Modigliani’s 1917 work Nu Couché (Sur Le Côté Gauche) – which sold for $157.2 million at Sotheby’s New York in May – was one of the highlights of the recent blockbuster Tate Modern retrospective. Another beguiling, and highly personal, picture in the show was Femme à la robe décolleté allongatée sur un lit, a portrait in black crayon of the artist’s lover, the fêted Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.
Even in the volatile history of Russian literature Anna Akhmatova was something of a maverick. She came from a noble family of forthright characters. Her strident opposition to Stalinism – she lost two husbands to the purges and only just avoided being sent to the gulags herself – mirrored her father’s outrage at the former Imperial rule. That didn’t, however, stop the Akhmatovas living a comfortable bourgeoise life in fin-de-siecle St Petersburg, nor did it drive Anna into exile following the Revolution.
But Modigliani met her before the turmoil. In his 1910-11 portrait of the poet, she is pictured lying on a bed, or chaise longue, in Paris, her drowsy gaze floating towards the viewer. The scene recalls the opening words of an early – untitled – poem: The pillow hot / On both sides…
Modigliani completed some 16 portraits of Anna – including several nudes. They were two peas in a Parisian pod. Akhmatova noted that the artist was “encircled by a girdle of loneliness”. And, although recently married to the writer Nikolay Gumilev, she found her husband more interested in big game hunting in Africa than home life.
The artist and the poet became lovers. They walked the city streets and parks and wandered the Egyptian rooms at the Louvre. “He drew my head bedecked with the jewellery of Egyptian queens and dancers,” Akhmatova recalled. But the affair was doomed and she eventually returned to Gumilev. Her vulnerability to heartache is echoed in her poem of the time, Love (1911):
It may curl like a snake in a ball,
Bewitching your heart in the still,
Or for days at a time it may call
Like a dove on a white windowsill.
Neither the poet or the painter were destined to have conventional romantic lives: Akhmatova’s later lovers included a theatre director and a composer; Modigliani had affairs with many of his models before his untimely death at 35. The pair also shared a love of precision: she was as scrupulous with her words as he was with his line.
But while she is seen as the soul of the “Silver Age”– a fertile period for Russian poetry at the dawn of the 20th century – Modigliani is now remembered as the “Prince of Vagabonds”. Her success was due to self-possession; his in spite of intemperance.
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