Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Why All the Long Faces? Appreciating the Art of Modigliani

On a recent meandering exploration of the Skokie Public Library--I know, it sounds anachronistic, but it was quite fun--my browsing brought me to the shelves filled with art books.

There, one on the 20th century Italian--and Jewish--painter Amedeo Modigliani caught my eye. I have long enjoyed his work and the book I found, called Modigliani: Beyond the Myth was actually a catalogue from an exhibition I had seen at the Jewish Museum in New York in 2004.

Although I already had a small but sufficient Modigliani book (part of the superb series by Taschen), I checked out the bigger book and have enjoyed perusing it, both as a reminder of the exhibition I had enjoyed and an overview of the great artist's brief career.

The book also spurred me to watch the 2004 biopic on Modigliani, starring Andy Garcia, which wasn't bad but seemingly a bit too fictionalized. I had also seen a play about "Modi" a few years back and, of course, have now read the Wikipedia entry. And, giving credit where it's due, the images adorning this post come from the excellent online Olga's Gallery.

Modigliani's biography provides an interesting complement to his art. He was born into a Jewish family in Livorno, Italy in 1880. His father's money-changing business had failed, but Amedeo['s birth saved the family from ruin, as creditors could not seize assets from the bed of a pregnant woman (upon which the family piled their most valuable possessions).

Modigliani had pleurisy, typhoid fever and tuberculosis as a child and teenager, but was subsequently taken by his mother to see paintings in Florence's Uffizi Gallery and Palazzo Pitti, and soon after he began to study painting.

In 1906, Modigliani moved to Paris, where he began to--probably more than anyone--define the image of the Bohemian artist living a penniless, self-destructive existence in Montmartre.

Despite the debauchery, including heavy indulgence in absinthe, hashish and women, Modigliani was by all accounts a dapper, handsome figure who befriended many fellow artists, including Maurice Utrillo, Chaim Soutine, Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso.

In 1917, at age 33, Modigliani met and fell in love with a 19-year-old art student named Jeanne Hébuterne, who he would go on to frequently paint (including the picture at top). Hébuterne's Roman Catholic family renounced her for having a relationship with a Jew, but though their affair was often quite publicly tempestuous, Jeanne stuck by Modi and they had a daughter together in 1918.

Although Modigliani sold some of his paintings during his lifetime, he never came close to being rich and drank away much of what he did earn. His health rapidly deteriorated and alcohol-fueled blackouts weren't uncommon. On January 24, 1920, Amedeo Modigliani died from an incurable case of tubercular meningitis at the age of 35.

Doubling the tragedy, two days after Modi's death, Jeanne Hébuterne--who was 9 months pregnant--threw herself out a fifth-floor window at her parents' home, killing herself and their unborn child.

While I find Modigliani's backstory to be somewhat fascinating--including being one of relatively few world-renowned Jewish artists--I find it quite secondary to his art itself.

Although his style looks relatively simple, it is quite singular, compelling and readily recognizable. And while his long-faces and stylized nudes might appear relatively easy to mimic, the attempts I have seen to imitate Modigliani's look have fallen far short of the originals.

Thus, Amedeo Modigliani remains one of the most distinctive of all 20th century artists and one of my very favorites. Below are a few more examples as to why.

Portrait of Chaim Soutine

A self-portrait close to his death.

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