Friday, March 20, 2015

Modigliani for a Change

“Marie Daughter of the People,”
by Amedeo Modigliani. 1918.
(Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland)
Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s good to occasionally get out of the neighborhood and see what the rest of the world is like. Everyone has their likes, including me, but likes often turn into ruts. I’m a fan of Northern Renaissance art, early Christian art, the Pre-Raphaelites and a lot of other periods and movements that, if you jam them hard enough,  will fit into the same visual mold. Today I’m taking a look at a painting that’s a bit different – Amedeo Modigliani’s “Marie Daughter of the People” – and I’m getting out of the neighborhood.

What’s not to like about Modigliani? Besides having a name that nicely slides off the tongue, his work has always held my interest to some degree. He was a prolific artist who cranked out painted portraits, his more-famous reclining nudes and even sculptures. Modigliani is sometimes given the general title of Modernist, but he was influenced by classical painters, crossed paths with contemporaries like Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brancusi, and had a general disdain of “bourgeois” art. Whatever. The point is: He painted like no one else.

Although separated by so great an artistic chasm, Modigliani’s color palette is not very far removed from that of Cranach or Brueghel. He leaned toward deep, warm colors and blacks, with an occasional vibrant blue. While the artist reduced the complexity of forms and often translated them into simpler, elongated shapes, the richness of his color and deliberate approach was not diminished. If anything, Modigliani enhanced the canvas with intense richness.

His “Marie Daughter of the People,” is a small piece – barely 19 by 24 inches. The oil was painted in 1918, when the artist was 28 years old. I could here enter a discourse on the background of the painting and Modigliani’s deep foray into a life of alcohol, hashish and extra-marital affairs that might have influenced the piece, but let’s be nice to the guy for once and keep focused on the image he’s left us.

At first glance, “Marie Daughter of the People” is a rather simple image. It is a half-portrait. The sitter, Marie, faces the viewer with shoulders turned toward our right. A bow of ribbon adorns pulled-back hair. An earring is visible. Once you get past these features, things get a bit vague and “impressionistic.” I’ve put that in quotes, because Modigliani was not an impressionist. In fact, he is sometimes maligned for not belonging to much of any group. Perhaps it was the hashish.

Part of the beauty of this piece, along with many of the artist’s other pieces, is in what is not shown. The ambiguous black shape of Marie’s dress, for instance, leaves us wondering. So does his typical vague treatment of eyes. Yet there is a very precise handling of facial features that is delicate and intentional. Marie’s head is tilted ever-so-slightly. Without that gentle angle, the painting would have suffered, and the charm of the sitter would be lost. So, too, her bangs and a wayward wisp of hair show how observant the artist was of details that did matter.

The few general shapes in the painting were not brushed on in simple, solid color. On the contrary, when the viewer picks out one of those shapes for study, a whole world of color becomes apparent. Layer upon layer of color fill the simple forms, softening edges and hinting at vaporous shadows. Touches of red mingle with sienna and deeper umber, while traces of green peek through. That is the richness of color for which Modigliani should be applauded.

Inspiration is a funny thing. My own work doesn’t even come close to the nebulous style of Modigliani, but his handling of color lingers in the back of my mind. Perhaps that inspiration will come out in a future work of mine – maybe in a corner of sky or the texture of a building. Or maybe I’ll simply admire his work from a far. At any rate, it’s time to gather up my thoughts of Modigliani’s color and his handling of form, be thankful for the little breath of fresh air, and head back home.

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