Thursday, February 7, 2013

Why Is Modigliani So Hot? Portrait Sells For $42 Million

Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne in a Black Hat sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $42.1 million dollars, amidst generally "strong sales" in the art market for Impressionist, Cubist and Surrealist works of art at Sotheby's and Christie's London sales Thursday. Amedeo Modigliani did countless portraits of his lover but never knew success or recognition during his lifetime.
The sale broke the "high-end estimate" predicted. Why?
It could very well be the recent publicity given the artist in the latest James Bond thriller Skyfall when one of the artist's stolen works was featured in the film. That's not enough, however, because even in the ultra-rich art market, there is a general trending towards Modigliani--even as traditionally strong market contenders like Picasso and Monet stay strong--Modigliani is finding his own presence and it's a strong one. Answering a simple question like Why? might mislead us into believing we have the correct answer when, in fact, it's far more complex than we can imagine, however, it's worth our while because art is art, regardless of medium and what happens in one arena (painting, for example) influences another arena (film, or vice versa).
The artist's lover, Jeanne Hebuterne (left), who was disowned by her family when she started living with Amedeo Modigliani ( right); in the middle is just one of many portraits he did of her. Modigliani ultimately died from tubercular meningitis, at the age of 35, which he irritated through drinking, smoking, drug abuse, overworking and poverty. The day after his death, Jeanne--pregnant with their second child--jumped from the fifth floor window of their apartment building to her death. Modigliani's bohemian lifestyle exceeds van Gogh's in excess, but art historians have begun examining his public displays of nudity and debauchery (he frequently cheated on Jeanne) as an attempt to cover his coughing bouts and the advanced stages of illness. As Peter Schjeldahl writes, "Drunks were tolerated; carriers of infectious diseases were not."
The story goes (or should I say, "legend?") that Modigliani and Picasso went to the Louvre's African exhibit the same day, looked at the same masks, and went in completely different directions with it, Picasso employing a far sharper edge to his studies and Modigliani adopting a "softer" line, still very much abstract, but re-defining the human body through a varying mode of manipulation. The differences in abstraction probably holds the answer to Modigliani's "late blooming."
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Picasso, 1907, his first real "Cubist" work depicting the dramatic contrast with Modigliani's style. We could spend countless time on this piece, however, two point will suffice for now. First, please note the angular-ism of the bodies: nothing is perhaps "softer" and more "curvy" than a female nude, but the softness has been translated by Picasso as hard and even masculine. In the second woman from the left, her genital area is outlined in white brush strokes as a triangle; the breasts of the fifth woman (standing) are geometric shapes. The face of the same woman, the one behind the "crouching woman," is nearly completely transformed into a mask, our second important point, because while she is completely exposed--she's naked--she's wearing a mask, hiding her real identity.  Both Modigliani and Picasso play this game with the portrait "hiding" rather than "revealing" the sitter, but they found different ways to accomplish their unique statements and what's important is that Picasso's was (more) readily embraced in his time, whereas Modigliani's has been explored starting in, say, the last twenty years? Ten years ago, for example, Modigliani would not have been included in a general, university survey course on Modern Art History (one would have to take a more advanced course to study his historical placing) but he may very well be today where he was not then. (Something one would be wise not to forget--although it can't be attributed to this alone--is Picasso's uncanny ability at self-promotion which Modigliani seemed to lack; this doesn't explain everything, but it is a factor).
Please remember, art exists because it expresses something within us--as individuals and a culture--that we cannot express ourselves: maybe it's on the tip of our tongue, or we have no idea it lurks within the shadows, but an image we see has the power to articulate that inner-being longing for a voice. The art viewers of the day felt Picasso's "sharp abstractions" better articulated their vision, their self-image to impart to future generations (championing an artist is rather like awarding the Oscar to a film character the generation wants to be identified with and communicate to viewers their values and struggles at that point in time). There is another dimension to this argument, however. 
