Modigliani Amedeo: was the bohemian artist par excellence - his posthumous legend is
almost as famous as Van Gogh's. In stylistic terms he was an oddity:
contemporary with the Cubists, but not part of their movement, he forms
a bridge between the generation of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Art Deco
painters of the 1920s.
"He was born in Livorno in July 1884. Both sides of his family were
Sephardic Jews. His father Flaminio was an unsuccessful entrepreneur who
had a small money-changing business, and his mother, Eugenia, by far the
stronger personality of the two, ran an experimental school. Amedeo, in
childhood nicknamed Dedo, was their fourth and youngest child. Thanks
largely to Eugenia Modigliani, the atmosphere of the household was
always unconventional; in 1898 the eldest son, Emmanuele, then aged
twenty-six, was sentenced to six months imprisonment as an anarchist.
"In 1898 Modigliani began formal art training under Guglielmo Micheli, a
pupil of Giovanni Fattori, the leader of the Macchiaioli - the Italian
equivalent of the Impressionist movement. To begin with, Modigliani's
literary tastes were more advanced than his artistic ones: his favourite
poet was Lautréamont, author of Maldoror, who was later to have immense
significance for the Surrealists. He left home and went to Florence,
where in May 1902 he registered under Fattori at the Scuola Libera di
Nudo (Free School of the Nude). In March 1903 he transferred himself to
Venice, where he registered at a similar academy. There he met two of
the artists who were to be among the leaders of Futurism Umberto
Boccioni and Ardengo Soffici. More important, he had his first real
introduction to the pleasures of drugs and drink.
"In the winter of 1906 he decided to go to Paris, and his mother agreed
to give him a small allowance. The Paris which attracted him was already
fading into the past, and he seems to have been rather wary of the new
generation of experimentalists which gathered round Apollinaire, though
he did go to live in Montmartre, which was at that time undoubtedly the
focal point of the avant-garde. Thanks to French anti-semitism (of a
sort which at that time was almost unknown in his native Italy) he
discovered a much stronger sense of Jewish identity, and his friends in
the Paris art world were mainly Jewish. They included Soutine, Kisling,
the sculptor Lipchitz and the poet Max Jacob - his one real link with
the circle around Picasso. He rapidly made a reputation for his excesses
(he had a habit of stripping stark naked when drunk), and his nickname
changed from the childish Dedo to Modi (a pun on the French maudit, or 'accursed').
In 1909 he retired for a while to Livorno, sick and exhausted.
"When he returned, now settling in Montparnasse, the new artists'
quarter, he decided to change direction, and became a sculptor. The
master he chose was Brancusi, and there is a definite link between his
work and Brancusi's in this medium. There are also clear signs of
influence from the art from Africa and Oceania which Modigliani saw in
the Musée de l'Homme. Though he was closer to finding his artistic
direction, he was still miserably poor - his sculpture was made mostly
from stone stolen from building sites, easy to find as Paris was then in
the grip of a building boom. In 1912 he once again fell ill, and was
forced to go home for a rest. But it never seems to have occurred to him
to remain in Italy; he returned to Paris as soon as he could.
"What stopped him carving, and led to the final phase in his work, was
the outbreak of the First World War. This brought the building boom to
an abrupt halt; Modigliani in any case was no longer feeling strong
enough for the hard physical labour of shaping blocks of stone. When he
painted it had always been directly from the motif, and now he became a
specialist in portraits whose delicate stylization showed the influence
of his period as a sculptor, and whose elegance and wit belied his
reputation for uncouth behaviour. Some of his acquaintances thought that
the uncouthness was a little cultivated - Picasso said sarcastically: 'It's
odd but you never see Modigliani drunk anywhere but at the corners of
the boulevard Montmartre and the boulevard Raspail.
In the early years of the war Modigliani
embarked on an affair with the South African writer Beatrice Hastings.
She was some five years older than he was (he was now thirty), and had
had a picturesque career. One of her previous conquests had been
Katherine Mansfield. She had a little money, and Modigliani was able to
live in more comfortable circumstances. But the relationship was marked
by heavy drinking and Modigliani and Beatrice often came to blows - on
one occasion he threw her out of a window.
"From a professional point of view he was doing a little better -the
ambitious young dealer Paul Guillaume was starting to take an interest
in his work. But, as a portrait shows very clearly, Modigliani found
Guillaume's personality unsympathetic, and in 1916 he transferred his
allegiance to the Polish dealer Zborowski.
"Modigliani's affair with Beatrice Hastings was now over. He had been
doing some drawing at the Académie Colarossi, and here, in July 1917, he
met Jeanne Hébuterne, who was then aged nineteen. Soon they were living
together. Their public scenes became even more famous in Montmartre than
Modigliani's rows with Beatrice. One eye-witness, André Salmon, reports:
He was dragging her along by an arm, gripping her frail wrist, tugging
at one or another of her long braids of hair, and only letting go of her
for a moment to send her crashing against the railings of the Luxembourg.
He was like a madman, crazy with savage hatred.
"Yet some - though not all - of Modigliani's many portraits of Jeanne
show real tenderness; others show her as impassive and curiously
graceless. By early 1918 conditions in Paris had become so difficult
that Zborowski decided to move his whole stable to the South of France -
he now represented Soutine, Kisling and the Japanese artist Foujita, as
well as Modigliani. Modigliani settled obediently in Nice, but the
Mediterranean climate and landscape had no real appeal for him. He
continued to paint portraits indoors, often of local shopkeepers and
their children. In February 1918 Jeanne became pregnant, and soon
afterwards she and Modigliani separated for a while, probably because he
loathed her disapproving and overbearing mother who had also moved South.
They were reunited before the baby, a daughter, was born. Modigliani got
drunk on the way to register the child as his own, and she remained
officially fatherless, though she was later adopted by his family in
Italy. In May 1919 he returned joyfully to Paris, the only environment
he really liked. Jeanne, for the moment, was left behind, pregnant for a
"Thanks to Zborowski's efforts, Modigliani's paintings were at last
starting to fetch respectable prices. In the summer of 1919, with the
help of Osbert Sitwell, Zborowski arranged a show of French art at the
Mansard Gallery in London. It was a success, and it was one of
Modigliani's works which fetched the highest price. The purchaser was
the writer Arnold Bennett, who said that the painting reminded him of
his own heroines. In June 1919 Modigliani and Jeanne were able to move
into their first real home, an apartment in the rue de la Grande
Chaumière, immediately above one which had once been occupied by Gauguin.
But Modigliani's health was steadily deteriorating and his alcoholic
collapses were becoming more frequent. He celebrated the New Year of
1920 in fine style, but about a fortnight later was stricken with pains
in his kidneys and took to his bed. After some days his neighbour
downstairs, another painter called Ortiz de Zarate, called in to see if
anything was the matter. He found Modigliani delirious, complaining of a
violent headache. The bed was strewn with empty bottles and half-opened
cans of sardines which were dripping their oil on to the coverlet.
Beside him sat Jeanne, who was nearly nine months pregnant; she had not
thought of sending for a doctor. Ortiz de Zarate summoned one
immediately. He came, and declared the case was hopeless: Modigliani was
suffering from tubercular meningitis. He died on 24 January 1920,
without regaining consciousness. There was an enormous funeral, attended
by the whole of Montmartre. Jeanne, who had been taken to her parents'
house, threw herself out of a fifth floor window two days after
Modigliani's death, killing both herself and her unborn child.