Modigliani: Your real duty is to save your dream
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"What I am searching for is neither the real nor the unreal, but the subconscious, the mystery of what is instinctive in the human race." - Written in a sketchbook by Modigliani in 1907.

For Modigliani, ‘Beauty’, ‘Life’ and ‘Art’ were a sacred, single entity. ‘Beauty’ was at the core of his creative being. The human face and form have, for thousands of years, been the artist’s principal subject. Yet Modigliani depicted both in a way that became, and will remain, entirely his own. Modigliani was a delicate child, and at the age of eleven became ill with pleurisy, the first of three serious childhood illnesses. At sixteen he almost died of tuberculosis. He sensed his life would be brief and that his mission was to create, for the benefit of others, his own vision of beauty and veneration for life. Some months later, in 1901, he wrote from Rome to his artist friend Oscar Ghiglia: "I myself am the plaything of very powerful energies which are born and die. I would like instead that my life is like a very rich river which flows with joy upon the earth. …I am trying to formulate with the greatest lucidity the truths of art and life I have discerned scattered amongst the beauties of Rome; and as their inner meaning becomes clear to me, I shall seek to reveal and to re-arrange their composition, I could almost say metaphysical architecture, in order to create out of it my truth of life, beauty and art."

That Modigliani should, at so young an age, be concerned with extracting from the ruins of ancient Rome timeless truths, in order to ‘rearrange’ them into his own vision of ‘life, beauty and art’, makes this a particularly remarkable visionary statement of intent. And to Ghiglia later that year: "We others (excuse the plural) have different rights from normal people, for we have different needs which place us above – this must be said and believed – their morality. It is our duty never to be consumed by the sacrificial fire. Your real duty is to save your dream. Beauty too has some painful duties: these produce, however, the noblest achievements of the soul."

The passion and clarity with which Modigliani was already able to express such deeply held beliefs reveal his originality; his uncompromising determination to create his own visual aesthetic ideal. And his absolute conviction that he would succeed. His arrival in Paris in the winter of 1906 accelerated this aesthetic, spiritual alchemy as he absorbed into the prism of his extreme sensibility art forms encompassing some four thousand years, among them the art of the Cyclades, ancient Egypt, Greece, the Etruscans, Rome, Asia, Africa and his beloved Italy. But why did each of these seemingly disparate cultures and art forms speak so directly to Modigliani? Where, for him, lay their unifying energy and individual inspiration? And what collective insight do they reveal into his art? The symbolic simplicity of the Cycladic figure and face. The mesmerising aura, from the grave, of Egyptian goddesses and queens. The purity and majesty of Greek sculpture. The gentle humour of Etruscan art. The noble austerity of Roman art. The sensual movement of female Indian dancers. The serenity of Buddhist art. The raw energy of the African artist’s gouged-out portrayal of the human soul. And Modigliani’s deep feeling for his Italian artist ancestors, among them Giotto, Simone Martini, Michelangelo, Botticelli and Titian – with their tender spirituality, humanity and adoration of the human form From each, he took those elements which accorded with his own character and spiritual aesthetic, so that they became naturally and mysteriously fused with his highly personal artistic vision. He was not interested in fleeting stylistic fads for he considered himself part of a timeless, essentially unchanging artistic-spiritual tradition expressing an enduring, inspiring human response to the beauty and mystery of life.

Modigliani’s meeting, in 1910, with Anna Akhmatova coincided, at a critical juncture in his art, with his need to portray the ‘neither real nor unreal angel spirits’ he dreamt of. Sculpture became his principal focus of expression – a vital, cathartic rite of passage for which he chose the elemental, neutrally coloured substance of stone. Through his carvings and related drawings he forged his vision of humanity. Yet whilst many of his faces and figures are anonymous and often androgynous, certain sculptures and drawings directly mirror the appearance and spirit of Anna Akhmatova whose charismatically beautiful, elongated face and body influenced the course of his art. It is often claimed that Modigliani wanted to devote himself to carving in stone and only his delicate health prevented this. However sculpture alone would never have provided complete fulfilment for an artist so in love with drawing and painting, and so able, through them, to convey the subtlest nuance of character, mood and form. Also an artist utterly entranced and captivated by his fellow beings; and intent upon portraying their inner beauty and richness of character. "To do any work, I must have a living person. I must be able to see him opposite me…" Modigliani told the painter Leopold Survage. Modigliani believed, like Keats, that ‘Beauty’ is ‘Truth’, and could save the world. These drawings mirror the mysterious forces acting within and through him, their harmonious, vibrant lines forming visual sounds of sublime, enduring beauty emanating from a place beyond our comprehension. Lunia Czechowska, who sat for one of Modigliani’s last portraits, recounts a moving incident, not long before he died. ‘While I was preparing dinner, he asked me to lift my head for a few moments and by the light of a candle, he drew a beautiful sketch on which he wrote:’ Life is a gift: from the few to the many: from those who know and who have to those who do not know and do not have.

