Published: June 24, 2003
In the first decades of the Twentieth Century, Paris was alive with the spirit of the avant-garde as artists Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Chaïm Soutine, and others were at the center of an exciting new movement in art. Into this world stepped 22-year-old Amedeo Modigliani.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) revisits this momentous time in “Modigliani & The Artists of Montparnasse.” The exhibition, June 29-September 28, celebrates the brief yet influential career of the Italian-born artist and the extraordinary international circle of fellow artists, critics, dealers, collectors, writers and musicians who gathered in the Paris neighborhood of Montparnasse during the early Twentieth Century.
The first major Modigliani exhibition in the United States in more than 40 years, “Modigliani & the Artists of Montparnasse” features approximately 50 paintings, sculptures, and drawings by Modigliani as well as works by his Montparnasse contemporaries, including Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger, Matisse, Soutine, Picasso, Rivera, and others. Pieces in the show come from public and private collections across North America, Europe, and Japan.
Modigliani, influenced by a wide range of art that encompasses African masks, Cambodian and Egyptian art, medieval sculpture and the sculpture of Michelangelo as well as Symbolism, Fauvism and Cubism, took traditional subjects in the history of art – especially the portrait and the nude – and modernized them. He is best known for his elongated and sensuous portraits of females with soulful, almond-shaped eyes.
Modigliani also made a major contribution to modern sculpture, producing approximately two dozen carved stone heads, six of which can be seen in the exhibition. Like the naturalistic depictions of Montparnasse, Modigliani avoided naturalistic depictions in favor of the more imaginative and creative, as can be seen readily in his 1916 canvas, “Jacques and Berthe Lipchitz.”
Modigliani was born in 1884 into a Jewish family in the Italian port town of Livorno. Sickly as a child, he ceased his formal schooling in 1898 and instead began to study art. Further enforced convalescence afforded Modigliani, in 1901, the opportunity to travel throughout his homeland, where he was exposed to Italy’s most important works of art. In subsequent years Modigliani took classes at the fine arts academies in both Florence and Venice. An ambitious and creative artist, he was caught between his desire to create new art and the strength of the Italian academic heritage; he ultimately resolved the conflict by creating a body of work traditional in subject matter but avant-garde in style.
As part of his effort to expand his cultural horizons, Modigliani moved to Paris in 1906. In his early years there he experimented and struggled to find a personal style. He first settled in the northern Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre, and in late 1908 or early 1909 moved to Montparnasse (a tiny neighborhood just a mile square), where his signature style developed. It also was there that he met the Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brancusi, and their relationship stimulated Modigliani’s interest in three-dimensional work. For the next five years he concentrated on sculpture and related drawings.
In 1914, Modigliani met Paul Guillaume, who became his dealer and is the subject of a 1915 Modigliani portrait that appears in the exhibition. Modigliani’s work of this period is highly autobiographical and provides striking evidence of his many contacts with the artistic and literary avant-garde in Paris at that time. In addition to the numerous portraits of his lovers, friends, and colleagues in Montparnasse (including Lipchitz and Guillaume as well as Chaïm Soutine, Jean Cocteau, Paul Alexandre, Max Jacobs and others), Modigliani also painted many poignant portraits of children during these years, giving them a rare nobility and sense of presence.
Modigliani is also known for his paintings of sensuous reclining nudes, many of which were shown in the Galerie Berthe Weill in Paris in December 1917. The exhibition was closed down by the police on grounds of obscenity, despite the fact that these paintings continued the grand tradition of the nude exemplified by such masters as Giorgione, Titian, and Edouard Manet.
Modigliani’s health, never robust, began to deteriorate in 1918. He died two years later, at age 35, of tubercular meningitis aggravated by abuse of drugs and alcohol.
LACMA is at 5905 Wilshire Boulevard. For information, 323-857-6000 or visit www.lacma.org.
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