November 18, 2018

Modigliani: The Life of An Artist

Posing in his studio with a cigarette dangling between his fingers, his cold and staunch stare right at the camera peeping into your soul, sloppy clothes, half-finished paintings behind him, a messy used desk, and paint brushes everywhere. Modigliani wasn’t just an artist, but he also lived as one, which are two seemingly different things.

He in the real sense of the word was a peculiar man, not because of his bohemianism and hedonism which really was commonplace at the time, rather the very aesthetics of his art. Modigliani is best known for his odd portraits whose elongated faces depict a certain melancholia, and I dare say, humanist pessimism. Although influenced by Picasso’s cubism, his own style soon took fruit, which propelled him to wide-spread recognition by those in the art community as well as outside.

The superbly morbid colours of the subject’s faces, in themselves create a mood of the macabre without any real explicit content. The emotions represented as a result however are indicative of someone who had a bad hand dealt to him throughout his life, at least in terms of placement of one’s pain unto one’s subjects.

Modigliani was the fourth child of a large Jewish family in Livorno Italy. By the time of his birth his father was in serious financial ruin, and ironically enough the collectors began to collect the family’s things as his mother went into labour. Italian law at the time specified that no collector could take the bed away from a mother giving birth, therefore the family began placing all their valuables on top of the bed to escape the clutches of the repo men.

Similar to many artists, he was attracted to art from a young age, consistently drawing, and learning about new forms and styles. His mother realizing that her son possessed a great deal of talent enrolled him to study under the great master Guglielmo Micheli at the age of 14, where he learned the necessary skills, but more importantly the foundation which would be resiliently salient to adopting his own techniques.

It did not take long for him to become infatuated with the lifestyle that came with artistry. Although cliched and romantic, Modigliani roamed the streets of Venice, drinking, and frequently discussing radical notions such a Nietzsche's belief in the “superman”. He kept an academic manner about him, always reading the philosophy and history of art.

In 1906 he decided to move to Paris where the avant-garde movement was exploding, yet within the confines of a year he changed his persona from an educated young artist, to an alcoholic and drug addicted vagrant who would take on commissions for meals at restaurants or a bit of money. In fact his vagabondage became well known across Paris to the extent that people were calling him “the cursed”.

Although mingling profusely with artists and patrons, he only managed to get one big exhibition that led to some revenue which he would later squander on alcohol and women. Despite his uncertainty he was sure of one thing: no one was going to categorize him and his art. He profusely disliked to be considered avant-garde or post-impressionist, and in fact always wanted to reiterate that he was unique from all his peers.

Women loved Modigliani not only for his looks, or flair as an artist, but the fact that he was truly enticing. Amidst his countless romantic encounters, the most famous of these would also be his last. Jeanne Hebuterne, a 19 year old art student, fell in love with him, in fact to the point that she had his children and moved in together. Yet he did not settle in the life of a family man by any means, but continued to be a delinquent.

However the good times were not really so good. Although alcohol and his decrepit lifestyle was consuming him, he was also suffering from tuberculosis which he contracted in his 20’s but lived with for years, until finally it overwhelmed him. At the age 35, having lived a fast, and flamboyant life, he perished poor, destitute, only to leave a young child and pregnant girlfriend behind. He died the same way he came into the world, surrounded by poverty.

When one looks at Modigliani’s paintings it is easy to see that suffering was no novelty for the painter, yet he chose his drudgery with his own hands. The real tragedy of his life was that his end although unavoidable, was instigated much faster by his own recklessness. Yet, it is more often the case that to live the life of an artist is one of calamity, rather than joy.