If there was ever a painting or a theme that embodies perfectly all the craft, mastery, beauty, sensuality and uniqueness of a painter, then those are female nudes by Amadeo Modigliani.
During his tragically short, turbulent but productive life, Modigliani created at least 26 reclining female nudes, among them is the notorious Red Nude that was sold a couple of years ago for $170 million and which could have been one of the reasons of artists’ failure during his lifetime.
Amedeo Clemente Modigliani was an Italian-Jewish painter and sculptor. He was born in Livorno in 1884 and moved to Paris in 1906 where he eventually died of tubercular meningitis in 1920. While in Italy, he studied Renaissance art and the legacy of his studies is evident in his paintings, nudes particularly.
While in Paris he came in contact with numerous artist including Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brancusi whose work influenced his sculptures.
While he was alive he had little success but after his death, he achieved great popularity. He is a poster boy of a beautiful, talented, misunderstood, romantic artist living a life free of conventions and full of drugs, sex, alcohol. The reality was somewhat different, more prosaic and tragic.
Modigliani was born into a respected but impoverished Sephardic Jewish family in Livorno. His mother was a descendant from a scholarly family of Sephardic Jews that for generations liver along the Mediterranean coast and were authorities on sacred Jewish texts and founders of a school of Talmudic studies.
Modigliani’s father was a member of an Italian Jewish family of businessmen and entrepreneurs. Modigliani’s birth coincided with the collapse of his father business but because by an ancient law creditors could not seize the bed of a pregnant woman or a new mother, the family protected their most valuable items by piling them on the bed where his mother went into labor with him.
He was a sickish child, he contracted typhoid fever and later tuberculosis and was home-schooled by his mother that pushed him in pursuing art as a vocation. He studied with the best painting master in Livorno Guglielmo Micheli and later, after several bouts of tuberculosis moved to art schools in Florence and Venice.
In 1906 Modigliani moved to Paris, then the center of the avant-garde. He lived along with other penniless artists in Montmartre, renting a studio in Rue Caulaincourt and within a year transformed himself from academician artist into a prince of vagabonds.
He began drinking heavily and cultivated a reputation of the voracious drug user, perhaps to mask his tuberculosis from his friends a few of them knew of his condition. Tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in France at that time, there was no cure and people suffering from it were feared and ostracized and Modigliani thrived on camaraderie and acceptance and validation from his colleagues such as Utrillo and Soutine. Being a drunk was tolerated, being sick with tuberculosis was not.
At that time he was in a passionate affair with Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and began descending into a dark world of hashish, absinthe, and cocaine out of which he will never recover. It was a cocktail that made him violent and weakened his body even more.
When he arrived in Paris, Modigliani was into sculpture. He studies with Brancusi for one year and produced a number of amazing sculptures that relied on Cycladic art, primitive and African art – which will later be more pronounced in his portraits with their simplified, elongated oval faces, attenuated noses and button mouths and blank eyes – and Brancusi, but were nevertheless unique, modern and so unmistakably “Modiglianized,” to use the words of one critic.
He exhibited his sculptures of idol-like heads and caryatids with monumental and simplified forms at the Autumn salon in 1912 and by 1914 he was through with sculpting as it became extremely difficult to acquire materials due to the outbreak of war but also Modigliani wasn’t strong enough to continue sculpting out of stone and wood. His Tete, a limestone carving of a woman’s head in 2010 became the third most expensive sculpture ever sold.
During the war years, Modigliani turned to painting and drawing, although he never stopped sketching and drawing. He sketched tourists, used his painting so pay the bar bills, painted his friends, lovers, whores, and models when he could afford them.
As a handsome, educated man he attracted a lot of female attention but that changed when Beatrice Hastings entered his life and stayed with him for two years. At that time, around 1916, Modigliani befriended Polish poet and art dealer Leopold Zborowski who became his friend and an art dealer. Zborowski organized Modigliani’s show in Paris in 1917, first and only one during his lifetime.
Modigliani painted several dozen nudes between 1916 and 1919 and they are some of his best-known works. They were commissioned by Zborowski who allowed the artist to use his apartment, supplied him with models and painting materials and paid him daily for his work.
Seven nudes were exhibited during the notorious Paris show of 1917. The police closed the show on its opening day as the public was shocked and scandalized with hairy naked women exhibited in the gallery’s storefront window. “Those naked women,” complained an officer, “they have pubic hair!”
The problem wasn’t so much the subject as it was the representation, as always. Modigliani’s nudes were traditional in its essence, their poses reminiscent of Renaissance and Baroque masters of Velasquez, Titian, Goya. The problem was pubic hair that showed. If you look at the older paintings, you will find that not one of the naked ladies so freely and openly exposes her pubic hair. Modigliani’s ladies do so unapologetically and in full view. These women are in control of their bodies and their livelihoods. There are raw sexuality and sensuality oozing from these women. With their hollowing eyes and the mysterious, almost post coitus look on their mask-like faces, with the ease they carry their bodies, they are the fulfillment of every man’s dream, an early 20th century Playboy centerfold.
Such paintings could have been painted only by a man who loved women in every shape and form, who loved the way their skin feels under his hand, their hair, scent, the curve of their breasts and bellies.
You can almost feel the texture of their skin and smell their musky scent and with a corner of your eye see the painter with a smoke in his hand, fingers dirty with paint and yellow from nicotine, unshaven with thick, black unkempt hair transporting feverishly on the canvas the soft curves of his model, the softness of her body. No one has ever come close to representing a woman’s body with such joy and sensuality and ease quite like Modigliani.
The irony is that during his life, Modigliani with the help of Zborowski sold a number of his works but never for any great amount of money. The so-called Sleeping Nude with Arms Open / Red Nude or Nu couche was sold at Christie’s auction in 2015 for staggering $170 million, a record for a Modigliani painting and one of the most expensive paintings ever sold.
The painting was created in 1917 and is different from his other more elongated forms. The woman’s nude body is full of flowing curves and sensual texture, the mask-like face and a slight smile on the lips make this painting not so scandalous, despite the shocking “bush”, but a celebration of the woman’s form and her sensual nature.
In the spring of 1917, Modigliani met a beautiful 19-year old art student Jeanne Hebuterne. The couple moved in a studio on the Rue de la Grande Chaumerie and in 1918 to Nice where Jeanne gave birth to a daughter named Jeanne. The couple returned to Paris in 1919 and were set to get married despite Jeanne’s parents’ disproval because of Modigliani’s reputation as an alcoholic and drug user.
The wedding plans were shattered when Modigliani discovered he had a severe form of tuberculosis. His health deteriorated rapidly and he died in 1920. Pregnant Jeanne jumped from a window and killed herself and her unborn child a day after Modigliani’s death. Modigliani was buried at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Jeanne’s body was transported year later and laid beside him.
With his specific and highly stylized portraits of long-necked models with almond-shaped eyes, each revealing its model’s inner life and scandalous nudes, modern in their candid sensuality he was one of the leading figures of modern art, a contemporary of masters such as Picasso, Rivera, Gris, Max Jacob but an artist of unique style and sensibility, unclassifiable in any of the “isms” of his days – Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Futurism.