Amedeo Modigliani sought to portray instinctive humanity – but couldn’t outrun his own instincts

The Italian artist has come to personify la vie bohème. But it wasn’t always so. 

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Amedeo Modigliani died in 1920 aged only 35, the victim of tubercular meningitis exacerbated by alcohol and drug abuse. Among his rickety artistic circle in Paris Modigliani had been known as Modi, which happened to be a darkly humorous pun on maudit – cursed – and he had lived down to his nickname. Even in death he could not escape it. On 26 January, two days after he died, his mistress Jeanne Hébuterne, nine months pregnant with their second child, threw herself out of a fifth floor window at her parents’ house. Because Jeanne’s parents refused to bury her alongside the Jewish artist, the lovers did not occupy their shared grave at Père Lachaise cemetery until 1928.

With his story of good looks, poverty, illness, tempestuous loves, scandal and lack of artistic success Modigliani, the subject of a major exhibition at Tate Modern, has come to personify la vie bohème. It wasn’t always so. When he arrived in France from Italy in 1906, furnished with a modest legacy from an uncle, Modigliani was a bourgeois young artist with a love of the Renaissance who could quote large chunks of Dante by heart. He drank in moderation, dutifully wrote letters home to his adored mother and was held to be rather reserved. He was certainly somewhat priggish: on meeting Picasso, who liked to wear workmen’s clothes, Modigliani acknowledged the Spaniard’s talent but thought that was no excuse for dressing so coarsely.

Paris quickly unbuttoned him. Although he trained initially at the traditionalist Académie Colarossi, he rented rooms in the Bateau-Lavoir, a ramshackle building on the slopes of Montmartre, the hill in northern Paris with the Moulin de la Galette at the top, the Moulin Rouge at the bottom and a swathe of the most important artists of the early 20th century in the middle. Picasso was a fellow resident of the Bateau-Lavoir while Georges Braque, André Derain, Juan Gris, Maurice Utrillo, Raoul Dufy and Constantin Brancusi all lived on the butte at some point in the decade 1900-1910. Drawn in by them were such figures as Guillaume Apollinaire, Gertrude Stein, Léopold Diaghilev and the art dealer Ambroise Vollard.

Modigliani found himself, therefore, at the epicentre of the project to remake art by rejecting traditionalism and embracing radicalism. While his wholehearted adoption of drink and drugs may have been in part a ruse to hide the tuberculosis he had first contracted at the age of 16, it was also a natural result of the company he kept.

The poet André Salmon wrote of Modigliani’s arrival at this febrile moment: “Modigliani seemed to have come to us (he had nothing of the prodigious adolescent), attracted by Paris in search of masters but ended up finding none.” Indeed, during the years he lived in Montmartre, 1906-1909, the hill was a shared creative space. His residency coincided with the invention, merely yards away, of both fauvism and cubism: Picasso’s ground-breaking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a work that is often cited as a foundation stone of modern art, was painted in the same building.

Modigliani, however, didn’t ally himself to a particular group or school but did his own thing. “The function of art is to struggle against obligation,” he said, and one of the obligations he struggled against was parroting the styles of other artists. Not that he was immune to influences; Gauguin and Cézanne were both important to him and he was fascinated, as was much of the avant-garde of the time, by the possibilities of primitivism. “African art haunted him,” said the dealer Adolphe Basler; likewise Egyptian, archaic Greek and Khmer sculptures.

Apart from a couple of landscapes painted in the south of France in 1918-19, the sole subject of Modigliani’s art, both paintings and sculpture, is the human figure. The man himself was striking: “How beautiful he was, my God, how beautiful!” said Aicha, one of the models who sat for him. “Was he handsome?” asked Jean Cocteau rhetorically, “No. He was something better.” “He looked aristocratic, even in his worn-out corduroys,” said the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz. He could behave in a princely way too, once dropping a 20-franc note on a café floor next to an im- poverished fellow artist too proud to accept direct charity.

