Modigliani Up Close
PhiladelphiaThe Barnes Foundation
Modiglinani Close Up
October 16, 2022 – January 29, 2023
The School of Paris was a breathtaking collection of artists who were young together, going in and out of one another’s studios, meeting in the nearby cafés of Montmartre and Montparnasse: Constantin Brâncuși, Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Juan Gris, Marie Laurencin, Jacques Lipchitz, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Chaïm Soutine, Suzanne Valadon were all there, not to mention poets, playwrights, and composers such as Guillaume Apollinaire and Gertrude Stein, Alfred Jarry, Erik Satie, and more. Can you be nostalgic about a place you only went in imagination? Their paintings, their world set under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, was formative for me as a young art historian, and the current exhibition of Modigliani Up Close at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia put me right back in that magical place between 1908 and 1919 (the decade in which Modigliani made all of his well-known works). That world comes flooding back the moment you step into the galleries and the conversation in your head begins between the paintings and sculptures in this beautiful exhibition (nearly fifty great Modiglianis) and the works on view in the Rodin Museum next door, in the modern galleries of the Philadelphia Museum, just a few steps up the street, and in the permanent installation of The Barnes itself.1 To have all this on the same street in Philadelphia is remarkable.
Although the catalogue and didactics are not for the layman, Modigliani Up Close could only have happened by bringing together the conservators and curators from all over the world who lent the pictures in a collective effort to do the careful science of analyzing how Modigliani actually made so many of his greatest works. The analysis of the thread in the canvases determines which paintings came from the same bolt of fabric, solving important questions of chronology and authenticity; pigment analysis explains the light touch and luminosity of the later works and the shift in the flesh tones of the nudes; various forms of hi-tech imaging revealed earlier concepts of the subject matters and even hitherto unseen works.
I’m not uninterested in the conservation research, but what really resonated with me was seeing all these outstanding Modiglianis hung together and speaking to the stunning collection of sixteen Modiglianis on permanent view in The Barnes (among the largest and best collections in the world) and to works on view nearby. Modigliani’s close friend Soutine came to Paris in 1913 at the age of twenty and settled in Montparnasse (The Barnes has among the greatest collections of his work too). Modigliani painted chiefly nudes and portraits; Soutine painted portraits but also landscapes and visceral still life pictures in a bravura, expressionist brushwork that must have encouraged the singular way in which Modigliani abstracted his figures into a signature language of expressive forms. Soutine and Modigliani—both Jews who came to Paris seeking artistic and personal freedom—also encouraged one another in their freewheeling bohemian lifestyles. Picasso arrived in 1904 at the age of twenty-three and had a studio for a time in the famed Bateau Lavoir in Montmartre with Gris and Kees van Dongen; Modigliani took a studio there at one point too and began testing ideas from these artists’ work right from the time he arrived. Modigliani’s 1908 Nude with a Hat shows the twenty-three-year-old painter working in an Expressionist style like that of van Dongen and the contemporary German artists in Die Brücke, and of the early Picasso (as in the 1901 Old Woman (Woman with Gloves) and Head of a Woman (1938) both in the Philadelphia Museum). By 1908, the slightly older van Dongen had found his unique voice in a Fauvist expressionism. By 1901, Picasso had already begun to develop his Symbolist Blue Period which informed Modigliani’s attenuated figures. The radical elongation of the figure—neck, arms, torso, and hands—in works like Picasso’s The Ascetic (1903) or his Young Woman Holding a Cigarette (1901) (in the Barnes) were inspired by El Greco (also represented in the Barnes), and these, in turn, informed Modigliani’s evolution after 1911.
Brâncuși, another close friend and neighbor of Modigliani’s in Montparnasse, came to Paris when Picasso did and in 1909 found Modigliani a studio near his own in the ramshackle warren of La Ruche (the ‘beehive’). Modigliani and Brâncuși were both twenty-four and following Gauguin’s lead (along with contemporary German Expressionists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Ernst Barlach) in pioneering the revival of direct carving (largely forgotten since the time of Albrecht Dürer). Direct carving at the turn of the century fulfilled a Symbolist desire for a return to the Romantic spontaneity of the artist’s hand as the conduit of inspiration and strong emotion. The more traditional atelier practice of bronze casting and monumental stone carving had dominated sculpture in the nineteenth century; both involved a multi-step process, aided by studio and foundry assistants and removing the immediacy of the artist’s gesture. Rodin managed to infuse bronze casting with a new subjectivity, and this spoke to the next generation of artists like Brâncuși and Modigliani. The Philadelphia Museum has an astounding collection of Brâncuși’s sculpture. He began carving in stone with works like The Kiss around 1908 (the Philadelphia version dates from a few years later).
