Happiness is an Angel with a Grave Face

Anna Akhmatova’s Crucial Role in Modigliani’s Art

 

By Richard Nathanson

 

 

Only recently, with the publication of Noël Alexandre’s major monograph The Unknown Modigliani which reproduces 376 works on paper [some double-sided], given by Modigliani to his father, Paul Alexandre, has the all-important presence of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in Modigliani’s art, began to be recognized and understood.

 

Akhmatova’s poetic genius; charismatic beauty and elongated, sensual body struck a unique chord with Modigliani. And influenced the course of his art, at a critical juncture in his development.

 

Aged seventeen, he had written to his artist friend Oscar Ghilia:

 

Believe me, only work that has gone through the whole process of gestation is fit to be expressed and translated by style …… It is our duty never to be consumed by the sacrificial fire. Your real duty is to save your dream. Beauty too has some painful duties; these produce however, the noblest efforts of the soul.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six years later, in a small sketchbook he wrote the words reproduced above.

 

What I am searching for is neither the real nor the unreal, but the Subconscious the mystery of what is Instinctive in the human Race.

 

Modigliani’s intense artistic, spiritual [for him no distinction existed between these two states of being] search to express what he saw as the mysterious, innermost beauty of the human soul, drew him to Buddhist, Indian, Greek, Etruscan, Egyptian, African, early Italian and Renaissance art.

 

Paul Alexandre, Modigliani’s most important patron and friend during his early years in Paris, observed:

 

With Modigliani, it is of course not just a matter of painting, but also of poetry, of literature, of everything. It is about the philosophical meaning of life.……Modigliani sought to express the inner self of his models.

 

Five of the six drawings reproduced in this article were, in all probability, drawn in 1911. They express the range and depth of Modigliani’s feeling for Akhmatova. And herald his later work.

 

One has only to look at the drawings, paintings and stone carvings which precede them to see the vital role Akhmatova played in enabling Modigliani to realise his path.

 

 

 

 

Akhmatova                                                                                              

          

 

 

 

Anna Akhmatova [1889-1966] is regarded, with Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam, as the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century. She met Modigliani during her first visit to Paris in 1910, on honeymoon with her husband. She returned alone in May 1911 and became very close to Modigliani. Theirs was a union of spirit derived from their shared passion for poetry.

 

 

 

 

Black crayon, 42.8 x 26.3 cms                                                                      

 

 

 

 

This tender, moving drawing portrays Akhmatova as both Egyptian goddess. And poet lost in her dream.

 

Erotic in its restraint and languid, sensual pose, it evokes the elongated body and ‘helmet’ of hair of the Egyptian queens and goddesses depicted in the Louvre reliefs Modigliani and Akhmatova returned to, time and again, during the summer of 1911.

 

Modigliani saw, portrayed in these female images of ancient Egypt, Akhmatova’s own extraordinary beauty and noble, statuesque form. Given his mystical nature, he may have imagined her as the reincarnation of an Egyptian queen or female deity.

 

The line is distilled to its essence – even the left arm is only suggested – to convey a purity of spirit and beauty. It is one of his first drawings to be imbued with an otherworldly serenity. And quiet, impassioned love.

 

Akhmatova records Modigliani giving her some sixteen drawings he drew of her. All disappeared. In her memories quoted below, of Modigliani [Memoir on Modigliani dated 1958-1965 and included with memoirs on Osip Mandelstam in Pages from a Diary], she recalls their love for each other.

 

 

Akhmatova

 

‘In 1910, I saw him very rarely, just a few times. But he wrote to me during the whole winter. I remember some sentences from his letters. One was: Vous êtes en moi comme une hantise (You are obsessively part of me). He did not tell me that he was writing poems.

 

I know now that what most fascinated him about me was my ability to read other people’s thoughts, to dream other people’s dreams and a few other things of which everyone who knew me had long since been aware. He repeatedly said to me:

On communique.. (We understand each other). And often: Il n’y a que vous pour réaliser cela. (Only you can make that happen).

