Please note that the following work has been requested for the exhibition Modigliani: Beyond the Myth to be held at the Jewish Museum, New York from May-September 2004. The exhibition will then travel to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto and the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Modigliani ranks among the greatest painters of the female nude in the twentieth century. Working in a unique manner that synthesized elements of Mannerist, primitive and contemporary art, Modigliani devised a style at once abstract and sensual, sublime and earthy. The result is a series of paintings extraordinary for their combination of idealized beauty, sensitive psychological characterization, and frankly erotic appeal. The nudes that Modigliani painted between 1916 and 1920, fewer than thirty in all, are the most celebrated pictures in the artist's oeuvre; as Werner Schmalenbach has commented, "The name of Modigliani is almost synonymous with the nudes... No other painter, in our century or in any other, has painted the female human body as he did" (W. Schmalenbach, Modigliani, Munich, 1990, p. 47).
Modigliani's status in the history of figure painting has been widely acknowledged. According to Schmalenbach, "Modigliani's nudes take their place among the historical landmarks of the art of the nude since the Renaissance: works such as the Venuses of Giorgione, Titian and Tintoretto; Francesco Goya's Maja desnuda; Ingres's Grande odalisque; Edouard Manet's Olympia; and...certain paintings by Gauguin" (ibid., p. 47). In a similar vein, James Thrall Soby has written:
Modigliani's most ambitious paintings are his nudes...the tension of the frank moment in their faces and animal pride. They are in fact the nudest of nudes... One feels that Modigliani's models have flung off their clothes, eager for the artist's admiration and utterly unrestrained. These are (let us be candid) erotic nudes for the most part, though dignified by style... We see that the last vestiges of allegorical disguise have been abandoned... They are adult, sinuous, carnal and real, the final stage in the sequence leading from Giorgione's Concert champêtre to Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe (J.T. Soby, Modigliani, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1951, pp. 9-11).
Prior to 1916, Modigliani had explored the theme of the female nude at two moments in his career: in a group of paintings from 1908, two with the anguished, expressive flavor of Schiele (Ceroni 7 and 8), two with the stoic, abstracted quality of Cézanne's late bathers (Ceroni 10 and 11); and in a series of highly stylized, rigorously sculptural caryatid figures dated to 1913 (Ceroni 32-39). In his late suite of nudes, by contrast, Modigliani adopted a more naturalistic and representational mode, painting the female figure with an unparalleled immediacy and intimacy. The present picture was executed in 1917, and is characteristic of the artist's nudes from this time. The largest canvas of the series by far, it stands as a veritable manifesto of this renowned period.
Much of the magic of Modigliani's late nudes lies in their masterful combination of enveloping purity and unabashed sensuality. On the one hand, the very elegance and clarity of the paintings lend them an air of archetypal idealization. In the present work, the nude figure is isolated on the bed, the warm luster of her skin contrasted to the cool white sheets, accentuated by the rich sienna background. Her face and body are comprised of a series of simple, rhythmic volumes, articulated by a dark, sinuous contour. At the same time, the unprecedented closeness of the nudes, their strong presence and uninhibited self-presentation, renders them openly erotic. Alfred Werner has described this apparent contradiction:
Modigliani's nudes...are amongst the 'coolest' ever painted, and yet enormously seductive to the viewer, who discerns the excitement that went into these trans-figurations of ordinary bodies into chromatic poems... Perhaps the police official who in 1917 had the paintings removed from the show window of the Berthe Weill gallery in Paris was prompted to this action...by the subconscious awareness that these non-naturalistic nudes exuded far more sexuality than the anatomically very correct nudes painted, say, by the celebrated academician A.W. Bouguereau (A. Werner, Amedeo Modigliani, New York, 1971, n.p.).
In contrast to Modigliani's portraits, which often depict friends and members of his artistic circle (Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Moise Kisling, Henri Laurens, Oscar Mietschaninoff, Chaim Soutine), his nude models were women from outside this milieu: waitresses, house maids, etc. Whereas the portraits tend to be highly individualized, the nudes are closely akin in their physiognomy, as though each one portrayed not a specific woman but an abstract ideal of feminine beauty. Consistent throughout the series, for instance, are the oval head, the wide hips, the almond-shaped eyes, the long, thin nose, and the small, pursed mouth.