His personal appeal did not though translate into artistic success. The legend that grew quickly after his death – of Modigliani as a tragic and undiscovered genius – was based on fact: the first portraits he exhibited in Paris in 1906 all went unsold, subsequent showings fared little better and he was initially kept afloat financially by a single patron, a young doctor called Paul Alexandre. Alexandre was perspicacious because Modigliani’s early works, such as The Jewish Woman (1908), are disconcerting and unresolved with their black outlines, lack of perspective, non-naturalistic colour and aggressively brushed backgrounds.

It was sculpture that helped fix his style. In 1909 he left Montmartre for Montparnasse, the newer artists’ quarter south of the Seine, and took up carving, encouraged by Brancusi. According to the artist and writer Nina Hamnett, who moved in the same circles: “He always regarded sculpture as his real métier.” What he produced for the next few years were largely elongated, stylised heads and caryatids, shorn of individualisation and detail, the faces reduced to ovals and necks to columns.

The poet and art critic André Salmon thought the heads carried “the high-handed sense of purification” while Modigliani himself subscribed to the view that carving was about freeing a figure from a block. Nevertheless, his working method of producing numerous drawings before he took up his chisel suggests that he knew in advance just what form he wanted the figure to take.

While stone was expensive this was also a period in which Montparnasse was undergoing redevelopment and he would beg off-cuts – or “liberate” limestone – from the neighbourhood’s builders. When he turned his hand to wood carving, he simply stole railway sleepers from outside the half-built Barbès-Rochechouart Metro station. Modelling with clay he dismissed as being “too greasy” and involving “too much mud”. However, Modigliani’s preparatory drawings for sculptures sold better than the carvings themselves and by 1914, encouraged by his new dealer Paul Guillaume, he had returned to painting (although two of his sculptures were bought by the visiting Augustus John).

Portrait of his lover Jeanne Hébuterne (1919)

At the time of these artistic choices Modigliani was at the heart of Montparnasse life. The artists in La Ruche, the purpose-built studio complex he frequented, were a polyglot group including Marc Chagall and Chaïm Soutine (Belarussia), Moïse Kisling (Poland), Diego Rivera (Mexico), Hamnett (Wales) and Fernand Léger and Robert Delaunay (France). A 1912 exhibition that included the work of many of them prompted questions in the Paris council chamber as to whether France was right to encourage such a “band of villains” and foreign “hooligans”.

This same group, joined by other luminaries such as Picasso, Cocteau and Apollinare, was also at the heart of the arrondissement’s café culture, focused on La Rotonde and La Closerie des Lilas. It was at La Rotonde that Modigliani would sketch friends and fellow drinkers. According to the painter Vlaminck, he presented one such drawing he had made of an American girl to his subject and when she “kept insisting he sign it, he became provoked by her venality, and wrote his name across the face in huge letters”.

Modigliani became, in effect, the unofficial and unpaid portraitist of the group. His mature style involved working to a tight formula: highly stylised, mask-like faces defined by the arcs of noses and eyebrows (borrowed from cubism and often formed from one continuous brushstroke), puckered lips, black outlining, and almond eyes that are usually disconcertingly blank. “When I know your soul,” he once said, “I will paint your eyes” – a statement that begs any number of questions. There is almost no modelling of the flesh and his palette is restricted and his back- grounds rudimentary. What is remarkable about his portraits is that despite such a limited repertoire of marks he still managed to express individuality.

There is no mistaking his dealer, Guillaume, with his rhomboid face, tilted head (a Modigliani trademark), and peeking teeth. The intensity of Cocteau’s gaze is achieved by elongating his face and making his eyes asymmetrical. The poet Max Jacob has an aquiline nose that could be the segment of an orange. Kisling stands out for his oriental eyes and page-boy haircut.

