5 minutes with... Tête by Amedeo Modigliani

Of the 26 unique sculptures by Modigliani, 16 can be found in public institutions. On 13 May, Tête, a superb and exceptionally rare example of one of the artist’s signature heads, sold at Christie’s in New York for $34,325,000

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) is remembered for having lived hard, died young and painted brilliantly. Alongside Picasso, Matisse and a number of other artists we now regard as masters of modernism, he made his home in bohemian Paris at the start of the 20th century.

He’d moved to the French capital in 1906, aged 21, from his hometown of Livorno in Tuscany. In his cramped studios in Montmartre and later Montparnasse, Modigliani painted a host of portraits and nudes, on which his reputation largely rests. However, for a brief spell between around 1910 and 1914, he also took to making sculpture.

Just 26 of Modigliani’s sculptures survive, and one of the very few examples in private hands — this limestone head, Tête — sold in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s New York on 13 May for $34,325,000.

‘It’s incredibly rare for his sculptures to come to market, as he produced so few of them,’ says Jessica Fertig, Senior Vice President of Impressionist and Modern Art in New York. ‘Tête  is considered one of the finest examples still available.’ 

The reason for Modigliani’s switch to sculpture isn’t clear. Some have seen it as a response to a drop in buyer interest for his paintings at that time; others cite the growing influence of his friend and neighbour, Constantin Brancusi, the trailblazing Romanian sculptor who had moved to Paris in 1904. Whatever the truth, during the four or so years in question Modigliani painted next to nothing.

He liked to carve straight into limestone or sandstone blocks, rejecting the example of Auguste Rodin, who made sculpture by modelling in clay. ‘Too much mud,’ he said disdainfully of the Frenchman’s process. Modigliani — like Brancusi — argued that real sculptors carved directly into stone.

Apart from two attempts at caryatids, all of Modigliani’s sculptures were of heads. A similar example to the one coming to auction in May realised €43.2 million when it was offered at Christie’s Paris in 2010, at the time a world-record price for a work by the artist in any medium.

‘When viewed in the round, the work is incredibly graceful and powerful. She appears like a goddess before us’ — Jessica Fertig

Modigliani’s heads are all highly stylised, with inspiration having come from far and wide. They’re best seen as an elegant fusion of elements from Egyptian, Khmer, Cycladic, early Christian and, above all, African sculpture — specifically, Baule figures from the Ivory Coast and Fang masks from the Gabon. Like Picasso, Modigliani was captivated by what he saw in the Africa section of the Palais du Trocadéro ethnographic museum.

Made between 1911 and 1912, Tête  boasts every feature one has come to expect from a Modigliani head: the elongated face; blank eyes; sword-like nose; engraved, curlicued hair; tiny, pursed mouth; and pointed chin.

‘When viewed in the round, the work is incredibly graceful and powerful,’ says Fertig, ‘and the artist’s mastery of his medium is clear. Modigliani took great care to carve the details in the figure’s hair, which falls down her long neck, for instance — while the protrusion of the eyes, nose and mouth make her face seem mask-like. She appears like a goddess before us.’

Modigliani’s sculpting career was cut short in 1914, however, for health reasons. He suffered with tuberculosis most of his life, and dust from the stone he carved was harming his lungs. He duly returned to painting, and the canvases from his final years show a simplification of form clearly influenced by his sculptures — the portrait of his eponymous lover Jeanne Hébuterne (now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York) being a prime example.

It would be entirely wrong to think of Modigliani’s sculptures purely in relation to his paintings, though. Many accounts from those who knew the artist attest to just how seriously he took his work in three dimensions.

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Letters from his mother in Livorno, for example, were addressed to ‘Modigliani scultore’  [Modigliani the sculptor]. According to his friend, the British painter Nina Hamnett, he ‘always regarded sculpture as his real métier’. For another friend, the Chilean artist Manuel Ortiz de Zarate, Modigliani had a ‘real longing to work in stone, a longing that remained with him throughout his life.’ Stories even circulated of Modigliani putting lit candles on top of his sculptures at night-time and embracing them, converting his studio into some sort of shrine. 

‘One can grasp Modigliani’s true genius only when considering his output in painting and  sculpture,’ insists Fertig. ‘With pieces like Tête  he brought to life the beauty and grace we know from his paintings in a three-dimensional way.’

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