( 1884-1920). Italian painter; born in Leghorn; died in Paris. The widow of a ruined banker, his mother recognized her son's calling early and never opposed it. She acquainted him with all the Italian museums and sent him to work at academies in Florence and Venice. Finally, in 1907, he arrived in Paris. Handsome, aristocratic in appearance, but already a prey to tuberculosis, he soon became one of the eccentric young men of Montmartre, where he lived for six years, taciturn, prodigal, moving incessantly from lodging to lodging, wandering from café to café, but also participating in aesthetic battles, drawing, sculpting, painting pictures. He took part in the discussions at the Bateau-Lavoir. His tall, languid figure could be seen in the same places that had been frequented by ToulouseLautrec, whose work he admired at the time. The offspring of the upper middle class, he showed humanitarian tendencies. His love of the humble people, the pity he had for the outcasts of fortune, he expressed in his actions, his work and his choice of models: the daughter of his concierge, sickly children, girls of the lower classes. Like so many other painters, he discovered Cézanne ( 1909).
He made friends with the sculptor Brancusi, who introduced him to Negro sculpture, which thereafter exercised a profound influence on his drawing. From his contact with Brancusi he felt a need to carve stone himself. He is the maker of statues that were, unfortunately, never finished. To be sure, plastic art was less his medium than drawing. In 1913 he left Montmartre and transferred his anxiety and drunkenness to Montparnasse, a prowler, miserable, full of alcohol, drugs and talent, wasting his gifts as he did his money. He never, in fact, had enough money to live. He used to sell his admirable drawings for a few sous, drawings jotted down with a disconcerting sureness, and his portraits and nudes for a few francs. He was frequently to be seen on the terrace of the Rotonde, or the Dôme, drawing portraits with an acute, rapid stroke, and then offering them to his chance models in exchange for a drink. Then he worked in the studio of Kisling. Soutine and Pascin were his friends. He drifted from café to café and from attic to attic, occasionally finding a haven or a compassionate soul. An English woman poet, Beatrice Hastings, supported him for some time; Zborowski sheltered him later and denied himself necessities in order that his protégé might paint. He met a young girl, Jeanne Hébuterne, married her and fathered a child. Consumed by fever, overwhelmed by tuberculosis, he entered a hospital, where he died on the 25th of January, 1920, in his thirtysixth year, murmuring 'Cara, cara Italia!'. On the day of his funeral, which was organized by André Salmon and Kisling, and made something of a sensation, his wife jumped from a fifth floor and was killed.
The compatriot of Duccio, Castagno and Botticelli, Modigliani was, above all, a linearist, a draughtsman and a mannerist. Colour adds nothing to drawing in his pictures, although it is applied with accuracy and is both resonant and enjoyable. Nevertheless, Modigliani, loyal in this respect to the Tuscan tradition, expressed himself entirely through drawing, in the flexible, subtle, melodious line which for a time was perhaps excessively prized. Elegant and frail, supple to the point of preciosity, with what indulgence it curves in upon the oval of a face, turns round a shoulder, excessively lengthens a neck, accentuates a hip! And how it dominates the form and suffices for volume and space! Modigliani answered in his own way the question raised by the Cubists. The Cubists tried to render the object in its totality by multiplication of the points of view. Modigliani was aware of the experiments of Picasso and Braque, but he was neither a constructor nor a synthesist. His intelligence was not adapted to organization and reflection. He was therefore prudent enough to refuse to join the Cubist band. He resorted to distortion rather than to invention and to techniques rather than to a coherent system.
Although, like the Cubists, he was indifferent to light, atmosphere and sfumato, and aspired to express tactile values and the solidity of volumes, he had at his disposal only limited means: simply and solely line. He paid tribute to modern art by adopting its canon of abstraction and inflicting upon forms the elongation, distortion, contraction, disruption of axes and overlapping of planes that constitute his 'expressionism'. Observe the bent heads, sloping shoulders, swan necks, interminable arms, and the disproportion between torso, legs and head, and, in the head itself, the nose thinned to the extreme, the almond-shaped eyes, close-set and hollowed out, the thin and pinched mouth; observe further the nudes with frail limbs, high waist, and sinuous arabesques: everything contributes to the impression of delicate and precious distinction, rare and somewhat unhealthy, of a morbidezza that would not have been disowned by Botticelli. Modigliani can therefore not be regarded as one of the founders of contemporary painting. He found a style, both graphic and decorative, an idiom that was on the whole rather restricted, but selfsufficient and not without effect. The curves, spirals, elongations, the austerity in the midst of gentleness, nonchalance in the midst of fragility, purity in the midst of the suggestive, the Italianism adapted to satisfy the modern mind, the mannerism saved by a proud gravity, and finally the Expressionism held in check by a certain sense of dignity and aristocratic reserve: these are sufficient reasons to admire Modigliani but also to wish him no descendants. Modigliani belonged to the École de Paris, the largest number of whose painters, foreigners, are characterized by the fact that their works betray a certain sickness of life. Modigliani, however, who suffered more than anyone, made it a point of honour to hide his pain. His laconic style did not always succeed in repressing an irremediable pessimism. But an innate pride, nobility and dignity preserved him from excessive lyricism as well as from shoddy craftsmanship. An anxious, tense intellectualism, which he shared with numerous other Jewish artists of his day, gave his work a disillusioned tone. Rather than a new idiom, Modigliani contributed to his time a new sensation. He had in him something dark, irrational and complicated that his drawings and paintings put within the reach of a generation eager for vivid sensations and acrid pleasures.