© Estorick Foundation, London.
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The melancholy, downward gaze of this powerful head recalls Modigliani’s The Beggar Woman painted the same year. This moving painting, as with other major paintings of 1909, was influenced by Cézanne in colour, mood and design. In 1907, Modigliani had exhibited at the Salon d’Automne, which was holding a major retrospective of Cézanne’s work including the first showing of his late work. The great beauty and intense personal objectivity yet humanity of Cézanne’s art made a deep impression on Modigliani. In 1909, Modigliani was introduced by Paul Alexandre to Brancusi who encouraged him to pursue his sculpture. Brancusi’s sculpture Mademoiselle Pogany, is similar in shape to this female head and also possesses a certain dream-like quality.
In 1908, Modigliani painted his first known nudes. This sheet was most probably drawn the following year. And in its elongated, sensual pose resides the genesis of his great nudes. Eerily prescient (and recalling his quoted letter to Oscar Ghiglia, eight years earlier) is a lyrical, symbolically-flowing energy which also defines Modigliani’s last three nudes of 1919. Evident too is his great love for Titian.
This brush drawing is executed with all the freedom yet concentration of a piece of Chinese calligraphy. It shows a man in deep reflection. And like his thoughts his identity remains a mystery. I rarely had a conversation with Modigliani without his reading to me a few tercets from the Divina Commedia. Dante was his favourite poet. I was always astonished by the width of his reading. I don’t think I have ever met another painter who loved poetry so deeply. He could recite by heart verses from Dante, Villon, Leopardi, Baudelaire, Rimbaud. His canvases do not represent fortuitous visions. They are a world apprehended by an artist who has a rare combination of childlikeness and wisdom. When I say child-likeness, I do not, of course, mean infantalism, a native lack of ability or a deliberate primitivism; by child-likeness I mean freshness of perception, immediacy, inner purity. All his portraits are like their models [I judge by those I knew]. But what is extraordinary is that Modigliani’s models resemble each other. It is not a matter of an assumed style or some superficial trick of painting, but of the artist’s view of the world. He created a multitude of people: their sadness, their frozen immobility, their hunted tenderness, their air of doom move the gallery visitors. Ilya Ehrenburg
Its supreme delicacy and purity of line – the head drawn with slightly increased pressure to make it stand out from the body – likens this drawing to a single, barely audible violin note whose fragility and heightened pitch give it a quietly intense, ethereal beauty. Evident is the drawing’s relationship to Modigliani’s massive, lyrical Caryatid sculpture – his only crouching Caryatid sculpture. The oval-shaped face, the expression, rounded body and delicate sensuality of Blue Caryatid anticipates, and remarkably so, the Seated Nude of 1917.
The tilted head, hair piled high, the gently curving shoulders and sweetness of expression, seem to foretell Modigliani’s loving 1918 portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne in the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, painted some seven years later. That this rare sheet should contain two such tender, sensitive and very different drawings, and that each should be so prescient of a major late painting, seems destined to remain a mystery; but again demonstrates how the genesis of his later works is often so apparent in drawings made years before.
The lyrical, ballet-like pose of the left arm curved around the top of the head, and biblical quality of the figure suggest Modigliani might initially have imagined her as a ‘Rebecca at the Well’ like figure resting a vase upon her head. Such a pose would have unbalanced this regal figure and diminished her statuesque grace – hence perhaps her very unusual, vase-shaped torso. During his formative studies in Italy, Modigliani would have studied Della Quercia’s portrayal of divine feminine grace which perhaps influenced this drawing.
