In a previous blog article, I followed the steps of young Modigliani in Venice. Not much of his work survives that period. He left Italy disillusioned. His friends spoke of Paris as the avant-garde capital of early 20th century Western Art, so he left for Paris in 1906 hoping that he too would find success there. It was not to be his fate. He died destitute at the young age of 35.
So on my latest trip to the French capital, I wanted to experience Modigliani’s Paris. And that meant exploring first Montmartre and then Montparnasse where he lived until his death. As luck would have it, the trip coincided with a great exhibition of his work at Musée de l'Orangerie, entitled Modigliani and his Dealer.
Through the poet Max Jacob, Modigliani met the young art dealer Paul Guillaume. Guillaume helped Modigliani by finding him a studio in Montmartre and by introducing him to Parisian artistic and literary circles. He bought, sold and collected Modigliani’s work. Modigliani saw Guillaume as the visionary leader of the avant-garde. They were both interested in and influenced by African sculpture, which further cemented their artistic and personal bond.
The itinerary starts in Montmartre at the Bateau Lavoir, where Picasso had also started his Parisian journey. The building was nicknamed by Max Jacob as the Washing Boat. On stormy nights, the building gave the impression of being a washing boat on the Seine. Twenty small, dark, dirty and unheated rooms with one common source for water became an important meeting ground for the artistic, literary and theatrical creativity that was early 20th century Paris. Even though a fire destroyed most of the original building, you can still see why this building would have earned such a nickname.
Get a feeling of Modigliani’s Montmartre by walking around its streets. Picture it without Sacre Coeur, which was yet to be completed, and the hordes of tourists. Instead, walk down quaint, winding streets like Rue Lepic and Rue Cortot with its iconic cobble stones. It must have been hard for the tuberculosis-stricken Modigliani to manage the steep hills of Montmartre. You can see the famous nightclub, the Moulin Rouge. Stop at La Maison Rose, a pink walled small edifice, a restaurant frequented by the inhabitants of the Bateau Lavoir and their friends. Notice the plaque in front of the building, now Museé Montmartre, listing all its illustrious guests. Stumble upon the billboards that feature the stay of Van Gogh in Montmartre. The list of artists who lived, worked and had studios in Montmartre at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century is truly staggering.
Modigliani left Montmartre and its artistic milieu to return to Livorno in 1909. He remained there briefly and then moved back to Paris. This time he searched for even cheaper accommodations in Montparnasse. Montparnasse was at that time an “art colony” in the sense that creativity was fully accepted with all its quirkiness. New comers were welcomed with open arms. The English painter Nina Hammett writes that one evening at Café La Rotonde, the person sitting at the next table introduced himself as ‘Modigliani, painter and Jew.’
The cafés of Montparnasse, found around Place Pablo Picasso (then Carrefour Vavin), were the meeting grounds for artists. Café La Rotonde allowed down and out artists to rent a table for the whole day for a pittance. The waiters were instructed not to wake the artists up if they fell asleep. If they couldn’t pay the bill, the owner took a drawing or painting as payment. The walls of La Rotonde were often full of their works. And if a heated argument took place and led to a fight and it often did, the owners never summoned the police. Today, alas, these cafés are more upscale restaurants than artists’ meeting places.
Modigliani had only one solo exhibition at the Berthe Weill Gallery in Paris during his lifetime. The show was closed by the police after a few days. The public was outraged by his nudes and the depiction of pubic hair. Two of these nudes went on to be sold for record-breaking sums after his death.
The last address of Modigliani in Montparnasse was 8 Rue de la Grande-Chaumière. Gaugin had also lived and worked there. A doctor was summoned to Modigliani’s home but Modigliani was in the final stage of his disease, tubercular meningitis. His life of drink and drugs took its toll too. He died on 24 January 1920, at the Hôpital de la Charité. The tragedy continued a few days later when his 8-month pregnant lover Jeanne Hébuterne threw herself out of a window.
There was an enormous funeral for Modigliani, attended by many from the artistic communities in Montmartre and Montparnasse. Modigliani’s dealer, Paul Guillaume, said the following about Modigliani’s passing.
An ardent poet and a great painter among the Greats.
He passed like a meteor: he was all grace, all anger, all contempt.
His haughty, aristocratic soul will long float among us
in the shimmer of his beautiful multicolor rags.
The epitaph on his simple grave at Père Lachaise reads ‘Struck down by Death at the Moment of Glory’. The Vagabond Prince of Montmartre was no longer but his art lives on.
All the paintings of Modigliani in this post were exhibited at the Musée de l’Orangerie in the exhibition, "Amedeo Modigliani: A Painter and His Dealer".