“I recall my thrilled first exposure, as a teenager, to one of his [Modigliani’s] long-necked women, with their piquantly tipped heads and mask-like faces. The rakish stylisation and the succulent color were easy to enjoy, and the payoff was sanguinely erotic in a way that endorsed my personal wishes to be bold and tender and noble, overcoming the wimp that I was. In that moment, I used up Modigliani’s value for my life. But in museums ever since I have been happy to salute his pictures with residually grateful, quick looks.” - Peter Schjeldahl
Amedeo Modigliani was born on July 12, 1884 to a Sephardic Jewish family living in reduced circumstances in Livorno, Italy. He began his formal art training in 1898, and in 1902 and 1903 he studied in Florence and Venice. In 1906 he moved to Paris, with the help of a small allowance from his mother.
He first settled in Montmarte along with his closest friends Soutine and Lipchitz, who were also expatriate artists. He immersed himself in café and nightlife, developing a dissolute life-style that enhanced his reputation as a bohemian but eventually ruined his life. Modigliani worked as wildly as he had lived. Alcohol and hashish never diminished his great desire to work. Neither did the numerous affairs with all kinds of women. It seems his whole life was a series of protests: Against the bourgeois smugness of his family of businessmen, against all that his art teacher Micheli represented, and against a society that failed to recognize and reward his talent.
Desperately poor, he scavenged stone from building sites around Paris. His sculpture, like his paintings emphasised elongated, simplified forms. He lost many of his works because he could not pay his rent and had to move a lot. He also never kept a record of his works. As his health began to fail around 1914 he turned to painting almost exclusively. Leopold Zborowski became his exclusive representative and moved Modigliani to the south of France in early 1918. Paris had become too unstable because of the fighting during World War I. It was here that he met Jeanne Hebuterne who became his mistress. By spring, they were back in Paris.
Jeanne gave birth to a daughter in the Autumn and his works were beginning to sell. But, his health took a turn for the worse. He died on January 24, 1920, of tubercular meningitis. The following day Jeanne, nine months pregnant with her second child, threw herself from a window of her parents’ home and died instantly.
Had the artist lived a few more years, he would have witnessed a growing interest in his work. In 1921 there was a memorial exhibition organized by Zborowski that received great acclaim. A foreign collector named Dr. Albert Barnes, in 1922 bought a large number of his works. Modigliani’s work still has to be studied thoroughly, but he is certainly one of the most recognised and well-known modern artists today.
More than anything, Modigliani was a portraitist and if one examines his work, one can see much that was assimilated by Picasso to develop his own style. Picasso’s style is a synthesis of many of the important styles in modern art, in which he took from many of his contemporaries, and in Modigliani’s case Picasso was borrowing from a man who had initially borrowed from him.
The art of Amedeo Modigliani cannot be classified as a specific “-ism.” His work is a part of “The School of Paris”, which refers to a group of international artists that lived and worked in France during the pre-WWII period. Because a definition of the School of Paris is rather vague, it is difficult to give an exact number of how many artists belonged to it, but it probably is close to one hundred.
The core of the School of Paris was formed by Jewish artists from Central and Eastern Europe who had left their native countries, sometimes due to ethnic persecution, but also because of artistic reasons: The Jewish Faith didn’t tolerate figurative images, so Jewish abstract artists were forced to look for an environment that tolerated figurative art. Their relationship with France is interesting. On the one hand they admired the French culture, on the other hand the French restraint was at odds with their Jewish and Slav temperament.
Although Paris is the cradle of expressionism (Van Gogh), the mentality of expressionism goes against the French sense of restraint, and there are few, if any, true French expressionists. However, the School of Paris lived and breathed expressionism, partly because of the influence of Van Gogh, as well as the German expressionists, but first and foremost because of the Jewish background of many artists of the School of Paris.
The “Reclining Nude” of 1917 above is characteristic of the artist’s work. He frequently painted nudes, which in some cases got him trouble with the authorities, especially given his licentiousness and rather dissolute lifestyle. The sleek, limber elongated figures and faces lend an air of grace to his subjects, but at the same time, the eyes without pupils lend a certain classicism to his work, reminiscent of ancient sculptures. The figure, which is cropped lies in a tense, uncomfortable pose lending the work a dynamism and tension which is attractive to the viewer.