The short, rhythmic, ‘chiselled’ strokes around the head, and delicate line of the eyebrows ‘flowing’ into the bridge of the nose, suggest this drawing was done at about the same time as his finely carved Head of a Woman. It is fascinating to consider this mysterious, anonymous head in relation to the portrait of his lover Beatrice Hastings, painted some five years later.
Akhmatova almost certainly inspired this drawing. The nose is Egyptian but the mouth, jaw-line, shape of the head and aura of other-worldliness belong, as the photograph shows, to Akhmatova. The closed eyes and sensual body, in motionless movement, poised symbolically in an erotic trance, above a single lit candle, reveal the spell she had cast over him. Her stylised posture resembles that of ancient Egyptian female figures, including those in the Louvre, which Modigliani would have studied, side by side with Akhmatova.
Christiane Mancini was an actress. While studying at the Paris Conservatoire, she was briefly Jean Cocteau’s lover. Her intensity apparently frightened him so that he rebuffed her. Her cat-like eyes, pursed mouth and thickly encasing hair; also the impression that she might, in an instant, spring up are all aspects of this refined drawing. A born psychologist, perceptive and subtle, he had by this time found his true path. He read the character of someone near him very accurately and quickly. This psychological gift was such that you could say that his sitters resembled their portraits rather than vice versa. He underlined and exaggerated the characteristics of his sitters and brought out what was hidden by secondary and subsidiary features. These portraits go far beyond the acuteness of caricature, for in their truthfulness they attain a high level of style. Sometimes he would say, ‘I’ve found the means that will allow me to express myself.’ And again, ‘What I see before my eyes is an explosion which forces me to express myself.’ And again, ‘What I see before my eyes is an explosion which forces me to take control and organise.’ It was by geometry, proportion and rhythm that he achieved his aims.
Dr François Brabander 1918 Oil on canvas 46 x 38cm Courtesy: Estorick Collection. Modigliani retained an abiding love for Italy, yet from 1906 he spent very little time there. The yellow ochres, burnt siennas and venetian reds used in many of his later paintings – Dr Brabander among them – reflect, subconsciously perhaps, the beautiful, often faded colours of sun-bleached buildings remembered from his native land. Dr François Brabander (Franciszek Brabander) was born in Krakow in 1887. He moved to Paris around 1910 to study medicine. He married Sophie Sierzpowska, a fellow Pole studying law at the Sorbonne and sister of Anna Zborowska, wife of Leopold Zborowski who later became Modigliani’s dealer. Both Anna and Leopold modelled for several portraits. At the outbreak of war, Dr Brabander volunteered as a doctor at the front and his wife as a field hospital nurse. During short leaves from the horrors of the front, Dr Brabander visited the Zborowski’s in Nice. There, in 1918, Modigliani, painted him in his military jacket. Dr Brabander qualified as a doctor in 1919 and because of his valiant war contribution was granted French citizenship. He practiced in Paris and in the mining town of Lens, 200 km north of Paris, where he cared for the Polish miners. He and Sophie had two children and lived happily in Paris until the German occupation in 1940. After unsuccessfully attempting to escape with his family to London, he joined the French and Polish French resistance (his unit being codenamed ‘Monika’). In September 1943, he, and his family were arrested. His wife and daughter were transported to Auschwitz where they perished in 1943. He was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany, working as a doctor in the cellulose factory, one of the camp’s numerous manufacturing units. In April 1945, many prisoners were moved to Bergen-Belsen where Dr Brabander died the following month. His son Romuald survived; and commemorated his family with a white marble grave stone. It lies next to the graves of Leopold and Anna Zborowski, in the Paris cemetery of Père-Lachaise where Modigliani is also buried.