 

We both probably failed to realise a crucial point: everything that was happening was for both of us but the prehistory of our lives – of his very short life, of my long life. Art had not yet ignited our passions, its all-consuming fire had not yet transformed us; it must have been the light and airy hour of dawn. But the future, which announces its coming long before it arrives, was knocking at the window. It lurked behind the lanterns, invaded our dreams and took on the frightening form of Baudelaire’s Paris which lay in wait somewhere in the vicinity. And Modigliani’s divine attributes were still veiled. He had the head of Antinoos, and in his eyes was a golden gleam – he was unlike anyone in the world. I shall never forget his voice. He lived in dire poverty, and I don’t know how he lived. He enjoyed no recognition whatsoever as a painter.

 

At that time (1911) he lived in the Impasse Falguière. He was so poor that in the Jardin du Luxembourg we sat on a bench and not, as was usual, on chairs since you had to pay for them. He complained neither about his poverty nor about the lack of recognition, both of which were clearly apparent. Just once in 1911 he said that the previous winter had been so tough for him that he had been unable to think even of that which was dearest to him.

 

He seemed to me to be encircled by a girdle of loneliness. I cannot recall him ever greeting anyone in the Jardin du Luxembourg or the Latin Quarter even though everyone knew everyone else there. I never heard him mention the name of an acquaintance, a friend or a fellow painter, and I never heard him joke. I never once saw him drunk, and he never reeked of wine. He evidently did not begin drinking until later, although hashish had already cropped up in his stories. He did not appear to have a steady girlfriend as yet. He never recounted amorous episodes from the past (which everyone else did). He never discussed mundane matters with me. He was communicative, not on account of his domestic upbringing but rather because he was at his creative peak…..

 

He used to rave about Egypt. At the Louvre he showed me the Egyptian collection and told me there was no point I see anything else, ‘tout le reste’.  He drew my head bedecked with the jewellery of Egyptian queens and dancers, and seemed totally overawed by the majesty of Egyptian art.’

 

In stating that Modigliani cared only for Egyptian art, Akhmatova unwittingly gives a fascinating, touching insight into his absolute single-mindedness. For we know that he was inspired by diverse cultures and visited other museums. Akhmatova’s imminent return to Russia; and Modigliani’s obsessive need, during their few precious weeks together, to see her as frequently as possible among the Egyptian queens and goddesses, so he might, more vividly, portray her in their guise, can be the only explanation for her claim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

       Fifth Dynasty   The Louvre                                                                               

                  Funerary Relief  18th Dynasty   The Louvre                                                                        

 

 

 

 

Many of the Egyptian reliefs they saw had been buried with those they commemorated, to comfort and accompany their spirits into the next world. This would have appealed to Modigliani’s mystical nature. And accorded with his desire to preserve and celebrate for all time the timeless poetic spirit and beauty he saw mirrored in Akhmatova.

 

 

 

 

Head with Chignon   Black crayon, 42.7 x 26.4 cms                                          

 

 

 

 

The otherworldliness of this face. Its long shape, distinctive mass of hair [‘à l’Egyptienne’] and fringe belong to Akhmatova. The drawing relates closely to the stone head below. The rich, heavy black outline suggests Modigliani, in his mind’s eye, had begun already to carve out the head.

 

 

 

 

The National Gallery of Art, Washington                                 

 

 

 

 

Akhmatova

 

‘At this time he was busy working on a sculpture in the small yard next to his studio (in the deserted lane you could hear the echo of his hammer), dressed in his working clothes. He called his sculpture ‘la chose’ – it was exhibited, I think in 1911 at the Independents. He asked me to come and view it, but at the exhibition he did not come over to me because I had not come alone but with friends. The photograph of this ‘chose’ which he gave me disappeared at the time I lost most of my possessions.’

 

Modigliani’s obsession with Akhmatova is evident from the ardent nature of his letters to her the previous winter. His words: Vous êtes en moi comme une hantise; …On communique…. And most tellingly, in relation to her profound affect upon his work,

 

Il n’y a que vous pour réaliser cela.

 

Did he ignore her because he was angry he could not tell her, in the company of her friends, how deeply she had inspired him?

 

Le Bonheur est un ange au visage grave [Happiness is an angel with a grave face]

wrote Modigliani to Paul Alexandre on 6th May 1913.  