Subtle differences, however, distinguish the nudes one from the other, lending them an element of poignant realism. In the present work, for example, we recognize the model by her sloped nose and pointed chin, and by her distinctive air of languid, impassive coquetry. She is perhaps the same model who posed in 1916 for the very first installment in Modigliani's late suite of nudes (fig. 1). James Thrall Soby has commented upon this delicate balance that Modigliani achieves in his figure-paintings:
In his intensity of individual characterization, Modigliani holds a fairly solitary place in his epoch. One senses in his finest pictures a unique and forceful impact from the sitter, an atmosphere of special circumstance, not to recur. But he was far from being a simple realist. On the contrary, he solved repeatedly one of modern portraiture's most difficult problems: how to express objective truth in terms of the artist's private compulsion. (J.T. Soby, op. cit., p. 10).
With their physiognomic consistency yet endlessly varied poses, Modigliani's late nudes recall the tradition in Western art of juxtaposing diverse views of the female body. Titian's Three Graces (Museo del Prado, Madrid) and its prototype in Pompeian wall-painting provide the quintessential example of this, with an anterior view neatly dovetailed with a posterior aspect to reveal the female body in its entirety. The same could also be accomplished using multiple canvases. One might think, for instance, of the nudes that Titian painted for Philip II of Spain, among them a Danae seen from the front and a Venus seen from the rear. In a letter to the king that accompanied the Venus, Titian wrote, "Because the Danae, previously sent to Your Majesty, had appeared entirely from the front, I wished to show the opposite side, to the end that the chamber where they will hang may become more delightful to see". In a similar vein, a cabinet of nudes assembled by Manuel Godoy, the royal favorite at the court of Carlos IV, featured Goya's Maja desnuda (Museo del Prado, Madrid) alongside Velázquez's so-called Rokeby Venus (National Gallery, London). The present picture is notable as the only back view of the female nude that Modigliani is known to have painted. Perhaps his knowledge of the tradition of the Three Graces helps to explain Modigliani's decision to experiment with this format, intended to complement the numerous anterior views of the female nude that he painted contemporaneously (fig. 2).
The pose of the present work is in fact closely comparable to that of Ingres's celebrated Grande odalisque (fig. 3), of which a front view, now lost, once existed as a pendant. In both Modigliani's painting and the Grande odalisque, the nude is shown recumbent on her left side, torso propped on one elbow, right calf bent over left, head turned to fix the viewer with a gaze at once placid and coquettish. As in Ingres's masterpiece, Modigliani's languorously reclining nude fills the long, horizontal canvas from left to right, the arc of her back, swell of her buttocks, and graceful curve of her right shoulder articulated with sweeping, sinuous lines. The influence of Ingres upon Modigliani is far from coincidental. By 1917, Ingrisme was a key component of the burgeoning tendency toward neo-classicism among many artists of the Parisian avant-garde, Picasso above all. At the same time, the Grande odalisque, with its subtle anatomical dislocations, had long been seen as evidence of a latent iconoclasm within Ingres's art (witness Picasso's cubist copy of the picture from 1907-1908). This very combination of classicism and innovation in the Grande odalisque had in fact become the topic of widespread discussion in the early years of the century, when Manet's Olympia was moved from the Musée du Luxembourg to the Louvre and hung alongside Ingres's masterpiece. To some this pairing served to signal the triumph of Manet's modernity, while for others it underscored the formal daring of the older picture. For an artist such as Modigliani, whose nudes are steeped in tradition yet radical in their originality, the appeal of Ingres must have lain in his shrewd negotiation of this same paradox.
The first owner of the present painting was Jacques Netter, an Alsatian by birth who, along with Roger Dutilleul, was one of the earliest collectors of Modigliani's work. Other paintings by Modigliani once in Netter's collection include The Museum of Modern Art's, New York, Grand nu of 1917 (fig. 4) and the artist's celebrated late self-portrait (Ceroni 337; Museu de Arte Contemporanea da Universidade de São Paulo).
(fig. 1) Amedeo Modigliani, Nu assis, 1916. Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London.
(fig. 2) Amedeo Modigliani, Nu couché au collier, 1917. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
©The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.
(fig. 3) Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Grande odalisque, 1814. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
(fig. 4) Modigliani, Amedeo (1884-1920). Reclining Nude (Le grand nu), ca. 1919. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund. (13.1950).
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA Art Resource, NY.