I just spent a beautiful gloomy and rainy morning immersed in Modigliani’s portraits and Joy Division’s second album Closer. I feel there’s a strange connection between lyrics of Ian Curtis and Modigliani’s portraits of wistful big-eyes Parisian beauties; they both ponder on the subject of human existence and fragility of life.
This is a typical Modigliani’s female portrait; elongated head with a face that resembles a mask, thin and long neck, sloping shoulders, simple attire. Beautifully sculpted face with almond shaped eyes and long neck reveals Modigliani’s beginnings as a sculptor. Her cheeks and chin are rosy, one side of her lips looks like it’s trying to smile, the other can’t be bothered. One eyebrow, painted like a thin black line, is raised a bit more than the other. The whole face seems like a question mark. The background is painted in serene grey and blue-greenish shades, flickering like a surface of a lake behind a long-forgotten mansion. Her dress is coloured like pine needles. This peculiar sombre colour palette exudes fragility and sadness. There’s no rashness or raw passion you’d find in Picasso’s paintings, this is Modigliani’s world of mournful goodbyes. These gentle brushstrokes belong to a Jewish-Italian artist whose body, unfortunately, didn’t agree with his soul’s ‘lust for life’.
At this point, in 1918, he had less than two years to live. His consumption was progressing, and not even excessive drinking could cover it up. He died on 24 January 1920, in a cold hospital in Paris. It’s so sad this absolute genius, this pretty boy from Livorno, a person so full of life and capable of producing such incredible artworks had to die so suddenly and so quickly. There’s no doubt the fragility of life kept haunting him even in those seemingly joyous, extroverted moments when he behaved mischievously at the local restaurant the same as in those quiet, introspective moments when he walked home drunk and alone back to his studio where he would then paint in solitude. I’m imagining his studio in Montparnasse and the shabby chair this model sat on. Another interesting thing about this portrait; Modigliani didn’t fully paint her eyes, he just coloured the almond shape so they look like two deep, dark holes. He truly believed that eyes are the windows to the soul and he said: ‘When I know you soul, I will paint your eyes.‘ He needed to know the soul of his model before painting her eyes, though I think it more often than not meant spending the night with her. Women loved Modigliani.
It isn’t what you paint but how you paint it. Very often the subject serves only to help artist to convey a message. I often paint ballerinas, but they are always meant to represent isolation and loneliness. Antoine Watteau, for example, painted seemingly cheerful pastoral and love scenes, which were woven with sadness because he was, like Modigliani, a man of fragile health who died young. As you know, Ian Curtis took his own life on 18 May 1980, and in his lyrics he tended to explore existential subjects. I don’t think that Modigliani and Ian Curtis were similar, with this post I only wanted to say that they were two artists dealing with the same subject – fragility of existence, each in their own way.
This song was in my mind while I gazed at this portrait – Insight by Joy Division (do listen to it, it’s truly something):
‘I guess the dreams always end
They don’t rise up just descend
But I don’t care any more
I lost the will to want more
I’m not afraid not at all,
I watch them all as they fall…’