To the defence of the brilliant and tragic artist: Modigliani at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westphalen

With an excerpt from leading expert Werner Schmalenbach’s monograph


An important exhibition of Amadeo Modigliani’s work is to open at Düsseldorf’s Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen.

The exhibition, which takes place from 19 January until 1 April, when it will transfer to the Kunsthaus in Zurich, is the first in Germany since the famous retrospective in Frankfurt in 1961. In particular it will focus on works produced between 1914 and 1917, but will not exclude other phases of Modigliani’s artistic life.

The exhibition is Professor Werner Schmalenbach’s last assignment at the Kunstsammlung: in fact, Schmalenbach retired in August 1990 when he was succeeded by Armin Zweite.

The exhibits are drawn from famous public and private collections in Germany and other parts of the world. Some, like the great “Female Nude” from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, are on show in Germany for the first time. Also worth mentioning are “Paul Guillaume” from the Palazzo Reale in Milan, the portrait of Antonia, from the Orangerie and the “Stone Head” from the Tate Gallery in London. In all, about sixty paintings, fifty drawings and nine sculptures, (the latter dating from between 1909 and 1914), have been chosen.

We present an extract from Werner Schmalenbach’s monograph, published to mark the exhibition by Prestel Verlag.

The work of Amadeo Modigliani is, even now, largely outshone by the legend of his life. While more or less conventional ideas about his art have formed and spread, the great fascination for many people is the man himself. Even his literary friends and companions, some of whom survived him by several decades, shortly after his death began to portray his life with a jumble of fact and fantasy. Although this has long since been corrected, Modigliani is still engraved on the public consciousness as, above all, an enigmatic figure of Bohemian life in Paris before 1920. Clearly, people need such projections of their unfulfilled dreams to compensate for their own bourgeois existence. In their minds they welcome — at a distance — an artist who seems to embody the longed-for freedom they can never achieve for themselves, with all the associated excesses such as women, drugs and alcohol. Modigliani, at once brilliant and tragic, is perceived as a man who lived life to the full, and whose premature death was followed two days later by the suicide of the woman who was carrying his unborn child — it has little to do with the truth. Certainly, women, drugs and alcohol were decisive factors in Modligliani’s life. Even more decisive was his permanently critical state of health, which began with the tuberculosis from which he suffered in his youth in Italy. But this had little effect on his art? Modigliani’s turbulent life is irrelevant from an artistic point of view. None of the things which endangered his life found expression in his art or even distracted him from his work. His painting is completely free from destructive influences and, in fact, shows exceptional self-discipline, being characterised by form, order and artistic responsibility. One could say he led a double life: on the one hand, the restless life of the streets of Paris, in cafés, bars and studios; on the other, the life devoted to his art. On the occasions when these two sides of his life overlapped, each side was conducted separately. Not even the most cursory sketches, in which he captured a drinking companion in a cafe, give the slightest hint of lack of technical mastery. Modigliani’s lines never falter. These sketches, which by their very nature, are a spontaneous response to life’s influences, are distinguished by an astonishing steadiness of hand, especially towards the end of his life, when physical collapse drew inexorably closer.

Modigliani was both an Italian and a Jew. He belonged to that “Ecole de Paris” whose membership in the first two decades of the century was drawn from artists of greater or lesser importance from all over the world. There was a strong contingent from Eastern Europe, many of whom were Jews. Modigliani knew them all and was friendly with many of them. Artistically, however, he remained a loner, although throughout his life Cézanne was the great guiding star and in the early years he had artistic contact with Picasso, Brancusi and others. Amidst all the modernity he was a great traditionalist and, although he had great affection for the great masters of the past, especially those of the Italian Renaissance, he never felt special loyalty to any one painter. If his art owes much to the classical tradition, this means neither that his work is a throwback to the classical period nor that he aligned himself with the neo-classical style prevalent in his lifetime. He stood on the fringes of the contemporary avant-garde, while at the same time being part of it.

The quality of his art often seems to be overshadowed by inferior works, as happens with every good artist. However, in Modigliani’s case, they have gone a long way to influencing the general attitude towards his art, since certain stylistic formulae appear repeatedly in his paintings. For the sake of the splendid pictures which are his legacy to us — not least his portraits — we should rid ourselves of widespread assumptions and ironic labels such as “swan’s necks and almond eyes”. A book such as this should serve to present Modligliani’s art, not as a mirror of his life, but as something completely detached from that life, as befits the noble aesthetic ethos with which he was imbued.