 

This single sentence reflects the missionary intent of his 1907 credo – to express his vision as beautifully, simply and truthfully as he was able. It is a fitting title for this visionary ‘Angel head’ inspired by Akhmatova.

 

Modigliani’s need to go beyond individual likeness and gender in his obsessive quest – was, for him, realisable only through the cathartic, physically demanding, intermediate act of carving in stone.

 

Ceroni’s 1965 monograph on Modigliani’s sculpture reproduces his twenty-five known carvings. The first eight stone heads and the tenth head [carved, I believe, before the ninth] lack the defined character, thus conviction and completeness of the heads which follow – hence their unfinished appearance. We know from the sculpture-related drawings of Akhmatova, that the sculpted heads subsequently reproduced in Ceroni were carved after meeting her. They radiate her mystical presence – even those not bearing her likeness. And confirm her crucial role in the forging of his artistic path.

 

 

 

 

Head with Fringe and Earrings 21 x 13.3 cms                                        

 

 

 

 

This head is related to the two stone heads reproduced below [Ceroni 1965, Plates 72 & 73]. They were photographed in Cardoso’s studio where an exhibition of Modigliani’s carvings opened in March 1911. Both are inspired by the ‘head’ and ‘aura’ of Akhmatova. Of the 376 Modigliani drawings recorded in Noël Alexandre’s The Unknown Modigliani, only twelve are dated. This drawing dated 20 Ag [Ag being an abbreviation of ‘Agosto’ - Italian for August], is one of three studies, all dated Ag, of the same head on similarly sized and squared paper.

 

The extreme rarity of Modigliani’s dated drawings would indicate that these three drawings may have signified, for Modigliani, a particular moment of awareness and understanding. Given that the two sculptures to which they relate were photographed around March 1911, they must have been drawn in 1910 – within weeks of meeting Akhmatova. And as he was already beginning, through his work, to experience her profound effect upon his art.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From 1914, Modigliani moves away from the anonymity, often androgynous, of his ‘Angel visions’. The poetic, mystic spirit he saw so vividly portrayed in Akhmatova becomes fused with the individual richness of character of those who fascinated and touched him.

 

Many claim ill-health prevented Modigliani from devoting himself to sculpture. However the extraordinary poetry and sensitivity of his joyously rich, singing colours and caressing, lyrical brushwork produced a nuance of feeling unattainable through stone carving. Perhaps also he felt impelled to work swiftly, sensing, with characteristic prescience, after his early, near-fatal and permanently undermining illnesses, that his life would be a brief one.  

 

 

 

 

Black crayon, 42.8 x 26.3 cm                                                        

  

 

 

 

This drawing is among the most finished for Modigliani’s largest stone carving [1.60 metres] reproduced below. The richly drawn outline carves again into the still, surrounding space.

 

 

 

 

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra                   

 

 

 

 

The dream-like head [so similar to the ‘Chignon Head’] and elongated body are Akhmatova’s. The related sculpture, his only standing, full-length carved figure, is his supreme monument to her.

 

Akhmatova

 

‘Commenting on the Venus de Milo, he said that women with beautiful figures who were worth modelling or drawing always seemed unshapely when clothed.’

 

 

 

 

Anna Akhmatova as Acrobat  black crayon, 42.9 x 26.4 cms                                        

 

 

 

 

In sensual movement and physical energy, this drawing appears unique in Modigliani’s work. Also in its imaginatively erotic depiction of Akhmatova as ‘Acrobat’.

 

Modigliani was captivated by her nubile sensuality which with her long, agile body. And adored face set characteristically amid a mass of hair he has, in this instance, chosen to portray as ‘Acrobat’ .

 

She had a dancer’s body. As an adolescent she was five foot eleven inches tall, and so lithe and supple that she could easily touch the nape of her neck when she lay prone.

 

K. Chukosky, Novyi Mir, March 1987.

 

 

 

 

Akhmatova   Courtesy  The Akhmatova Museum, St Petersburg                                                                                                    

  

 

 

 

Taken in 1916, the above photograph was unknown to Modigliani. But he must have seen her in this pose, given her evident pride in [also his obsession with] her unusually athletic, subtle body.

