Amedeo Modigliani. Part 2 – Sculpture and a disappointed commission

I ended my last blog about Amedeo Modigliani with him having arrived in Paris in January 1906, thanks to financial help from his mother.  For that first year in Paris, Modigliani, who still had some of his mother’s money left over, was seen as a well dressed, gentle man who got on with his art in a quiet way, one who socialised little, drank wine in moderation and even looked askance at the excesses of some of the artists, such as Picasso, who frequented the lodgings, bars and studios of Montmartre, but all this would change twelve months later. 

L'Amazone by Modigliani (1909)
L’Amazone by Modigliani (1909)

At the end of the following year, 1907, he met and became great friends with Doctor Paul Alexandre who loved his artistic work.  The doctor bought more than twenty-five of his paintings and numerous sketches.  One painting the doctor ended up with was L’Amazone, which was finally completed by Modigliani in 1909.  It was not one the doctor had intended to buy but was one which, on his recommendation, was commissioned by Baroness Marguerite de Hasse de Villers.  The baroness was a beautiful socialite and also the lover of the doctor’s younger brother, Jean.  She posed for this painting by Modigliani dressed in a riding habit.  There is a sophisticated beauty about the bone structure of her face and her exaggerated and elongated jaw line.  She glances out at us in an imperious manner, with her black-gloved hand on her hip.  The commission was a nightmare for Modigliani.  His sitter was a nightmare and was ever demanding for the commission to be completed and at one point, when she had completely lost patience with him, threatened to cancel the commission if the work was not completed within the next seven days.  Modigliani had worked slowly on the work and had made a number of preliminary sketches for it.  On being presented with the portrait the Baroness was horrified by the way she had been depicted and refused to take ownership of it.  In the end Doctor Alexandre bought it. 

Étude pour L'Amazone by Modigliani
Étude pour L’Amazone by Modigliani

Although the sitter was not impressed with the finished work others have loved it and it was only this May that the painting, and three of the preliminary studies for the work, came up at auction at Sotheby’s, New York.  The painting was sold for $23 million and the three studies fetched a total of just over $1.3 million !  Paul Alexandre actively sought out commissions for Modigliani and the friendship between the two lasted until 1914 when the doctor was called-up by the military to take part in the World War I.  Doctor Alexandre had been instrumental in who persuading Modigliani to exhibit some of his works at the Salon des Independants, which had been formed in 1884 as an alternative to the Paris Salon. 

It was also through Paul Alexandre that Modigliani met the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi in the early part of 1909, shortly after moving to his new studio at 14 Cité Falquière in Montparnasse, and it was Brancusi who persuaded Modigliani to work, like himself, on stone sculptures.  During their time together Brancusi introduced Modigliani to the world of African sculpture and art.   Although we associate Modigliani with painting and drawing, his true love is thought to have been sculpture.  Between 1910 and 1914, Amedeo Modigliani almost abandoned painting and concentrated his time on sculpture and the related drawings which were used as preliminary sketches to the finished sculpted figures.

Caryatid by Modigliani (1914) MOMA New York
Caryatid by Modigliani (1914) MOMA New York

One such preliminary sketch, which is now at The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, was entitled CaryatidA caryatid is a column, used to support an entablature, and is in the form of a draped female figure.  The sketched figure of the woman in Modigliani’s work is balanced on a pedestal, her arms reach behind her head which is tucked into her shoulder.   Modigliani was fascinated by the theme of the caryatid.  One day he said that he hoped to be able to sculpt a series of them in stone and they would then be positioned around a temple which would be dedicated to the glory of mankind. 

Caryatid sculpture by Modigliani  (The Museum of Modern Arts, New York)
Caryatid sculpture by Modigliani
(The Museum of Modern Arts, New York)

However Modigliani only ever completed one such sculpture which is now housed in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Tête by Modigliani (1909)
Tête by Modigliani (1909)

Probably the best known of Modigliani’s sculptures was the limestone sculpture entitled Tête which, along with six others, Modigliani exhibited at the 1912 Salon d’Automne.   It is just 65cms tall and is a depiction of the elongated head of a woman who is wearing a tribal mask with her flowing hair swept back.  The characteristics of Modigliani’s sculptured heads with their long oval faces, elongated necks and noses, almond-shaped eyes, became typical of his portraiture works.  The head of Tête is very vertical in form but the hair extends back in a strongly horizontal manner.  It is said that for a true appreciation of the work it should be viewed all around.  On one side, it looks like the flowing locks of hair seem to be blowing in the wind.   The neck of the figure is slender.   When it came up at Christie’s Paris auction in June 2010, it was described as possessing:

“…the paradoxical combination of structural clarity and emotional inscrutability that is character of the artist’s finest work. Pared-down to a series of simple geometric forms, rigidly frontal and rigorously symmetrical, Tête emanates a feeling of haunting mystery. Behind the stylized semi-circles for eyes, one senses the presence of a fragile, numinous core…” 

Tête by Modigliani (1909)
Tête by Modigliani (1909)

Modigliani’s Tête was almost certainly influenced by his friend and mentor, the sculptor Constantin Brancusi but maybe more so by examples of tribal art which he had seen in the Paris gallery of the Hungarian-born art dealer, Joseph Brummer.  Being a friend of Picasso, Modigliani would also have seen African and Oceanic art work which the Spanish painter had accumulated.  Tête had been purchased by Gaston Lévy, an avid art collector and who would later become co-founder of the French supermarket chain, Monoprix, at a sale at the Hotel Drouot in June 1927 and it remained in the family for eighty-three years.  The sculpture is often referred to as The Lévy Head.   Lévy died in 1977 but it was not until 2010 that the sculpture came up for sale at Christies in Paris.  When the bidding for the sculpture ended the estimated price of between $3 and $4 million seemed derisory as the hammer went down at a price of $52,620,923.  This was a world record for a work by Modigliani and in fact it was the highest price ever paid for a work sold in France.  In my final blog about Modigliani I will look at his love affairs, his death at such a young age and the tragic consequence of his passing.

                                                    ……………………………………. to be continued.