Amedeo Modigliani’s portraits defined an era through their style – their elongated faces, necks and bodies inspired by and borrowing from African masks (like Pablo Picasso) – and by his subjects. He drew portraits of artist friends, including Chaim Soutine, Juan Gris, Jacques and Bertha Lipchitz, Diego Rivera, Leopold Zborowski, Maud Abrantès, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Cocteau. His portraits draw a tapestry of Paris and are a history lesson of international Paris before and during the First World War.
Chaim Soutine, an oft-painted friend of Modigliani (in 1915, 1916, 1917), was famous for his series of Carcass of Beef paintings. He hung a decomposing and blood-dripping carcass in his studio. The smell disturbed the neighbours, and the sight of blood pouring under the doorway into the corridor instilled fear in Marc Chagall, who apparently said, “Someone has killed Soutine”. Like Chagall and the sculptor Ossip Zadkine, Chaim Soutine was an emigrant from Belorussia (then part of Russia) with Jewish heritage, attracted to the welcoming art scene in Paris − as had the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, who emigrated from the Latvian part of then Russia. Paris was then the centre of the art world, made stronger through the prodigious talent of many immigrant newcomers.
Modigliani’s paintings also show that Paris attracted artists not only from Eastern Europe and Russia, but also from Spain and Latin America and beyond. Modigliani painted Pablo Picasso, the Spanish artist Juan Gris, famous for his cubist work, and Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who became one of the three giants of Mexican muralist painting and the future husband of Frida Kahlo.
Most of Modigliani’s remaining paintings (he destroyed many of his early works) adopted a stylised physiognomy with curved elongated noses inspired by African art and arguably overlong necks (a criticism also levelled at Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus). Others were less so, notably his earlier work of his friend, the French artist Maurice Drouard, in 1909 and his mistress Maude Abrantès from 1907 and 1908, before she emigrated to the USA. The Maude Abrantès portrait seems inspired by Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period (1901-1904), perhaps because of the colour palette or maybe due to its melancholic mood. Modigliani adopted a more vibrant blue later with the Drouard painting and more subtly with Diego Rivera.
Amedeo Modigliani didn’t only paint artists and the intelligentsia of early twentieth-century Paris. The Beggar Woman (1909) is interesting in this regard and as a clear turning point in his art – it was painted the same year as Maurie Drouard but also features an elongated nose and a curved neck. Modigliani was becoming Modigliani. He then explored the forms in his sculptures and charcoal, crayon and pencil drawings – notably his Caryatid series (from the Greek for woman statues serving as architectural supports) that formed a visible bridge from African art to Modigliani.
The Caryatids and other drawings of nudes take us to Amedeo Modigliani’s Reclining Nudes from 1917. In the early twentieth century it become a trend for artists to draw nudes (of women). Modigliani excelled at creating icons of perfection and controversy; his Reclining Nudes attracted the police, who removed one of his paintings for impropriety.
1917 was in the middle of the First World War, and many people look away when ugly things happen and find solace in the unblemished and ideal (or simply carnal). A few years later, this was no longer possible – as seen by the works of the German expressionist Otto Dix and anti-war satirist George Grotz who later emigrated to the USA, as so many others. But that is for another article.
Despite not painting the war, Modigliani did not live in a naïve utopia. Many around him died young – his friend Maurice Drouard fell for France in 1915, aged 29. Modigliani was rejected from the army on the grounds of ill health:he suffered from tuberculosis (which he hid behind his drugs and alcohol) and died in 1920, aged 35. Shortly after this, his pregnant wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, committed suicide and lost their second child, adding to the tragedy.
Thankfully, Modigliani’s portraits captured so many key players from Paris in the first two decades of the last century, each with their own style at a turning point from peace to terrible war. This was the then “modernism”. What will our twenty-first-century modernity bring? Who are the painters capturing the faces of those who will define our now? Who are the artists now capturing contemporary wars and injustices like Dix and Grotz did of the First World War, Antoni Tàpies of the Franco years, Ousmane Sow of The Battle of Little Big Horn between the US army and the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, and William Kentridge on racism and apartheid in South Africa? We need political painters and portraitists to capture history and remind us of what is wrong with our times and what lessons history can teach us.
The exhibition – Modigliani: Moderne Blicke – runs at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart until 17 March 2024.