A traditional Dogon ceremonial mask, the kind influencing both Picasso and Modigliani. Each mask has its own spirit the mask is meant to invoke, but they can also represent the dead. In this light, such a nugget of knowledge adds a new dimension to the works if the painted person (for example, the last standing woman in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon) whose features have been contorted into a mask-like presentation, is meant to convey to the viewer that person's death, or state of being dead metaphysically speaking, and therefore, that the viewer--engaging with that walking dead person--is their self dead and that interior burden of living in a state of death being expressed by Cubist works is a facet of the enigma of why Cubism emerged when it did and why it is still so popular today.
It's possible that viewers saw Picasso's works as being more abstract and the greater the abstraction, the more the art explained more (consider, for example, that art stayed on an ever-increasing degree of abstraction up until the time of Pop Art, which is definitely abstract, but intentionally misleading as well).  In other words, viewers at the time Modigliani was working as an artist (1898-1919) needed to be hit in the head with the full-blown distortion Picasso offered, instead of the subtle whisperings Modigliani made his signature style.
Take the abstraction of the painting below:
My personal favorite, Woman With Red Hair,
1917, National Gallery, Washington D.C.
Compared to Les Demoiselles, Modigliani's Woman With Red Hair seems nearly academic (i.e., trying to accurately depict the sitter with line resembling the natural appearance as opposed to an artistic interpretation by the artist involving abstraction).  The lines are "soft," from her flowing hairstyle to the curve of her fingers, and the gentle undulating rhythm of her torso; even her neck, while cylindrical, still maintains a "fleshy" feel. While her body might appear "simplified," the viewer still recognizes her body as both human and female, and the structure propping-up her left arm as a chair back. But look at her eyes: both her eyes are completely blacked out.  Then as now, the eyes are the windows of the soul, and a culture doesn't have to be addicted to vampires (as we are today) to experience a slow death of immortal proportions. The eyes of the sitter completely lacking any sign of life and animation, will or feeling, thought or expression, conveys to our own eyes that, rather than sitting and posing, the female figure we see might be nothing more than a propped-up corpse, just like her arm propped-up on the chair, and everyone living at that time propped-up by each other and the routine of life.
The wide--brim of the hat mirrors the sloping shoulder of the woman; her long nose echoes the long-finger; the outline of her black dress inverts the outline of the black hat and the backgroud dissolves into a watery reflection of disembodied color. Her shadings of skin tone--from pale to blotchy-red, suggests a disease (Scarlett fever?) or rash or just a fever itself, until--once again--you look at the liefless green eyes, like a soul-less marble, swirled colors revealing the inner-rot and decay of the elegant woman with the stylish hat. Her finger reminds me of the,...
"noodle-like" fingers of the medieval depiction of St Mark from the Ebbo Gospels: whereas St. Mark's hand was made to look weak so as to communicate to the viewer that the weak human could not have written the Gospel attributed to him, but he was God's instrument, Modigliani seems to communicate the opposite: this woman is so weak she can't even carry out human tasks (the hand symbolizes our strength, so her hand being "rolled" like a batch of dough communicates that she has no strength, so purpose, so presence, the hat is more resolute in its being than she is).  
Now, we might understand the biggest part of the mystery as to why Picasso was more popular and successful than Modigliani: Picasso carries more violence in his abstractions, while Modigliani's abstraction is a slow, noiseless strangulation, the suffocation of the heart and soul, instead of the violence of war and drama inherent in Picasso's style (like the tuberculosis killing Modigliani). Recall, if you will, that Europe was on an escalating path towards World War I at the time the Cubists started their unique style of visual discourse, and the international war that would soon erupt first erupted interiorly within those living at this time; theirs was not a slow death, but more like the fate of a warrior. In our own time, however, most of us have been removed from that kind of violence and threat, and--like Modigliani's own disease--we are slowly dying from within, and he whispers to us that he understands.
Modigliani in his studio, Paris, unknown date.
Why one artist becomes popular quickly and another artist languishes is pure mystery: we can speculate and conjecture, but we can never fully know the grand scheme at work. What we can accurately measure is the increasing popularity of Modigliani being embraced by our time and our culture and asking "why now?" might not yield definite answers, but it will reveal at least a little of what might otherwise remain in darkness within us if not for the art created by Modigliani that mirrors our own condition today.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner 
Modigliani's portrait of Picasso, 1915.