The many masks of modern art

It is still difficult to separate Modigliani the artist from Modigliani the Romantic Legend.

And that is so even though more than sixty years have passed since his death, and most questions about his stature as an important 20th-century painter have been resolved.

The legend of Modigliani persists because it suits us to believe that artists are incorrigibly impractical, wildly impulsive, dreamily idealistic--and destined to die young. And because, to an extent, his legend is true.

The historical facts of his life can be briefly told. He was born in Italy in 1884, studied in Florence and Venice, and arrived in Paris in 1906. He was deeply impressed and influenced by Cezanne's art, which he saw in the Salon d'Automne the following year. He was also influenced by the paintings of Lautrec , Matisse, and Bonnard, the sculpture of Brancusi, and the masks of the African Ivory Coast.

Although he knew and befriended some of the great names of early Modernist art, and had a one-man exhibition in 1917, his lifetime reputation never extended significantly beyond his relatively small circle of acquaintances. He died in 1920 at age thirty-six from a variety of illnesses compounded by self-neglect.

In general, his paintings fall into two categories: portraits of friends and acquaintances, and single figure studies of female nudes. In addition, he was an excellent sculptor and an exceptional draftsman.

So much for the facts. The legend is considerably more exotic, and includes such colorful, if often melancholy, items as wild week-long parties to which everyone was invited, and during which the artist continued to paint; dozens of girlfriends fighting for his attentions; long periods of depression and near-starvation; fierce fights with friends over little or nothing; total lack of understanding of his art even on the part of most of his friends; riots during his exhibition; troubles with the police; and, in general, a life lived riotously and with little concern for the future or for his health.

There is, of course, more than a kernel of truth in this legend. He was, for one thing, a very warm and sociable individual, and did enjoy large and long-running parties. He was also very attractive to women. He was indeed moody and, at times, withdrawn, although, in general, he tried to keep his emotions under control. Even though there were no riots during his exhibition, some of his paintings of nudes had to be withdrawn from the gallery after police intervention. And he lived, if not riotously, then certainly impulsively, and very much in and for the moment.

It is also true that he had little money, and very little, if any recognition. But he also had good friends, including Brancusi, Pascin, Soutine, Lipchitz, Cocteau, Max Jacob, and Apollinaire. And then, of course, he must have known that he was a good artist and that what he was producing would some day be highly respected.

Even so, life wasn't easy for him, although, to be fair, it wasn't easy for the young Picasso, or for Rouault, Soutine, Matisse, Chagall, Utrillo, Miro, either. All of them, and countless other young painters and sculptors who came to Paris to achieve success, had a difficult time of it. Only after a while did the exceptionally talented and lucky ones begin to catch on and to sell, while those who were untalented or merely unlucky did not and either gave up, or remained in Paris as part of its artistic ''subculture.''

An aura of Romantic passion and idealism surrounds the figures of that generation. Although that aura too is now part of a legend--this time a legend of the free-spirited Bohemian life of Paris--it contains a large element of truth and historical fact as well. To those youthful creators, art was something very close to a sacred trust, and creative integrity was something one lived--not merely something one talked about.

These qualities of passion and idealism, of creative integrity and imaginative freedom, are very evident in the paintings and sculptures produced by these artists. The world has never seen more concentrated passion and emotion than exists in the early paintings of Soutine, Chagall, Picasso, or Rouault. And who has ever been more idealistic or ''pure'' than the Constructivists or Neo-Plasticists? And when it comes to full enjoyment of physical reality, to total painterly involvement with life's richest textures and colors, has anyone surpassed the Fauves, Bonnard, Matisse, or the Chagall of the 1920s and '30s?

It was a truly remarkable, even, in many ways, a glorious generation. And without doubt, Modigliani's life and art lay at the very heart of it.

To Modigliani, his life and his art were two sides of the same coin. Both represented and reflected the same values, realities, and ideals, and demanded the same total commitment from him. Painting was his way of life, and was not something he did for money or fame, but in order to become fully the person he knew deep inside he was.

Only in his art do we see a functioning duality, for it encompassed two dramatically divergent artistic ideals and traditions. His paintings were, at one and the same time, both extremely ideal and elegant, and starkly down to earth and realistic, both classically pure, and ''vulgarly'' specific.

In addition, while the lines in his paintings were as clean-cut, as distilled and pure, as any on a Greek vase, his colors were as hot and passionate as those used by Rubens and Delacroix. And his textures were often as rich and as rewarding to the touch as those of a Persian rug.

His art, in other words, was a bundle of contradictions, and should never have worked. That it did--except for a nude here and there whose linear elegance belies the stark humanity of its subject - is proof of his remarkable talent and of his wholehearted determination (albeit a largely unconscious one) to use his art symbolically to resolve the contradictions in his own nature.

These contradictions cannot be explained away by the fact that he was an Italian living in France, although he did draw heavily on both traditions. Nor by the fact that he came under the heady and basically contradictory influences of Cezanne and Brancusi at pretty much the same time. Nor even by the fact that he was probably as much a sculptor as he was a painter.

No, his contradictions go deeper. All these cultural, creative, and stylistic factors are merely external manifestations of deeper realities and do little but give us faint clues as to where these realities might lie.

Modigliani, it seems to me, was one of those individuals who are like smoldering and about-to-erupt volcanoes; they have only the dimmest insight into the cause of their condition, and only the vaguest notion of how to deal with it.

An artist in this condition, however, has a distinct advantage, for his art can serve as a kind of stage onto which his inner conflicts and pressures can be projected, given symbolic dimensions and significances, and then, one hopes, neutralized or resolved.

This, I believe, was the case with Modigliani. He was attracted to and used pictorial extremes because they reflected his own emotional polarity. His paintings, as a result, while dealing on one level with such everyday things as portraits and nudes, also served, on another level, as an arena within which his inner pressures and conflicts could find symbolic resolution. In other words, what lay deep inside him and hidden from view was transformed into forms, lines, colors, textures, relationships, and patterns. And in the process of turning those painterly raw materials into art, Modigliani also found some crucial clues , if not to the cause of his inner conflicts, then certainly to the manner in which they might be resolved.

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