Throughout his career, Modigliani demonstrated an almost exclusive devotion to single figures, which he described as a basic condition of his art: “In order to do any work I must have a live person… someone I must be able to see in front of me” (1). He satiated this primordial instinct by appropriating the people around him and the numerous encounters that took place during his short but busy life, people who were significant as well as merely casual contacts all populate his work. Although his body of work as a whole does represent something of a neighborhood chronicle of the bohemian Montparnasse area where he lived during the highly animated first decades of the 20th Century, this is due more to coincidence than to any explicit intention on his part. He did not manifest any overwhelmingly psychological comprehension of or any pointed interest in mining the depths of his models’ lives. In any case, as the artist himself stated, his silhouettes “intend to explain no more than a mute affirmation of life” (2). His manner of handling eyes, which so often appear blank and lacking pupils, as is the case in Buste de femme (Bust of a Woman), denies his models an outward looking gaze. This absence of visual contact serves in order to distance viewers from the person represented, whose thoughts, like the gaze, turn inward and thus become inaccessible. The artist’s persistent interest and the focal point of his works continue to be the human form and physiognomy and their transcription to a pictorial dimension.
The tension in Modigliani’s work lies in the portraitist’s most basic premise: make it possible to recognize the model while simultaneously subordinating the subject to the idiosyncrasy of the artist’s own visual language. As one of his famous models, Jean Cocteau conjectured, “he would adapt everyone to his own style, to a type he had inside” (3). Whether it was the case of a famous Parisian figure or an anonymous model, as in Buste de femme, the artist emphasized key physical features—long, dark, straight hair, blue eyes, olive toned skin—preserving some resemblance to the model, in order to then formalize that similarity in a personal language that assured that his works would be first and foremost identifiable as “Modiglianis” (4). Buste de femme responds to the artist’s archetypical portrait and it is a combination of familiar, instantly recognizable parts: a long, oval face slightly inclined to one side and dotted with empty, almond-shaped eyes, an attenuated nose and a small, puckered mouth all mounted on an elongated, curved neck. Superfluous information rarely detracts from the description of the human form. There are no other objects or leads that might testify to the subject’s identity or social status. Uniform lighting without shadows and a solid background color reveal nothing about the place where the person is posing. When there is some suggestion of space, it is primarily at the service of the composition, as is the case in Figure de femme (Figure of a Woman), also in the Museum’s collection (inv. 9217), where the allusion to a corner compensates for the figure’s symmetric positioning.
Modigliani’s simple vocabulary and his dedication to the integrity of the human figure at a time of radical challenges to existing conventions of painting should not be misinterpreted as an anachronistic stance. His work demonstrates a wide range of sources and contemporary concerns (5). He held a profound respect for the artistic legacy of his native Italy and the traditions he had come into contact with during his studies in Livorno, Florence and Venice. There are echoes of Sandro Botticelli’s refined lines and the mannerism of Jacopo Pontormo y Parmigianino—whose Madonna dal collo lungo (Madonna and Child with Angels and St. Jerome, 1534-1540, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) is a frequent point of comparison—that often appear in his work. This weighty classic inheritance was mitigated by a number of different influences that he encountered upon arriving in Paris in 1906, at a time when the avant-garde was exploring the forms of “primitive” objects, mining Paul Cézanne’s structural experiments. Many of Modigliani’s primitive portraits were related to Cézanne in the clarity of their construction, the elimination of chiaroscuro and his choice of palette. The sightless eyes, a motif that appeared frequently in Cézanne’s work, the bluish grey tone and the dappled finish in the background of Buste de femme denote the French painter’s lasting impact on Modigliani, even when the line of his figures had become more agile.
Three years after having arrived in Paris, Modigliani met Constantin Brancusi, an event that reawakened the sculptural ambitions that the artist had previously stowed away. Inspired by archaic stones and Rumanian wood blocks, he concentrated on carved pieces and related drawings almost exclusively from 1909 to 1914. The verticality, strong linear component and simplified, elongated traits of his heads and caryatids speak of Modigliani’s assimilation of non-European historical and sculptural traditions: the art of ancient Egypt, classical Greece, Cambodia and Africa. Although he produced relatively few sculptures—barely twenty-five in all—and abandoned carving to return to painting in late 1914, his experience as a sculptor had profound consequences on his pictorial work. His particular interest in African art continued to surface in the elongated proportions and faces of his models, who resembled masks.
Although neither work is dated, which was common for many of Modigliani’s works, both Buste de femme and Figure de femme, bear the stamp of this final, increasingly mannerist, style the artist employed uniting primitive and classic forms, defined as the work of a “nègre Botticelli” (black Botticelli) (6). The portraits he painted in 1915 and 1916, right after his sculptural phase, are characterized by a rigorous compositional structure, more angular handling of the facial features and the inclusion of inscriptions that allude to the influence of Picasso’s proto-analytical and analytical cubism (7). From 1917 onward, this strong emphasis gave way to lines that were increasingly s-shaped curves and melodic, which became the artist’s signature style. The model’s neck in Buste de femme, like that of a swan, is especially accentuated by the contrast between her long, dark hair and her full bust and black dress. Since feminine forms lent themselves to this sinuous interpretation more adequately, there are far more images of women than there are of men in the final phase of his work. While he submitted human forms to his typical distortions, Modigliani managed to evade vulgarity or ugliness, and the refinement of these works bears witness to his continual concern for grace and traditional notions of beauty.Kate Kangaslahti
1— Cited by Jeanne Modigliani in: Modigliani: Man and Myth. New York, Orion Press, 1958, p. 81.
2— Phrase attributed to Modigliani by his friend and colleague Chaïm Soutine, cited in: Werner Schmalenbach, Amedeo Modigliani: Paintings, Sculptures, Drawings. New York, Prestel, 2005, p. 27.
3— Jean Cocteau, Modigliani. London, Zwemmer, 1950, [s.p.].
4— Simonetta Fraquelli, “A Personal Universe: Modigliani Portraits and Figure Paintings” in: Simonetta Fraquelli and Norman Rosenthal (ed.), Modigliani and his Models. London, Royal Academy of Arts, 2006, p. 32.
5— Kenneth Wayne, Modigliani and the Artists of Montparnasse. New York, Harry N. Abrams, 2002, p. 17.
6— Adolphe Basler and Charles Kunstler, La peinture indépendante en France II. De Matisse à Segonzac. Paris, Crès et Cie., 1929, p. 72.
7— Tamar Garb, “Making and Masking, Modigliani and the Problematic of Portraiture” in: Mason Klein (ed.), Modigliani Beyond the Myth. New York/ New Haven, Jewish Museum/Yale University Press, 2004, p. 53.