The Jewish Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) is the subject of Jacques Loeuille’s probing documentary, Modigliani And His Secrets. It will be screened online by the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which starts on June 3 and ends on June 13.
Before watching it, I wondered what secrets could possibly emerge. There are basically two, but one of them is not necessarily a secret. X-rays reveal certain background images beneath the paint in several of his paintings. This comes as news, but it is not of compelling interest.
The other “secret” is debatable. Modigliani developed the “art of the portrait,” a viewer is told. Having been influenced by Italian works of the classical period, he produced portraits of anonymous children, street girls, house maids and so on. But was he really the first painter to do this?
Modigliani would also come under the influence of Asian, African and ancient Egyptian art, all of which were regarded as “primitive.”
One of the very few great Jewish artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he was fond of painting portraits of contemporary painters, whose characteristics he tried to capture. As Loeuille observes, he was the portraitist of the avant garde in Paris, where he lived from 1906 until his untimely death of tuberculosis at the age of 35.
Forged by a cosmopolitan upbringing in Livorno, he was 22 when he arrived in the French capital. It was, as one art critic notes, an incredibly exciting city for an aspiring artist like himself. Having studied the Italian masters, he was ready to break into the Parisian art scene.”It was a wonderful environment for anyone creative,” says an art historian.
One of the first paintings he exhibited was The Jewish Woman.
Modigliani’s mother encouraged him to pursue his artistic inclinations, but he was morally and financially supported by the art dealer Paul Alexandre, who appreciated his drawings. Due to his declining health, Modigliani gave up sculpting and concentrated on painting.
Beatrice Hastings, a British bohemian he met in 1914, exerted an enormous influence on his style in terms of his preference for elongated necks, hollow eyes and dark backgrounds.
Modigliani painted his first nudes in 1916. They didn’t sell at first. Prudish Parisians were unable to deal with paintings that showed pubic hair. But these nudes skyrocketed in value after he died.
Retreating to the French Riviera in 1917, along with painters like Henri Matisse and Chaim Soutine, a Jew, Modigliani turned out landscapes influenced by the late Paul Cezanne. These works were more luminous than his portraits.
Despite his illness, he was prolific, racing against time with a great sense of urgency. His final painting was a self-portrait. He passed away in a hospital in Paris. Devastated by his death, his pregnant French girlfriend committed suicide two days later.
The price of his works soared to stratospheric heights following his passing. It is a pity he did not live long enough to reap the fruits of his stardom.