Then there were Modigliani’s women. It was in 1914 that he met the poet and journalist Beatrice Hastings, with whom he was to spend the next two troubled years. Like Modigliani, Hastings made free of drink and drugs; she was also bisexual – Katherine Mansfield was one lover, Percy Wyndham Lewis another – and published work under 30 different pseudonyms. She left a memorable sketch of their first encounter:

A complex character. A swine and a pearl. Met him in 1914 at a crémerie. I sat opposite him. Hashish and brandy. Not at all impressed. Didn’t know who he was. He looked ugly, ferocious and greedy. Met him again at the Café Rotonde. He shaved and was charming. Raised his cap with a pretty gesture, blushed and asked me to come and see his work. And I went.

Hastings was not the first to have an affair with Modigliani; the poet Anna Akhmatova was just one of many predecessors. When the stormy relationship with Hastings broke up in 1916, he moved on to a Canadian called Simone Thiroux; they had a son together but he refused to acknowledge paternity. To add to the air of melodrama that hung over his romantic liaisons, Hastings’s new lover pointed a gun at him when he gatecrashed a party for Braque, freshly returned from the front, and forced him to leave. The tragedy that stalked Modigliani touched her too; Hastings would commit suicide in 1943, gassing herself alongside her pet white mouse.

While Akhmatova and Hastings were his models as well as his lovers, it was Hébuterne, a 19-year-old art student he met in 1917, who absorbed him totally. He was to paint more than 20 portraits of her, many of them meltingly tender, and several nudes. Against the wishes of her out-raged family they moved in together; a daughter, Jeanne, was born the following year.

Portrait of Juan Gris (1915)

The Hébuterne family was confirmed in its dislike of the painter by the events surrounding the only solo exhibition Modigliani had in his lifetime: 60 paintings and drawings showing, according to his dealer, “sumptuous nudes, angular faces, tasty portraits”. The local police chief was unimpressed: “I order you to take all this filth down… these nudes have p-p-p-pubic hair.” The gallery owner, aided by the guests who had gathered for the opening, duly took the pictures off the walls and out of the window and although the scandal raised Modigliani’s profile it did little for sales. As his gallerist lamented, only “two drawings were sold… 30 francs each”.

The nudes had been painted as a commercial proposition at the instigation of his new dealer Léopold Zborowski, who paid for the models (five francs a day when a female factory worker could earn three) and materials and gave Modigliani a stipend of 15 francs a day. The same sitters would also pose for his clothed portraits. The nudes clearly show the artist’s indebtedness to Italian Renaissance masters such as Titian and Giorgione, as well as Manet’s celebrated prostitute picture Olympia.

They tend, like Modigliani’s faces, to  be variations on the theme of the oval. Breasts, hips and thighs are pure geometrical shapes as well as representations of parts of the body. The mood of the pictures meanwhile varies from sexual availability and defiance to boredom and reserve (several of his sitters have their faces averted and their eyes closed); these are not simply women laid out for the delectation of men and while they may be sensuous they are not necessarily salacious. In all of them the undulating outline is more important than any modelling and they are often cropped at the knee and elbow. In their simplification and lack of Classical references they exemplify Modigliani’s fusion of the Western and non-Western traditions.

The aim of the nudes was the same as for all his art: “What I am seeking is not the real and not the unreal,” Modigliani said, “but rather the unconscious, the mystery of the instinctive in the human race.” His early death cut short that search and it is not at all clear, had he lived, how much further he could have taken it. His style was in some ways self-limiting and he lacked the range of a Matisse or a Picasso.

In January 1920, amid alcohol blackouts, his tuberculosis worsened and, refusing medical help, he became delirious. A concerned neighbour, not having seen him for several days, discovered him in bed, holding tightly on to Jeanne – death was imminent. Recognition as a key and unique voice in 20th-century art came posthumously but as Modigliani once said, in the highly poetic mode he often adopted: “I want to be a tune-swept fiddle string that feels the master melody, and snaps.” He had felt it and snapped. l

“Modigliani” runs at Tate Modern, London SE1, from 23 November 2017 to 2 April 2018

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit