“Ne t'attardes pas avec l'avante garde” - Amedeo Modigliani

12 July 1884, the Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani was born in Livorno.

“Every great work of art should be considered like any work of nature. First of all from the point of view of its aesthetic reality and then not just from its development and the mastery of its creation but from the standpoint of what has moved and agitated its creator.“ (Amedeo Modigliani)

Amedeo Modigliani: Reclining Nude, 1917

For a while, he was the prince of Montmartre. Well educated with the suave manners of an upper middle-class clansman from one of the most contemplatively cosmopolitan ports of Italy, handsome to a point of being the best looking artist of Europe’s greatest artist colony, wearing his hat with the grandezza of the true signore, destitute and sick unto death. It was as if the morbidly beautiful pale hand of 19th century art had pushed him over the threshold of the 20th into modernity, with the ancient verdict of “those whom the gods love die young" hanging over him, moribund and lung-diseased, full of absinth and opium to divert himself and society from Death, his constant companion, full of life and love for the poetesses in situ and his models, living the vie de Bohème to the fullest while, in the neighbourhood of Montmartre, the Great War ended the long 19th century in an orgy of industrialised killing in the trenches. Finally, the Prince fell in love with the silent movie beauty, model and aspiring artist Jeanne Hébuterne, then just 19 years old, they moved south, became parents of a daughter, the Prince’s paintings slowly gained an audience and buyers, they returned to Paris and Death caught up with him in January 1920. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 35 on the 24th and Jeanne, in the late stages of pregnancy again, jumped out of the window of their fifth floor flat on the next day. The couple was buried in Père Lachaise and one of the last artist biographies of the fin de siècle ended in the appropriate tragedy.

Portrait of Amadeo Modigliani, possibly by Jeanne Hébuterne, 1919    

“Ne t'attardes pas avec l'avante garde” (“Don’t pay attention to the avant-garde”), Jean Cocteau once wrote and Modigliani took it to heart. While the –isms of Modernity exploded around his ears, Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism and what not, he developed a distinctive own style of painting decoratively elegant human still lifes, long-necked, almond-eyed, gazeless, inaudible and undynamic, turning their faces to the spectator to be admired, reduced to themselves as they are. Ecce homo and ecce Modigliani, it was an image of humanity that belonged to the Renaissance by right while the -isms dashed the traditional concept of man and individuality as centre of the universe to pieces in their own conception of art. None the less, Modigliani learned from Cézanne, rehearsed Vuillard’s sketchy “non finito”, the Cubists showed him to order a canvas and stylise bodies and faces to structures and masks but Modigliani holds the line and, above all, is his 19th century self-image of the artist as superuomo, Übermensch and chosen and outcast one of society. He never became avante garde and did not prepare any future art trends but stood like some lone tower of former days remaining, albeit with a modernist finish.

Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1918    

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