By 1914-15, Brâncuși also began carving rough-hewn sculpture and pedestals in wood. Excited by the traditional African objects in the ethnographic collections of the Trocadéro—although knowing nothing of the cultures from which they came—he and the other Europeans emulated their expressive immediacy, hoping to reveal in their own psyches what lay beneath the sophisticated mannerisms of fin-de-siècle European culture. Brâncuși even arranged his studio into a total, immersive experience like what he might have imagined for the African art. This was also foreshadowed in Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk—the much talked about “total work of art” in his operas. Modigliani is reported to have set up the stone heads in his studio in an ensemble and lit candles on top of them for atmosphere.2 Modigliani had begun carving in limestone in 1911 and it was in his stone heads around 1912 that he first seems to have developed his personal style of portraiture—with elongated necks, mask-like oval faces (often with blank eyes), and an idealized geometry of simplified forms (that one curator described as “Neoplatonic”3). Modigliani and Brâncuși both dramatically distilled forms from nature into sleek abstractions; Brâncuși even accomplished this in bronze, as in Princess X where it recalls works such as Modigliani’s Portrait of a Polish Woman (1919). In several of these stone heads there is a tentative effort to incorporate the base into the composition as Brâncuși was doing; in the square base of the 1912 Head of a Woman in the Philadelphia Museum, for example, the artist incised a decorative arch. With the outbreak of The War compounded by Modigliani’s progressive physical decline from tuberculosis, his work in stone sculpture ended in 1914.
The drive toward simplification, individuality of style and expression, and the abstraction of natural form more broadly in Modigliani’s style had a relationship not only to Brâncuși and the early Picasso and van Dongen, but to most of the School of Paris. Meanwhile, Cubism, emerging at the same moment, offered a different kind of abstraction from reality that Modigliani also explored. In the 1914 Still Life: The Table by Juan Gris (in the Philadelphia Museum), the artist fragmented physical things into vignettes of perception that the viewer is left to rearrange in her or his mind to express the way in which we perceive things in the world across time. He draws one cigarette naturalistically white and opaque next to another that is just a transparent outline without color; the wine bottle is depicted twice in different orientations, sliced by intersecting planes and at times more naturalistically and in other parts less so. He drew trompe-l’oeil wood graining to look like the real things; he also jettisoned a coherent perspectival space for multiple, disconnected illusions of partial spaces, disposed across the physical plane of the canvas like the partial objects. These glimpses of space also suggest perception over time and memory. Picasso, Braque, and Gris in particular had developed this metaphysical inquiry into perception by 1912 and their invention of Cubist collage amplified this further by incorporating actual elements from the real world (scraps of newsprint and the like) into their compositions, as well as introducing writing, which shifts the works into yet another semiotic sphere.
In Still Life: The Table, Gris pasted a torn piece of the masthead of the newspaper Le Journal with the letters “Le J” onto the surface and then realistically painted the next letter “U” at a displaced angle as though a disjointed continuation of the pasted paper. Below it he kept a part of the newspaper that reads “le vrai et le faux ch” suggesting we complete the “ch” to read “choses” (“the true and false things”)—a deliberate commentary on illusionism in painting. In his 1916, Beatrice (Portrait de Béatrice Hastings) Modigliani, portrays the British poet and journalist, Beatrice Hastings (with whom he was having a stormy two-year affair4), in a reductive geometry cut by planes like the bottles in the Gris collage. Modigliani also wrote her name across the canvas, further flattening the shallow Cubist space but at the same time pushing it back in pictorial depth just as the lettering does in Cubism. In the white corner on the upper right he included a collaged newspaper fragment of entertainment listings (“Courrier des Théâtres”), largely painted out. On the one hand, the newsprint refers to her identity as a journalist. On the other hand he doesn’t seem to use the content of the text, as the Cubists frequently did, to pun on the subject: Braque, for example, uses the clipping of “L’Echo D’A” in his 1913 The Clarinet to refer to the idea that as a painting, the picture contains only the "echo" of the clarinet; Picasso, in his 1912 Violin, includes a newspaper clipping about the War munitions industry requiring so much lead that there won’t be any left to make artists’ lead paint—the painting of the Violin has only charcoal and collage, no paint. Modigliani elected not to pursue this.
Modigliani’s 1915 painting of The Pretty Housewife (La Jolie ménagère) has the title lettered in a deliberately awkward scrawl along the top of the painting, subverting the illusionism of the space. But despite the elongation that his contemporaries sometimes referred to as “the El Greco treatment” and the still radically simplified features, the style is otherwise less involved with Cubism and points toward the increasingly “naturalistic” and lighter later portraits (if such a personal style of abstraction can be called “naturalistic”). Modigliani painted The Pretty Housewife on top of another painting, probably a used canvas acquired in the flea market. Both Modigliani and Picasso did this because they couldn’t easily afford new ones. But the colors and textures of the found canvases underneath also stimulated them. In The Pretty Housewife the artist let the underlying paint surface remain visible to enrich the abstract contents of the basket.
