Portrait du photographe Dilewski is one of an important group of several dozen portraits that Amedeo Modigliani painted in 1915-1916, which comprise a roster of now famous and otherwise lesser-known artists, writers, dealers and collectors who lived and worked in bohemian Montparnasse during the period of the First World War. These portraits mark Modigliani’s return to painting after concentrating almost exclusively on sculpture for several years, and they occupy a crucial phase in his stylistic development. Taken together, they also constitute a veritable visual history of the Left Bank cultural milieu in the second decade of the twentieth century. As Werner Schmalenbach has written: ‘In his portraits, without ever setting out to be so, Modigliani was a chronicler of the vie bohème of Montparnasse, the district where in this time the artistic life of the French capital was being transformed. He painted so many people from this world that one is almost impelled to ask whom he did not paint. […] Modigliani was part of this bohème in a highly personal and indeed an exemplary way. In the eyes of his contemporaries, he was – as he has remained – its epitome…’ (‘The Portraits’ in M. Restellini, ed., Modigliani: The Melancholy Angel, exh. cat., Paris, 2002, p. 33).
Although Modigliani is today most famous for his nudes, in his time and among his circle of friends the artist was known first and foremost as a portraitist. The great majority of his works of this period are in fact portraits, and while most of these pictures are of women and girls, outnumbering his male subjects by more than two to one, Modigliani’s portraits of men provide indispensable insights into the life and work of the artist, revealing the individual friendships that he valued and the camaraderie within his circle that nourished and stimulated his art. James Thrall Soby has written: ‘Taken as a whole, though each is idiosyncratic, Modigliani’s portraits constitute the gallery of an era and of a world, the last real Bohemia, before artists were obliged to share their favourite purlieus with a public envious of their license and gaiety’ (in Modigliani, exh. cat., New York, 1951, p. 10).
When Modigliani moved to Montparnasse from Montmartre in late 1908 or early 1909, the neighbourhood had already earned a reputation as the centre for avant-garde artistic life in Paris. Lively, sophisticated and cosmopolitan, Montparnasse was home to hundreds of artists and writers from scores of different countries. The Café de la Rotonde, situated on the Boulevard du Montparnasse, functioned as the principal gathering place for a group which included Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Diego Rivera, Chaïm Soutine, Jacques Lipchitz, and Max Jacob, among many others. The highly charged artistic environment of Montparnasse, with its broad range of cultural stimuli, proved essential for the development of Modigliani’s art.
His mature style, which crystallized over the course of 1915-1916, incorporates a vast array of artistic influences, from the Renaissance painting of his native Italy, to the African and Egyptian art on display in the celebrated Montparnasse shop of the dealer Joseph Brummer. The portraits that he executed as a result are among the most elegant and compelling of his entire career, skilfully balancing tradition and novelty, illusionistic volume and decorative abstraction, individual likeness and his own conception of beauty. He also delighted in recording the many different physiognomies of the characters in the cultural and artistic melting pot of this part of the city.
Hardly anything is known today about the sitter of the present portrait, the photographer Dilewski. He was surely more than a passing acquaintance to Modigliani – the artist portrayed him again in a very fine drawing dated October 1919 (Ceroni, 1965, no. 155), where he is seen smoking a pipe and wearing a jauntily tipped hat. He was likely of Central or Eastern European origin, and one of the many émigrés from these countries who enriched the cultural life of Paris, to whom Modigliani was particularly partial. The pair may have met via the painter Moïse Kisling, who held open house gatherings in his Montparnasse studio where Modigliani mixed with fellow painters Chagall, Pascin, Soutine, and Utrillo, the sculptors Archipenko, Miestchaninoff and Zadkine, as well as the writers Francis Carco, Jean Cocteau and Max Jacob. It was through Kisling that Modigliani was also introduced in 1915 to Léopold Zborowski, an aspiring young Polish poet who eked out a living selling books and rare manuscripts.
This strongly characterized and insightful portrait of Dilewski displays of all the signature traits of the male facial type that Modigliani developed during this period: the graceful merging of a broad oval face into sloping shoulders, the indented elongation of the nose, the small pursed lips, and the inscrutable almond-shaped eyes. Here he created an individual likeness that dwells affectionately on the salient features of his male sitter, most notably his full, well-groomed beard, while manifesting a rough-hewn and granitic strength of character. Modigliani himself stressed the importance of the specific individual, telling the Cubist painter Léopold Survage: ‘To do any work, I must have a living person. I must be able to see him opposite me’ (quoted in Modigliani and His Models, exh. cat., London, 2006, p. 31). Yet, at the same time, Modigliani subjected Dilewski’s facial features to a series of pronounced formal stylizations, translating them into his distinctive pictorial idiom, achieving a delicate balance between generic qualities and signs of individuality.
In an eloquent paean to his long-time friend, Jean Cocteau described Modigliani’s singular approach: ‘It was not Modigliani who distorted and lengthened the face, who established its asymmetry, knocked out one of the eyes, elongated the neck. All of this happened in his heart. And this is how he drew us at the tables in the Café de la Rotonde; this is how he saw us, loved us, felt us, disagreed or fought with us. His drawing was a silent conversation, a dialogue between his lines and ours... We were all subordinated to his style, to a type that he carried within himself, and he automatically looked for faces that resembled the configuration that he required, both from man and woman. Resemblance is actually nothing more than a pretext that allows the painter to confirm the picture that is in his mind. And by that one does not mean an actual, physical picture, but the mystery of one’s own genius’ (quoted in D. Krystof, Amedeo Modigliani 1884-1920: The Poetry of Seeing, Cologne, 2000, p. 54).
In Portrait du photographe Dilewski, the almost planar means with which Modigliani has rendered his sitter’s facial features is distinctly sculptural, a characteristic that marked many of his paintings from the period immediately after he abandoned working in stone in 1915. For Modigliani, sculpture had been a vocation, and yet his health meant that he was physically unable to withstand the level of exertion that work in stone demanded from him. He returned, then, to painting, but his experiences as a sculptor came to flavour his work, giving them their unique sense of modelling. Modigliani’s portraits often introduce this sculptural sense of the three-dimensional to the face, but deliberately suppress it in the rest of the painting. In the present composition, the loosely painted blue background and the flat planes of Dilewski’s clothes contrasts heavily with the finely modelled face, an effect that is heightened by the difference in the texture and application of the paint across the canvas.
While the painting is a synthesis of the many disparate sources that Modigliani was inspired by at this time, it is perhaps in the portraiture of Paul Cézanne that it finds its closest painterly parallel. Modigliani was interested in the manner in which the three-dimensionality of Cézanne’s portraiture lent his subjects the quality and stillness of a sculpture. It is telling that Modigliani’s friend and fellow painter Chaïm Soutine recalled him saying that: ‘Cézanne’s faces, like the beautiful statues of antiquity, have no gaze. Mine, on the other hand, do gaze. They gaze, even where I have decided not to paint any pupils; but, like the faces of Cézanne, they express nothing but a mute concord with life’ (quoted in W. Schmalenbach, op. cit., 2002, p. 35). In Portrait du photographe Dilewski, this gaze is clear in the striking blue eyes which, despite the lack of differentiation between white, iris and pupil, are far from sightless. Instead, they appear as wells of infinite character, the spirit of the enigmatic Dilewski seeping through, holding the viewer’s own gaze, creating a sense of engagement and interaction between us and the subject on the canvas.