Modigliani’s eyes: the shuttered windows to the soul.

Modigliani’s artwork is hard to categorise. He is one of the most prominent in the “École de Paris,” a nebulous phrase used to refer to a range of artistic styles that were prevalent between the turn of the century and the second world war. He’s not responsible for pioneering a new style like impressionism or cubism or fauvism. To me, his work is a natural and refined development from the work of the impressionists, as well as sculptors like Rodin by whom he was influenced.

Born in 1884 in Livorno to a “relatively cosmopolitan family of Sephardic Jews,”[1] Amadeo Modigliani lived a short life, dying at the age of 35 in 1920. He had made it to Paris in 1906, and was very productive despite his struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, as well as tuberculosis.

Modigliani was among the many accomplished modern artists that experimented with sculpture. Lots of them featured elongated faces with a long, elegant nose that flows down the face and is punctuated by a tiny mouth. Some outliers look almost cubist. The influence of African masks on Modigliani’s sculpture is well documented, and there also appears to be a Cycladic influence as well.[2] It’s speculated that he stole some of the stones he worked with from construction sites, as some sculptures are the same type of limestone used to create the Grandes Maisons of Paris at the turn of the century.

Fig 1

Woman’s Head (with Chignon) (Fig 1) is perhaps my favourite example. The eyes look like slices of ripe oranges. The elongated nose is perfectly continued into the brows, creating a shape that looks like an old-fashioned scale, emphasising the symmetry. The verticality of the nose is accentuated by the extended lobe of the ears. The combination of the eyes and slightly parabolic lips gives the woman a sense of contentedness and health, an expression that makes me feel calm when I look at it.

Fig 2

The similarities between Modigliani’s sculpture and the face of the New York Kouros (Fig 2) are striking. The way the nose continues fluidly into the brows, which house two huge almond shaped eyes, looks to me like direct inspiration for Modigliani’s sculpture. This is perhaps evidence of Ancient Greek influence on Modigliani’s work. If I’m right, it’s also a testament to how the refined and exquisite style of the work of the Ancient Greeks has kept their art relevant for millennia.

Modigliani clearly made many friends throughout his 14 years in Paris, and they were evidently willing sitters in his many portraits. He also had a penchant for painting nudes. Modigliani’s Nu Couché sold for $157 Million in May 2018, the most valuable work ever sold by Sotheby’s. It’s no coincidence that this painting hit the auction block in the months following the Modigliani retrospective at the Tate.

Fig 3
Fig 4

In a personal favourite portrait (Fig 4), Leon Indebaum’s (a Russian artist) own last name is written on the canvas, and split by his own head; this man is particularly cerebral. Despite the seriousness of the portrait, reflected in the use of grey, the mouth is upturned at one side in a very subtle smile, like you’ve just made a good point in a heady conversation. The composition is traditional, except from the shoulders, which make it look as though Mr Indebaum is in the process of walking right by you, even though he’s giving you his full undivided attention.

Modigliani paints eyes in a very particular way. Sometimes they are painted coal black, sometimes the colour of a night sky, sometimes a blueish green or a greenish blue. Often the eyes are of the same colour of some other element of the portrait, like part of the wall behind them, or the colour of the clothing the sitter is wearing. Sometimes we get a hint of pupil, or a reflection on the eye, but rarely is this the case.

Fig 5

There is one character, however, in the exhibit, where the eyes are painted clearly. We see the whites of the eyes, the deep brown iris’ and the greyish pupil. And who is it but the love of Amadeo’s life, Jeanne Hébuterne, the beautiful poet who was nine months pregnant with Modigliani’s child when she threw herself to her death two days after his.

So I’ve shown you some of my favourite works, and told you about Modigliani’s life, but I haven’t explained what I think makes him so unique as an artist. Modigliani’s paintings are so electric because Modigliani is as much a character in his portraits as the sitters. In many great portraits, the interplay between the sitter and the artist is evident on the canvas, but in Modigliani’s work it becomes, in my eyes, the prevailing theme.

As you look at a collection of his works instead of fixating on one, a portrait of the artist himself appears with increasing clarity. One of the most palpable qualities of the relationship between Modigliani and his subjects in these portraits is disconnection. While he feels comfortable enough to paint them, and paint them sensitively, he still feels detached from them. I make this statement because of how he paints the eyes. If there is one person in Modigliani’s life who we can conjecture he felt really connected to it was, Jeanne Hebuterne, his only subject with eyes rendered in more detail than all the rest. And even she is mostly painted with the signature opaque eyes; did he even struggle to connect with the woman he loved most?

Lots of Modigliani’s subjects gaze at him, or past him, with what looks to me like varying shades of indifference. This is surely more telling of how the artist looks at himself than how he looks at his subjects. Many anecdotes regarding Modigliani’s bohemian lifestyle (bohemian even relative to the crowd he was involved with) paint a picture of a man who treats his own life with a similar, slightly nihilistic nonchalance. Looking at a catalogue of his work, it’s evident that he is primarily focused on the portrayal of people. He is at least as fascinated by them as he feels distant from them.

Modigliani’s works are oxymorons of intimacy and detachment, painted in gorgeous orange-ochre skin tones, dark and understated yet brilliant reds and greens, and the occasional celeste of an eye. Portrayals of the notable people of Paris, painted by an extremely talented and thoughtful, yet despondent man, who felt that no matter how close he was with someone, he could never truly know them, and they could never truly know him. Of course, this is just my conjecture.

[1] “Modigliani,” Edited by Simonetta Fraquelli and Nancy Ireson, Tate Publishing, 2017.