Those Crooked Faces

Amadeo Modigliani, Portrait d'une jeune femme au chapeau (Jeanne Hébuterne avec un grand chapeau), 1917

Amadeo Modigliani, Portrait d'une jeune femme au chapeau (Jeanne Hébuterne avec un grand chapeau), 1917

These days I feel like a painting by Modigliani. You know the ones – the portraits he created showing people with distorted faces. Eyes that don’t line up, long noses, mouths that are not symmetrical. When I look in the mirror what I see reminds me of them.

I know the people in those portraits did not actually look like me. The distorted faces and elongated bodies he painted were an expression of Modigliani’s ideas and thoughts. Which makes me wonder why he chose to portray them the way he did. Was he working toward abstraction? Simplification? Trying to integrate the African masks he was drawn to into his work? Was he saying something about who he thought they were?

Perhaps he was thinking of the words of a sculptor he admired and briefly worked with, Constantin Brancusi:

When you see a fish you don’t think of its scales, do you? You think of its speed, its floating, flashing body seen through the water… If I made fins and eyes and scales, I would arrest its movement, give a pattern or shape of reality. I want just the flash of its spirit.

 Was this how he saw their spirits?

His nudes are quite different. Rich and sumptuous, beautifully posed, their faces and bodies seem to reflect an enjoyment in their being, and in their being there. Or his enjoyment in painting them. Or both.

Amadeo Modigliani, Nude Sitting on a Divan (The Beautiful Roman Woman) oil on canvas painting, 1917

Amadeo Modigliani, Nude Sitting on a Divan (The Beautiful Roman Woman) oil on canvas painting, 1917

It would have been interesting and illuminating to follow the arc of his work as he developed. But he destroyed his early work and died too young, before he might have reached his maturity as an artist. He was known for his heavy consumption of alcohol, absinthe and drugs, but it was the tuberculosis that he had fought for years that took his life when he was only thirty-five.

The same tuberculosis that would have made many shun him  had they known he had it, for fear of being infected themselves.

Perhaps that’s what he saw when he painted those portraits. A difficult life, a crooked path, people he did not completely trust, people with crooked faces.

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2 responses to “Those Crooked Faces

  1. What a post! I have never investigated Modigliani and hence have not seen these fascinating contrasts you show here. Your link with Brancusi: is perfect.

    • Those contrasts first struck me when I saw his work in an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I was, and still am, fascinated by the differences in the way he painted those portraits and the sumptuousness of his nudes – and by the fact that there were people he painted in a way which felt more sympathetic (or less uncomfortable?) than those of the ‘crooked faces’.

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