The human face and form have been the artist’s principal subject for thousands of years. Yet Modigliani depicted both in a way that became entirely his own.
These sixteen drawings, dating from circa 1908 to 1911, were given by Modigliani to Paul Alexandre, his first patron. All, except ‘Kneeling Blue Caryatid’, have come, by direct descent, to the present owners.
They show Modigliani’s rapid progression towards and realisation of his unique artistic voice. Evident from the first drawing, with its influence of Simone Martini, is his innately sensitive, poetic touch.
Modigliani was a delicate child and at sixteen almost died of pleurisy. He may well have sensed that his life would be brief. And that it was his mission to bring his own beauty and understanding into the world for the benefit of others. Life he wrote shortly before his death, is a gift from the few to the many. From those who know and who have, to those who do not know and do not have.
In 1901, aged seventeen, he wrote to his artist friend Oscar Ghilia:
………I am also trying to formulate with the greatest lucidity the truths of art and life I have discerned scattered among the beauties of Rome, and as their inner meaning becomes clear to me I shall seek to reveal and to re-arrange their composition, I could almost say metaphysical architecture, in order to create out of it my truth of life, beauty and art’.
That Modigliani should, at so young an age, be concerned with extracting from the scattered ruins of ancient Rome, timeless truths in order to ‘re-arrange’ them into his own vision of life, beauty and art, makes this a remarkable statement of intent.
His arrival in Paris in the winter of 1906, accelerated this aesthetic, spiritual alchemy as he absorbed into the prism of his extreme sensibility other art forms, among them the art of ancient Egypt and Greece, the Cyclades, the Etruscans, India, Africa, Asia and Renaissance Italy – taking from each the particular elements that accorded with his own spiritual aesthetic.
African art had influenced Picasso with its radically different stylistic portrayal of the human face and figure; and its powerful, disturbing, physical energy – Picasso’s own. Modigliani was however also captivated by the centuries-old spiritual tribal beliefs of Africa; and the way these had shaped and imbued its art with a continuing inner energy and stillness.
The Unknown Modigliani, Noël Alexandre’s major publication on Modigliani’s pre-1914 drawings is unique in allowing us to follow, through his drawings, virtually step by step, Modigliani’s relentless striving towards the goal he expressed in a small 1907 sketchbook:
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 obsessive search for a timeless truth and beauty in his subjects is no-where more vividly and poignantly evident than in the works inspired by the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova whose mesmerising beauty and aura of otherworldliness embodied, for him, the spirit of ancient Egyptian goddesses, queens and dancing princesses. Their brief, intense relationship was to play a crucial role in his art.
These drawings show his line becoming progressively distilled and charged with a growing, lyrical energy, reflecting the inner spiritual journey that shaped and determined his stylistic evolution.
Paul Alexandre’s memories of Modigliani are recorded in The Unknown Modigliani:
I must confine myself strictly to the period between 1908 and the early months of 1914. During those years, I saw him almost every day, shared his plans, his likes and dislikes, his sorrows and his joys. The man was as attractive as his work. He was welcomed into my family and made portraits of my father and brother and many of me, which varied greatly depending on when they were done. Our relationship ended with the Mobilisation [August 1914] as I immediately joined an infantry battalion and was not released until the general demobilisation, not long before his premature death. I never saw him again.
From the day of our first meeting, I was struck by his outstanding artistic gifts, and I begged him not to destroy a single sketchbook or a single study. I put the meagre resources I could spare at his disposal, and I possess almost all his paintings and drawings from this period.
The preparatory sketches and finished drawings allow one to follow his development, step by step, stroke by stroke, during those decisive years. It is extraordinary to have been able to assemble the successive states [like the states of an engraving] of the remarkably active mind of an artist searching for a style of his own – which did, in fact, very soon emerge.
These drawings mirror the mysterious forces acting within and through Modigliani – their harmonious, vibrant lines forming visual sounds of sublime, enduring beauty emanating from a place beyond our comprehension.
Click here to return to Modigliani homepage
Click here to visit www.richardnathanson.co.uk