Maverick Modigliani

Amedeo Modigliani

The heading refers to a new documentary on the famous artist Amedeo Modigliani, best known for his lean-faced unpretentious portraits; portraits I have admired, even copied as a student, over the years. I viewed the film a week or so back, and was pleased to be re-acquainted with the man. I knew a lot of his life story, as he has been much written about, and I am lucky to have read many books about him.

The documentary, directed by Valeria Parisi, was released on the 100th anniversary of Modigliani’s death (Jan, 1920).

Historic coastal city of Livorno

Modigliani was born in Livorno, Italy, on July 12, 1884, and spent his young life in various Italian cities. He left for Paris in 1906, just twenty-two years of age, with the dream of furthering his art. This he does in Montmartre, although the pursuit of his art is undercut by his private indulgences in alcohol and hashish, at the expense of his health, already impaired through childhood illnesses.

It is not surprising that his works at first appear very French, and one can see the influence of the post-impressionist Lautrec, in Modigliani’s sketch of Mario Buggelli in 1907.

In Montmartre, he soon came to know the likes of Picasso and Brancusi, who were immersed in a bohemian life, offering a freedom and widening expression of themselves, and their art. Their intensity for life matched Modligliani’s. But he, like many young artists, was keen to develop his own style, a singularity of approach, which would set him apart from others. And while living it up every evening, he was still able to visit art museums and learn from others by day.

He became very interested in tribal masks, as many of his contemporaries were, and African statuary. He  returned to Livorno, and began to sculpt, but rejected his early work, even tossing pieces into the river. So, back again to Paris, where  he continued to sculpt, mostly in limestone. He was greatly influenced by the cubist sculptures of Jacques Lipchitz, and soon a more simplified line emerged in his work, which translated to his drawing and painting. Honing, clarifying. This development is most interesting.   

Head in limestone, Modigliani, 1914
Mario Varvolgli, oil, left – sketch in graphite, right.

He continues to paint portraits of men and women in this simplified fashion, but there is no doubting the accuracy of his resemblances, should you see the person’s photograph.  In 1917 Modigliani meets art student Jeanne Hébuterne, whom he paints twenty times over. She is the woman we most associate with the man. She is his model and soon becomes his wife. 

Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1918, oil.

They have a daughter, and are expecting another baby, when Modigliani dies of tuberculosis in 1920. His wife takes her own life soon after. A tragedy all round.

If you haven’t read, or seen too much of the artist’s work, it is worth viewing the documentary, or watch the trailer here. Maverick Modigliani.

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