We begin with Paris. Utrillo’s Paris of grey cobbled streets and whitewashed walls winding up through Montmartre against a pale opaque sky the colour of a dirty dishcloth. Faint lettering above blue shutters spells out Le Lapin Agile, the haunt of the bohemian avant-garde. And so to Modigliani, who set up a studio in these streets in 1906. These early years were a turning point between Post-Impressionism and Cubism, and the dual influence of Cezanne and Picasso can be clearly discerned in Modigliani’s ‘Nu Assise’ (above). It is painted on the reverse of a portrait of his early supporter, Jean Alexandre, and is framed by wooden supports covered with gallery and transport labels. The unmistakable Modigliani style has not yet evolved, the girl’s face and proportions realistic, unstylised, though crudely outlined – however, a suggestion of it begins to appear by 1909 in ‘Jean Alexandre’ on the other side…
But following a crude stone sculpture of a head, and an abstracted study, it suddenly appears fully formed. ‘Beatrice Hastings’ (right, 1915) – the artist’s partner for several years – exhibits the classic Modigliani hallmarks of elongated neck, sloping shoulders and slanting almond eyes, though in a slightly more primitive form than they would later appear in the famous paintings of Jeanne. Marie (above left, 1918) shows this softening of the painter’s style, the colours and contours less harsh, the girl of flesh and blood rather than stone.
But Modigliani really wanted to be a sculptor. He was greatly influenced by the austere, primitivist stone busts of Brancusi, to whom he was introduced in 1909. His ‘Tetes’ became increasingly stylised, just as his painted faces would; from that on the right, eyelids lowered like a meditating deity, to excessively simplified and elongated heads with empty almond eyes and tiny pursed lips. Modigliani’s early, pared-down, timeless style is most similar to Brancusi’s ‘The Kiss’ (below, 1907-8) – and is also comparable to Eric Gill’s stone reliefs, such as Ecstasy (1910-11). Later Brancusi produced sleek bronze heads which, rather than speaking of the primitive past, appear to derive from the technological present of machinery and industrial modernism – like Epstein’s Rock Drill or Gaudier-Brzeska’s Vorticist bronzes. Of these heads ‘Mlle Pogany’ (below right, 1912) is displayed, the long smooth curving neck, tilted head and large lozenge-shaped eyes so very like those adopted by Modigliani.
However, when the war began in 1914, sculptural materials were in short supply, and this coincided with a further decline in Modigliani’s health (tuberculosis was intensified by work, drink and drugs). So he returned to painting, producing during the war years some of the greatest work in his short career.
This was partly thanks to the friendship and patronage from 1916 of Leopold Zborowski, a Polish poet and art dealer. The work funded by Zborowski culminated in a solo exhibition in 1917 which caused scandal and accusations of obscenity – even though today we admire these nudes, among his best-known works, as tasteful and beautiful. Indeed, far from being banned from view this one now graces the exhibition posters, displayed publicly across Switzerland.
The pose, the stylised outlines of the body and features, seem reminiscent of Matisse’s Odalisques. Yet Modigliani’s colours are darker, his brushstroke less facile and carefree, the intensity of the thickly painted flesh tones transmitting something of the angst and passion of the artist.
In some paintings, such as this one of Zborowski’s wife Anna (1917), the eyes are left blank. They are no longer the wide slit eyes of Beatrice or Marie, but small and close together, emphasising the exaggerated length of the nose, like his later sculpture. One eye is pale blue, the other darker; they appear blind, unseeing. The same is the case for those figures he painted while recuperating in Nice in 1918-19, always a pale blue – an odd stylistic trait, and one which was not adhered to with any constancy as other paintings of around this period have an obvious – a disconcertingly – black-pupilled stare.
Like the ‘Little Girl in a Black Apron’ (right, 1918). Though for all her bright eyes, her blank face seems to see as little as Anna’s. Their heads each tilted to one side and neat lips set, their thoughts are far far away from the physicality of their motionless bodies. Or maybe to Modigliani they did not have thoughts; perhaps to him they were just shapes and colours, a structure around which he wove his graceful aesthetic.
And so in 1917 Modigliani met his final, and fated, partner, Jeanne Hebuterne. She was a nineteen year old model and art student who became the almost obsessive subject of his last works.
Here on the left Jeanne sits, thoughtful, at ease in an intimate domestic setting with her hair down around her sloping shoulders (1918); on the right is Jeanne in a hat (1919), more formal in dress and in posture, seeming to reject all interruption with her raised hand and the taut arabesque running from her neck down her shoulder. The stillness of the figure and the cool colours in the background imbue the paintings with a sense of peace and silence – a far cry from the chaos and impending tragedy of real life. When Modigliani eventually died from tuberculosis in January 1920, Jeanne, eight months pregnant, threw herself from the fifth floor of her parents home. Thus began Modigliani’s legacy; the unclassifiable, destitute artist, his career spanning only 14 years, whose tragic romanticism along with his unique style has ensured a soaring posthumous reputation.
The exhibition, however, is far from simply a retrospective of Modigliani; it includes almost as many works of his friends and contemporaries among the ‘Ecole de Paris’. The stiff group portraits of Suzanne Valadon, and the monstrous figures, deformed by paint, of Chaim Soutine, the painted women of Kisling, Pascin and Hayden – all provide interesting comparisons to Modigliani’s portraiture. Others, however, such as the Cubist still lifes of Juan Gris and Picasso, bear no comparison at all. But this is not the aim of the show. To comprehend the selection one must turn back to Paris, and appreciate not just one individual’s oeuvre, but its place among the whole eclectic mass of art being simultaneously produced in the city; and one must consider Paris as just one dynamic metropolis during this crucial period of historical and artistic crisis.