Glory Years: Modigliani, Hashish & Cognac

Glory Years: Modigliani, Hashish & Cognac
Glory Years: Modigliani, Hashish & Cognac Modi, as they called him, was probably the best loved of all the painters in Paris during and after WWI, while Chaim Soutine was the most unsociable ‘lone wolf’ of the artistic set. He was a taciturn man who cared not for clothing or much else except art and literature. He was passionate about Balzac. He and Modigliani were from different worlds. Modi’s passionate interest in literature was through Dante and Plutarch, an indication of his Italian Heritage. Soutine was disheveled and Modi was beautiful. Yet, they were friends and lived together for a time as studio-mates in 1916 at Cité Falguiere. Soutine painted at the slaughterhouse, with carcasses and sides of beef as his subject. Modi painted people, with a certain delicacy and Boticelli-like grace. Today both painters hang in various museums but Modigliani is the star; the most seductive and astounding of the Montparnasse set–two friends with a different eye and taste for art who went in different directions. Modigliani was born in Livorno in 1884 of Jewish Sephardic parents on the day the bailiffs arrived after his father’s bankruptcy. He was hardly to grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. Modi arrived in Paris in 1906 after studying in Venice, bent on learning to paint and sculpt. He was only 22 years old. He was extremely poor but personable, and aside from Chaim Soutine he soon had friends throughout the community. But the handsome artist also had the taste for Cognac and Hashish. He was often a man out of control. In 1915 he met the South-African poet Beatrice Hastings, a green-eyed, outspoken beauty with an insatiable appetite for liquor, work and men, and they became lovers. He painted many portraits of her and other soon-to-be famous people. By the end of the war, after violent and continuous fighting, the couple had broken up. Modi was not happy. At a welcoming party for Braque at the war’s end, Modigliani was not invited. Beatrice was, and she arrived with her new lover. When Modigliani crashed the party, Hasting’s lover drew a pistol and threatened Modi. There were some anxious moments, as there always were with Modi, whose drinking problems had become worse. He was what people called “a friend of the cafés, not of the studio.” Modigliani began stealing blocks of stone from construction gangs at the Barbes-Rocheouart métro station. This was how he got his material to sculpt, which he did at his studio at 14 cité Falguiere. It was then that he befriended Constantin Brancusi, the Rumanian sculptor who lived at 54, rue de Montparnasse. Modi worked in the Italian tradition but learned a great deal from Brancusi. He even worked at construction sites while the boom in building went on. The workmen often loaned him their tools and gave him stones. The stories of his debauchery continued, and when he showed up at Rosalie’s, a Montparnasse restaurant, he would be fed a bowl of soup by the proprietress (who knew how poor he was). Some say he once painted a mural on Rosalie’s wall but it was white-washed over. Sometimes he did sketches and offered them to the café-owner in exchange for drinks. He was outwardly gentle but was known to experience fits of violence. Without a studio of his own, at times he was put up by Moise Kissling on rue Joseph Bara and the studio of American painter Frank Haviland on rue Schoelcher. He did portraits of friends such as Soutine, Diego Rivera, Jacques Lipchitz and Max Jacob. He rarely had someone pose for him in more than one sitting, and he was not interested in Cubism, which was the art form of the day. Then, in 1917, Modi met a 19-year-old student named Jeanne Hebuterne, a beautiful, blond ‘Gothic Virgin’ with a serene and long oval face. They were married and moved for a while to Nice to avoid the shelling of Paris by the Germans. While there, Jeanne gave birth to a daughter. They returned to Paris, but by 1919 Modi’s health was deteriorating, and Jeanne was expecting their second child. On January 20th, he went on a drunken spree in the freezing rain; on January 22 he was found unconscious and died two days later in hospital. The artist had been suffering from tubercular meningitis. It was left to Kissling to make provisions for the funeral. Modi’s brother, who was the Italian Deputy Emmanuel Modigliani, sent a telegram that read: “Bury him like a prince.” That was certainly done. A flower-covered hearse was followed by thousands of friends and admirers. As the procession passed, traffic policemen gave him a military salute. The beloved artist lies in the Pére Lachaise Cemetery, near a road, for all to visit. Tragically, his wife, close to her term, threw herself from her parent’s fifth-floor apartment two days after his death. They and their unborn child are buried together. I recently had the good fortune to be invited to the Senate of Paris for the showing of the Modigliani exhibit. I had seen his paintings, mostly in books, many times. But I was completely floored by the great collection of original paintings. The canvasses were lit by tiny halogen spots in a room that was otherwise black, and I was completely overwhelmed by the colors, the form and the emotion created by this man…
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