 

Valeriya Sreznevskaya, a lifelong friend, records:

 

She was a sparkling water sprite, an avid wanderer on foot, climbed like a cat, and swam like a fish...Another feature that marked Akhmatova off from the others was her somnambulism, her moon-walking. On moonlit nights, a thin girl could be seen in a white nightdress walking along the roof of their house in her sleep. 

 

 Her distant, otherworldly expression which so mesmerised Modigliani is of the dreamer her friend touchingly remembers.

 

 

 

 

 

Black crayon, 42.9 x 26.4 cm                                                           

 

 

 

 

Among Modigliani’s principal female figures drawn and painted before 1914 – namely The Jewess, Nudo Dolente, Nude in a Hat, L’Amazone, Maud Abrantes, and Little Jeanne, this portrait  has a particular serenity. Smiling gentleness. And sensuality. No portrait from this period engages the artist more tenderly, directly and intimately.

 

It is this tender intimacy. The mysterious, dreaming eyes and elongated body. And the similarity of expression and oval-shaped face caught in these photographs, which proclaim Akhmatova’s presence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Akhmatova

 

‘It astonished me that Modigliani could find ugly people beautiful and stick by this opinion. I thought even then that he clearly saw the world through different eyes to ours. Everything that was fashionable in Paris and which attracted the most enthusiastic praise did not even come to Modigliani’s attention.

 

He did not draw me from life but alone at home. He gave me these drawings as a gift; there were sixteen of them. He asked me to frame them and to hang them in my room. They were lost in Tsarskoye Selo during the first revolution. The one that survived is less characteristic of his later nudes than the others.’

 

Present also is something of the gentle, all-knowing smile Modigliani would have seen in the Buddha heads he so admired.

 

 

 

 

Buddha, Thailand 15th Century                                                    

 

 

 

 

Her tenderness of expression. Richly drawn, mysterious eyes. The bold contour of her body in repose. Bare, erotically revealed shoulder. Delicately drawn hands. Powerfully, freely rendered shading. And the single, meandering line that fills the surrounding space.

 

All manifest the extreme aesthetic, poetic sensibility and humanity of Modigliani’s genius.

 

Akhmatova

 

‘Once when I went to call on Modigliani, he was out: we had apparently misunderstood one another so I decided to wait several minutes. I was clutching an armful of red roses. A window above the locked gates of the studio was open. Having nothing better to do, I began to toss the flowers in through the window. Then without waiting any longer, I left.

 When we met again, he was perplexed at how I had entered the locked room because he had the key. I explained what had happened, ‘but that’s impossible – they were lying there so beautifully’

 

We talked mostly about poems. We both knew a lot of French poetry: Verlaine, Laforgue, Mallarmé, Baudelaire. Later I met a painter who loved and understood poetry just as Modigliani did – Alexander Tyschler. That happens very rarely with painters.

 

He never recited Dante to me. Maybe because I still knew no Italian. Once he said to me: ‘I have forgetten to tell you that I am Jewish’. He told me straight away that he had been born near Livorno and was twenty-four years old. (He was actually twenty-six). 

 

Whenever it rained (it often rained in Paris) Modigliani took with him a huge old black umbrella. We would sit together under this umbrella on a bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg in the warm summer rain, while nearby slumbered le vieux palais a l’Italienne. We would jointly recite Verlaine, whom we knew by heart, and we were glad we shared the same interests….

 

For a long time I thought I would never hear anything from him again……..but I was to hear a great deal of him……….’

 

Perhaps the sight of the small, startlingly handsome young Italian and his tall, strikingly beautiful Russian companion, in fervid conversation filled with youthful hope, stopped a passerby as, cocooned and oblivious to the world, they sheltered close beneath a battered, black umbrella shielding them from the beating rain; and recited, in hushed, impassioned voices, to each other or in perfect harmony, the verses they knew by heart and loved so well.

 

And in the years to come. In the knowledge of the tragedy and triumph that awaited both, would he not have wondered at that moment ?

 

Richard Nathanson © 2008

 

 

The drawings reproduced in this essay were handled by Richard Nathanson on behalf of the Alexandre family.

 

 

 

 

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