Notably resistant to the varied artistic languages to which he was exposed in Paris, Modigliani remained unfazed by the specific milieu of creative exploration which he inhabited. For all of his much-publicised social waywardness, his lines remained pure and his pictorial expression focussed: harmony, balance and beauty were the tenets of Modigliani’s output. Schlamenbach’s observation of Modigliani’s distilled visual vocabulary encapsulates the artist’s unique creative spirit and the assiduous control with which he approached his art; as he further extrapolated: ‘this perturbed spirit was artistically at peace with himself’ (ibid p. 53).
Modigliani’s art had its foundations in the classical tradition and his particular skill lay in transposing the essences of traditional painting to the busy world of the 20th Century. The present work relates to the trope of classical nudes which he observed in the pictures of artists such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (see fig. 2), Francisco de Goya and later Edouard Manet: in these, essentially expressionless women lie languidly, unencumbered and unfazed by the gaze of the artist. However, the relationship of these paintings to Modigliani’s work ventures little further than this: Modigliani’s subject is emphatically pictorial rather than representational and this formalism is where the artist locates his unique style between the classical tradition and Modernism.
Indeed, form reigns supreme in Modigliani’s art. Schlamenbach describes it as ‘an exceptionally controlled art: everywhere we look there is […] order and a sense of artistic responsibility’ (ibid p. 9). For this, he was indebted to Paul Cézanne. Modigliani arrived in Paris the same year that Cézanne died and it was known that he always carried in his pocket a reproduction of the latter’s Boy in a Red Waistcoat, producing it with a flourish in the course of many an artistic argument. Cézanne’s enduring influence can be seen in Modigliani’s structural clarity and formal interest, as well as his near-monochrome sobriety when handling paint. Additionally, they both placed firm belief in the value of drawings and sketches; Modigliani was eulogised by subsequent Modern great Alberto Giacometti thus: ‘he was the last great Promethean hero. He certainly had a wonderful intelligence and openness of spirit. Besides painting portraits, he made pages of drawings; and this is what I always try to do. Draw, draw all the time; that is the secret’ (quoted in Modigliani – dipinti e disegni (exhibition catalogue), Verona, Galleria dello Scudo & Turin, Palazzo Reale, Milan, 1984, p. 10).
A particularly distinctive element of this concentration on form is in the treatment of his sitters’ eyes, which are repeatedly depicted as closed or void of detail. Again, the roots of this can be traced back to works by Cézanne, such as the 1899 Portrait de M. Ambroise Vollard, in which Vollard’s eyes are entirely lost in shadow. Other subsequent artists such as Pablo Picasso (see fig. 1) and Henri Matisse also employed this technique to great effect, but none so consistently as Modigliani. It is a device by which the sitter is disempowered: his or her outward-directed gaze is avoided, such that the primary object of our gaze is the picture, rather than the person. It was Modigliani’s primary concern for form, not disrespect for his model, that continually compelled him to pare down any detail that might dilute its primordial role.
The sitter of the present work is the celebrated Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. She arrived in Paris in 1910: young, married and unhappy. The precise nature of her relationship with Modigliani is unrecorded, but what is agreed upon is the intense emotional and intellectual intimacy which they shared during their brief times together in Paris. If Anna’s poems can be taken as anything resembling a biography of her life, she shared little affection with her husband. An excerpt from her 1913 poem In the Evening reads:
He said to me ‘I am a true friend!’
He touched my dress.
There is no passion
in the touch of his hands.
This is how one strokes a cat or a bird,
this is how one looks at a shapely horsewoman.
There is only laughter in his eyes
under the light gold of his eyelashes.
The violins’ mourning voices
sing above the spreading smoke:
‘Give thanks to heaven:
you are alone with your love for the first time.’
In Modigliani, she found a kindred spirit: she remembers him as ‘encircled by a girdle of loneliness’ (quoted in Schlamenbach, ibid p. 184). In their respective art too can be found a striking creative sympathy: both mastered an extraordinary economy of expression. Another poem of Anna’s reads simply:
You dreamt of me, I knew,
And hence I couldn’t sleep.
Modigliani produced at least sixteen sketches of Anna which he gifted to her; all but one were destroyed during the first revolution in Russia.
The present work was acquired by Paul Alexandre, a close friend of the artist, who procured most of his output between 1908 and 1914 in a fevered (and only partly-successful) attempt to stop him destroying his art books. This work has most recently been exhibited in the celebrated retrospective at Tate Modern (Modigliani, November 2017 – April 2018) which received five-star reviews from critics and members of the public alike. Beautiful, pure and concise, the present work is exemplary of the distinctive style for which Modigliani is now celebrated: Anna’s languid pose is articulated in strong, economical strokes of crayon, exposing the confidence of an artist in full control of his creative idiom. As Schlamenbach concludes: ‘Modigliani’s line never wavers’ (ibid p. 9).
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