Thursday, 15 October 2009

Reclining Venus: Reclining Nude from the back by Amedeo Modigliani

Modigliani: Nu couché de dos (1917)

Here is another splendid nude from the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia: Modigliani's Reclining Nude from the Back. The Barnes foundation has other Modiglianis but most are portraits. In fact, given the fact that the very name Modigliani tends to conjure up visions of his lush and sensuous nudes it is worth reflecting on the fact that only around ten percent of his output (about thirty paintings in total) actually comprised nudes.

Modigliani's birthplace in Livorno

Modigliani's life is almost a caricature of the struggling Bohemian artist. Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Livorno in Italy on 12th July 1884, his mother encouraged his interest in drawing. He took drawing lessons in Livorno, Florence Rome and Venice (where he first sampled hashish) before arriving in Paris in 1906.

Modigliani in around 1904

He held his first exhibition two years later. Initially he was influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso (then in his "blue period") and Cezanne. He then became fascinated in sculpture and from 1910 until the outbreak of the Great War worked on a number of sculptures of heads and caryatids which are generally believed to have been influenced by African Art; although the influences could equally have been Cambodian or, indeed medieaval European sculpture. With the arrival of the war sculpting materials became expensive and Modigliani turned back to painting and drawing.

Unfortunately, he had no financial sense whatsoever; often giving his work away or selling his pictures for a few francs plus some alcohol (especially absinthe) to which, along with the hashish, he was becoming increasingly addicted. Modigliani had always been a sickly child and developed a fatalistic outlook on life believing that as he would never live that long he might as well enjoy himself (an outlook Triple P has some affinity with!).

From 1916, for the next two years, he began work on his series of nudes, which were considered so graphic that an exhibition of them in Paris was raided by the police in December 1917 and several pictures were confiscated as being "offensive to modesty".

Modigliani by Jeanne Hébuterne

Throughout his life Modigliani had a series of intense but stormy realtionships with women, latterly with young art student Jeanne Hébuterne. Interestingly, although he painted their portraits (and most of his output was portraits) he never painted any of these longer term partners naked. All his nude models were maids or waitresses as he could rarely afford professional models. Reputedly, he had brief affairs with all of his nude models, which is certainly reflected in their sensuous treatment.

Jeanne by Modigliani

Increasingly, Modigliani's behaviour got more and more erratic and violent and his drink and drugs consumption increased, leading to blackouts. He died on January 24th 1920 of tuberculosis. His distraught girlfriend, Jeanne who had already given him a daughter, and was nine months pregnant at the time, threw herself from the window of her parents house two days after his death, killing both herself and the unborn baby. Modigliani died destitute but his funeral was attended by all the great artists of the time. Modigliani's daughter Jeanne (1918-1984) was adopted by his sister and later wrote a biography of her father.

Jeanne Hébuterne

This particular nude is unusual in that the figure is seen from the back; the vast majority of his nudes are shown from the front. More typical is the muted background and truncated nature of the figure. Like several of his nudes from this period the pose seems to have been modelled on a famous nude from history. In this case Boucher's painting of Marie-Louise O'Murphy.

Whilst he may have painted only 30 nudes he produced many hundreds of drawings. Agent Triple P's aristocratic friend from Italy M invited him to his mother's splendid house in Rome for drinks once. All the way up the stairs were a series of five huge Modigliani drawings of nudes from this period. Very impressive.

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