L'Amazone 1909 Black crayon 30.8 x 23.2 cm Courtesy: Richard Nathanson, London
Nude with Cup c.1916 Watercolour, Indian ink and pencil 64.5 x 50 cm Courtesy: Estorick Collection. Modigliani’s drawing is supremely elegant. He was our aristocrat. His line, sometimes so faint it seems the ghost of a line, never gets bogged down, avoiding this with the alacrity of a Siamese cat. Modigliani never consciously stretches faces, exaggerates their lack of symmetry, gouges out an eye or lengthens a neck. All that happens in his heart. That’s the way he used to draw us, ceaselessly, at the Rotonde. That’s the way he judged us, experienced us, loved us and argued with us. His drawing was a silent conversation. A dialogue between his line and ours. And from this tree, planted so firmly on velvet legs, so difficult to uproot once it had taken root, the leaves fell and were strewn all over Montparnasse. If his models ended up by looking like one another, this is in the same way that Renoir’s models all look alike. He adapted everyone to his own style, to a type that he carried within himself, and he usually looked for faces that bore some resemblance to that type, be it man or woman. This resemblance is so pronounced in Modigliani’s work that, as with Lautrec, it becomes self-evident and strikes those who never knew the models. But the resemblance is only a pretext through which the artist affirms his own identity. Not his physical identity, but the mysterious identity of his genius. Modigliani’s portraits, even his self-portraits, reflect his internal, not external, line; his noble, keen, slender, dangerous grace, like the horn of a unicorn. In addition I would like to repeat that Modigliani did not paint portraits to order. His drunkenness, his growling and roaring, his unwonted laughter – he exaggerated all these to protect himself from importune bores whom he then insulted by his arrogance. At the end of his short life, he set to work on a stream of nudes and female figures that is now flowing into museums all over the world. Others will write of his aesthetics. Here I want to give precedence to the artist and his works, in which all the proud individuality of his nature is expressed. Jean Cocteau
Caryatid Seated on Plinth with Lighted Candles n.d Black crayon 42.7x26cm Courtesy: Richard Nathanson, London. Modigliani’s admiration for the serene beauty and quiet strength of the Buddha figures he saw at the Musée Guimet is evident in this gently erotic, otherworldly drawing. The sculptor Jacob Epstein remembers seeing Modigliani’s studio filled with nine or ten long heads and one figure. ‘At night’, Epstein recalled, ‘he would place candles on the top of each one and the effect was that of a primitive temple.’ According to his dealer, Paul Guillaume, Modigliani dreamt of creating a temple to mankind. The caryatid was a supporting feature in classical Greek architecture as in the caryatid figures on the Erechtheion at The Acropolis. And thinking perhaps of the Greek god Atlas condemned to support the sky on his back, Modigliani created his own symbolic caryatids whose ‘Beauty’ would save the world.
Portrait of Maud Abrantès 1908 Watercolour with traces of black crayon 41 x 32 cm Courtesy: Richard Nathanson, London
Kneeling Blue Caryatid c.1911 Blue crayon 43 x 26.5 cm Courtesy: Richard Nathanson, London. What I am searching for is neither the real nor the unreal, but the mystery of what is instinctive in the human race, wrote Modigliani in 1907. Anna Akhmatova [1889-1966] is considered, with Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam, the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century. She met Modigliani in 1910 on honeymoon, during her first visit to Paris. She returned alone in early 1911 and they became very close. Akhmatova’s charismatic beauty and grace; her dream-like otherworldliness and passion for poetry; and her extraordinary, elongated, sensual body had a mesmerising effect on Modigliani and played a crucial role in defining the ideal visual form he had been ‘searching for’ to express, most completely and beautifully, his artistic-spiritual vision. Unlike the many caryatid figures Modigliani drew whose faces portray anonymous, often androgynous beings, this drawing portrays a human face which, as the photograph on p.62 shows, is almost certainly a most tender and loving portrait of Anna Akhmatova with her oval-shaped face, noted fringe and long, graceful body.
Columbine with Fan and wearing a Tutu 1908 Black crayon 31 x 24.3cm Courtesy: Richard Nathanson, London
Standing Nude 1908 Black crayon 43 x 26.7cm Courtesy: Richard Nathanson, London
Male Head & Shoulders c.1911 Blue crayon 42.8 x 26.7 cm Courtesy: Richard Nathanson, London. The elemental simplicity and continuing mysterious beauty and power of the Head of an Idol, some 4000 years after its creation, would have profoundly inspired Modigliani. Whilst this drawing cannot be considered a direct study for Modigliani’s Sculpture Head in the Gwendolyn Weiner Collection it can be related to it by the closeness of the tightlyset eyes, the tiny compressed mouth, small ears, swept-back hair, curved lower jaw and chin, and elongated neck.
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