism but as a result of his association and identification with the other great Jews of the art school of Paris, including his fellow Sephard Jules Pascin and such Ashkenazim as Chai Scoutine, whom he befriended, sponsored and painted. Moise Kisling and Marc Chagall who in contrast to Modigliani, never indulged in personal excess and continued to paint into his 90s. Jacques Lipchitz and the influential art critic and patron Max Jacob, who was later to become a Catholic but who had perhaps the most considerable personal influence on Modigliani.
Modigliani’s life was often compared to that of Vincent Van Gogh, whose life represents an intense and romantic image of the struggling genius.
Modigliani usually painted single figures with the backgrounds only vaguely defined. Included among his works are portraits of fellow artists, such as Chaim Soutine, and of the two women that had leading roles in his life: The English poet Beatrice Hastings, with whom he lived from 1914-16, described as “two years of sex, drugs and mayhem,” and later his wife, Jeanne Heburterne. The latter was to commit suicide two days after the artists’ death.
Among those who sat for Modigliani were the prostitutes of the Left Bank whose faces like much of Modigliani’s portraiture evoke more pity than feelings of beauty. His portraits looked as if he had caught the sitter in a moment of utter fatigue, lonely or devoid of glamour or gaiety. Their energy had been drained, and their hands dangle limply on their laps. Their heads are inclined, and their eyes look listlessly and unseeing as though staring from another world. His women seem to be constructed of almond shapes connected by cylindrical necks to larger ovoids formed by the rounded shoulder of the upper body.
In almost shocking contrast are Modigliani’s powerfully lifelike nudes, some who almost seem aggressively erotic. They evoke the vision of an artist who tasted frequently and deeply of the sensuous pleasure of the flesh and celebrates life to a greater extent than much more of his more sombre work. All of his work reflects the artist’s superb technical skill and innovative sense of colour.
Modigliani’s nudes such as “Reclining Nude with Raised Arms” and “Nude on a Blue Cushion,” caused his one and only one-man show to become a complete fiasco. The police ordered the five canvasses of nudes to be removed and publicity led to a scandal. Fortunately, we live in a more enlightened time, and one can not help reflect on the irony that all this happened while the carnage at the western front was occurring.
Also stirring are Modigliani’s portraits including a melancholy rendering of his protege Chaim Soutine and two of another artist, Oscar Mietscaninoff. The portraits of the artists combine urban worldliness, vulnerability and introspection with sensuous lips and dark hair reflecting the face of complex, conflicted men.
It was not until shortly after his death in 1920 that the greatest of Modigliani’s work was more widely discovered and appreciated leading to his paintings, watercolours, drawings and sculpture being acquired by leading museums and private collectors all over the world.