Amedeo Modigliani died a broken man. His art has endured.
The Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani died from tuberculosis at age 35, a broken man. And though he had begun to gain recognition for his modernist paintings and sculptures with their distinct elongated faces, at the time of his premature death in 1920, he was destitute, addicted to drugs and drink. Today, he is among the most sought-after, most highly-coveted, and most expensive artists. In 1906, a 20-year-old Modigliani moved from his hometown on the Tuscan coast to the center of the art world, Paris. Though immersed in a community of avant-garde artists, including his mentor the great Constantin Brancusi, Modigliani’s artistic vision was singular.
Ann Moss: His goals to create harmony and balance and a classical beauty are always there.
According to Barnes docent Ann Moss, Modigliani in particular had one continuously identifiable trait in the execution of his artistic vision.
Moss: Art historians always remark on his blank, unfocused eyes and comment on their sightless gaze. Some of his eyes appear like this. These are a clear blue. Some are black. They’re very masklike. And so that goes back to an early influence of African masks so you have this sense of inward and looking outward at the same time.
Nowhere is the influence of African masks more obvious than in Modigliani’s sculptures. His dedication to the form was brief, from 1909 when he met Brancusi until 1914. One of Modigliani’s rare beauties has spent most of its life in a corner of a balcony at the Barnes Foundation.
Moss: It’s one of those treasures at the Barnes that’s very easy to overlook when you visit. It is very rare. There are only 28 authenticated sculptures made by Modigliani. 26 of them are heads, all variations on a stylized bust.
Modigliani continued to set himself apart with his sculptural technique, adopted from his mentor Brancusi.
Moss: Which was to carve directly into the stone. So that’s very different from the fashion of the time, which was to make sculptures by making preliminary models in wax or clay before you would cast a work. Modigliani made his heads out of limestone blocks that he found and scavenged from building sites around Paris.
In his portraits, Modigliani used flattened shapes and frontal orientation to emphasize the two-dimensionality of paint on canvas. In his sculptures too, he liked to remind the viewer that they were looking at objects.
Moss: He really did love to show the signs of his chiseling process. And you can see that really easily where he adds texture to her hair. And these marks added to the effects he was trying to create. Sensuality, tactility, and, I think, a certain allure.
For Modigliani, there were two sources that inspired this particular head and they are Egyptian sculpture and African masks. Masks from the Guro and Bole peoples of Ivory Coast, from their characteristic distortions and simplifications. And so, you see a severely elongated face, almond-shaped sightless eyes, a long narrow nose, which at the time was described as “a wedge of brie that could easily be broken off.” You have a rounded or elliptical mouth and a long columnar neck. The fringe of her hair on her forehead is clearly delineated, and you can even notice flattened pearl-like earrings and these really intriguing ornamental reliefs at the outer corners of her eyes. They’re not tears, and they might be a reference to scarification patterns on African masks.
For Modigliani, the allure of the heads lay in strength and numbers. He had always meant them to be displayed in groups, but financial hardship and illness would force him to sell them individually. But for a time, they did all live together in the outdoor studio he shared with Brancusi, which was also a gathering place for other artists.
Moss: For example, the sculptor Jacob Epstein remembered how when he visited Modigliani at night, there would be 9 or 10 long heads displayed, each with a lit candle on top. And he came away with this sense of having been in a primitive temple. The summer before he died, there was a big show in London of his work and it was very successful and people were clamoring for his masterpieces. And unfortunately for Modigliani, he was, by that point, too ill to attend and he never really saw the financial success because had he lived, there would have been plenty of money.
Indeed today, Modigliani’s works are some of the art world’s most coveted prizes. In November 2015, one of his paintings fetched more than $170,000,000 at Christie’s New York, one of the most expensive works of art ever sold. But for Barnes docent Ann Moss, who lives with Amedeo Modigliani’s beauty almost every day, his value is more ethereal.
Moss: In 1913, toward the end of his sculpting period, he made a visit home and wrote back to a friend in Paris on the back of a postcard, “Happiness is an angel with a strict face.” And I think by the word “strict” he meant “majestic and solemn.” And to conjure a choir of angels, each with a lit candle at the ready.