Thursday 27 November 2014

Modigliani exhibition at the Palazzo Blu in Pisa October 2014 - February 2015

Among the artists whose works exert a strong attraction on me, Amedeo Modigliani ranks high among those still designated "modern" (even though he died in 1920). I came across him through a quite amazing coincidence. For my fourteenth birthday, my father gave me a Baule mask that he had brought back from the Ivory Coast. I was enchanted by it and went straight out to show it to one of my male friends who liked "curios". On the way to his place, I passed a bookshop displaying in its window a new book on the art of Modigliani, who was totally unknown to me. The resemblance between the picture on the cover and my mask was astonishing. I was instantly captivated (and my father was easily persuaded to buy me the book as well). Later I learnt that Modigliani was well-known for making sketches of the elongated faces of Baule masks, often heart-shaped and narrowing to a point at the chin beneath a small mouth placed unnaturally low on the face, and adapting this style to his paintings and sculptures.

African mask adapted by Modigliani
Baule African mask
Jeanne Hébuterne by Modigliani
Jeanne Hébuterne by Modigliani

This month (November, 2014), I had the chance to see up close a wonderful range of Modigliani's paintings. For the past few years, the Palazzo Blu in Pisa has mounted some extremely good modern art exhibitions - Chagall, Mirò, Picasso, Kandinsky, Warhol - and this year (extending into 2015), they are showing works by Modigliani and some of his contemporaries, mainly from the collection of the Pompidou Centre in Paris: Modigliani in Palazzo Blu 3 October 2014 - 15 February 2015: "Amedeo Modigliani et ses amis".

Amedeo Modigliani was born into the large Jewish community of Livorno in 1884. His family had been rich and successful but were hit hard by a collapse in metal ore prices during 1883-1884, coinciding exactly with the birth of Amedeo. His youth was plagued by illness, including the onset, at age 16, of the tuberculosis that eventually killed him. Modigliani studied at Guglielmo Micheli's Art School in Livorno from 1898 to 1900, then in Florence and later in Venice. Micheli was one of the Macchiaioli and although Modigliani did not take up their style, he was influenced by their palette. In 1906, he moved to Paris. This move was crucial to his artistic development but unfortunately allowed him to give free rein to his self-destructive tendencies. He started smoking hashish in Venice and continued in Paris where he added excess alcohol, including absinthe, to his "repertoire", none of which helped with his tuberculosis.

Jeanne Hébuterne
Jeanne Hébuterne
Amedeo Modigliani
Amedeo Modigliani near the end of his life

Modigliani had endless love affairs and liaisons but in 1917 he met the beautiful Jeanne Hébuterne who became his mistress and muse. Their relationship was amazingly fruitful in terms of art but truly tragic in human terms. He painted endless portraits of her - or rather, inspired by her, since they bore little or no resemblance to Jeanne, other than being female and beautiful. She bore him a daughter and was pregnant with their second child when, distraught, she killed herself on the day of his death from tuberculosis, 24 January, 1920.

Modigliani was a key contact between the School of Paris and the Futurist artists based in Italy, and his fame has far eclipsed both the Futurists and the Macchiaioli who are hardly known outside of Italy today. His highly recognisable style and the prodigious number of variations that he painted provided opportunities for art forgers that they were quick to seize. Even his sculptures were copied and passed off as originals. Three of them are concurrently on display (as fakes, I hasten to add!) at the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo in Pisa.

Modigliani nude

Palazzo Blu Pisa

Shore excursions from Livorno.

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