In 1914, the collector and dealer Paul Guillaume (whose extensive collection of African art Barnes later acquired) became Modigliani’s principal dealer and patron. Starting in 1916 Léopold Zborowski began managing Modigliani’s career and for the first time the artist began to have some modest commercial success. He embarked on more “naturalistic” portraits of women (at least he captured an impression of their real appearance despite his level of abstraction). He also returned to painting the female nude, rendering some thirty of them in 1916-17. “In the nudes,” the curators tell us, “...he used paper or fine fabric to smooth and polish the wet surface of the flesh paint to create the sensuous, silky effect of skin..., whereas he rendered the surrounding fabrics and the background in painterly brushwork.”5
Berthe Weill, the avant-garde Paris book and picture dealer, gave Modigliani his first Paris show in December 1917. When he met Berthe Weill in 1915 he introduced himself as a sculptor even though he had already stopped making sculpture by then.6 With support from Zborowski to buy commercially prepared canvases, Modigliani painted the nudes on a blue-gray ground in the beginning. As the conservators explain in the catalogue, “...the blue-gray ground provides a cool backdrop that offsets the warm skin tones of the models.”7 Reclining Nude from the Back (Nu couché de dos), the 1917 figure in the Barnes alludes to the famous erotic Odalisque of 1745 by François Boucher in the Louvre. The skin tone in the Modigliani has a rich, sensuous glow. He painted his 1919 Reclining Nude in the exhibition (from the Museum of Modern Art) on a white ground and while it has a more naturalistic face, the skin tone is colder and lighter.
Modigliani met the artist Jeanne Hébuterne in 1917, and the two quickly became lovers. She was soon pregnant with the couple’s first child. By 1918, he was painting everything on white grounds, flooding his later portraits with light. He worked with a dilute, thickly applied paint that created this luminosity, “unvarnished, resulting in a softer, relatively matte appearance.”8 In the spring, Modigliani and Hébuterne left Paris for the South, both on account of his declining health and to avoid the aerial bombardment of Paris.9 The people around him provided his models, among them Zborowski and his partner Anna Sierzpowski (known as Hanka Zborowska) who sat for the 1918-19 Portrait of a Polish Woman. Modigliani briefly tried his hand at landscape painting in the South (Haut-de-Cagnes and Nice), making four of them and then abandoning the subject. The birth of Modigliani’s daughter Jeanne with Jeanne Hébuterne came on November 29, 1918, eighteen days after the armistice that ended World War I. In May 1919 they returned to Paris where he painted Portrait of a Polish Woman. The greater freedom of his late portraits coincided with the beginnings of commercial success. Dr. Albert C. Barnes bought his Modigliani paintings after the artist’s death from tubercular meningitis in January of 1920 at the age of just thirty-five. This exhibition Modigliani Up Close celebrates an extraordinary artist in an extraordinary milieu. It is a rare thing to have the opportunity to experience this all at once, as you can now, on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.
- The Barnes and the National Gallery of Art in Washington have the largest collections of Modigliani in the world.
- Barbara Buckley, Simonetta Fraquelli, Nancy Ireson, Annette King, Modigliani Up Close (Philadelphia: The Barnes Foundation and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), 9, 104.
- Mason Klein, “Modigliani Against the Grain” Modigliani Beyond the Myth (New York: The Jewish Museum and New Haven: Yale Univeristy Press, 2004), 1-2.
- Barbara Buckley, Simonetta Fraquelli, Nancy Ireson, Annette King, Modigliani Up Close (Philadelphia: The Barnes Foundation and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), 64.
- Barbara Buckley, Simonetta Fraquelli, Nancy Ireson, Annette King, Modigliani Up Close (Philadelphia: The Barnes Foundation and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), 6.
- Barbara Buckley, Simonetta Fraquelli, Nancy Ireson, Annette King, Modigliani Up Close (Philadelphia: The Barnes Foundation and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), 9.
- Barbara Buckley, Simonetta Fraquelli, Nancy Ireson, Annette King, Modigliani Up Close (Philadelphia: The Barnes Foundation and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), 3.
- Barbara Buckley, Simonetta Fraquelli, Nancy Ireson, Annette King, Modigliani Up Close (Philadelphia: The Barnes Foundation and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), 5.
- Anna Zborowska, Modigliani et Zborowski (Paris: L’Echoppe, 2015), 33-34; cited in Barbara Buckley, Simonetta Fraquelli, Nancy Ireson, Annette King, Modigliani Up Close (Philadelphia: The Barnes Foundation and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), 4.