The Young Modigliani: Some Memories.
We met in the autumn of the same year, in the semi-darkness of a bohemian restaurant on the Butte de Montmartre--the unforgettable "Lapin agile," which was at that time not yet arranged for foreign visitors. For four sous one could sit here, drinking strong coffee, and hotly discuss art subjects until the morning broke. To walk home through the small streets of the Butte, in the first dawn of the morning, was a wonderful finish for such nights as I should never know again in my life.
The first decade of our century still shared the taste for the life of the boheme that the nineteenth century had cultivated, and here in Paris, on Montmartre and Montparnasse, the last flowers of that world were represented by some refined and spoilt sons of the old bourgeoisie. Our Modigliani--or "Modi," as he was generally called--was a highly characteristic and at the same time highly gifted representative of the boheme of Montmartre: he was probably even the last real bohemian. In those days, he was not yet the drunkard he became later, nor the sombre, cynical and sarcastic man whom his biographer Pfannstiel describes, but always lively and enthusiastic, highly-spirited, full of imagination and ever inclined to paradoxical moods. It was therefore possible to meet him regularly in the most friendly way, without the slightest unpleasantness. We were the same age and had the same interests. Coming from the provincial narrowness of an art school in East Germany, I was overwhelmed by his immediate response to all things, and particularly when this young man spoke of beauty. Never before had I heard a painter speak of beauty with such fire. He showed me photographs of early Florentine masters whose names I had not come across yet. Even more beautiful perhaps was what Modi had to say about them. Among more recent artists, Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin fascinated him above all. Of the latter, we had just seen the wonderful retrospective exhibition in the salon d'automne (1906), which intoxicated us with excitement. But Modi was also interested in Whistler and his delicate tones, although this master's fame was at that time somewhat declining. He further admired Ensor and Munch, who were almost unknown in Paris, and among the youngest artists we favoured Picasso, Matisse, Rouault and some young Hungarian expressionists who were just coming into fashion.
Modigliani's economic affairs seemed to be in a very bad state. I often heard him speak about it to some of his acquaintances, but between us there was no mention of money. Although my own life was tolerably comfortable, Modi never came to me with such questions--I do not know why. He was proud in these matters. A year later, when he was already desperate, he seemed to be out whole days to get hold of money somehow, be it by borrowing or by selling drawings, or by taking somebody else's works to an art dealer. Thus, we went once to the smart Quartier Monceau, where my friend was to offer a framed woodcut by Utamaro to a collector of Japanese art. His once clean coat showed now the marks of numerous meals and paint-brushes and presented the artist, who had not shaved for several days, in the most unfavourable light. As a result, the porter of the stylish house would not let Modi enter; it did not help that he tried to remove the many stains with saliva: we had to leave without succeeding in our quest.
Another time, we went to Montparnasse to visit an Italian, an elderly man alleged to be a painter and who looked like Napoleon III. He lived in a large room which offered a disturbing spectacle. All his possessions--beds, furniture, cloths, books, colour tubes and paintings--were accumulated in the middle of the floor as though flung there in a rage, and when anything was needed it had to be picked out of the chaos with much trouble.
Modigliani was not affected by all this. He started a long and very loud conversation in Italian with the man, who wore an enormous Calabrian hat and gesticulated with his long arms like an excited popular speaker. He moved his arms with the melodramatic fervour of his race, and his words thundered with the same emphasis. And while I stood there quite frightened, Modi also began to thunder in unison with him.
Modigliani used to take his meals in one of the small Montmartre restaurants. To begin with, he did not fail to pay; later he had his debts chalked up day after day, until the month was up, only to disappear as permanent debtor; but in a neighbouring district he repeated the same maneuver with another restaurant. Such conduct was not irreproachable. True--but what is a wretched bohemian to do if he wants luncheon?--and once a day a man must eat, particularly such a nervy, fiery spirit, an artist by the grace of God, who produces new forms and does not think in everyday terms. Modi had the gift of making friends everywhere. He knew everybody, and wherever he went he was welcome. The cheated bistro owners, however, tracked down our vagabond to his miserable abode and made a hellish row. It was therefore very often necessary in his room to talk in a low voice and, ordered by him, to peep through the keyhole to see whether such a monster was approaching.
In those days Modigliani, the story of whose life has now become a legend and has inspired some writers to make novels of it, was not yet the drunkard of his later years--as I said before--and his rather morbid female acquaintances were also of a different kind from those ladies whom he painted in later years. Such characters as his cannot be changed, influenced or induced to live in a more orderly fashion, and work more regularly. Modi would not have been fated to die so young--at the age of 36--had he lived a little more reasonably.
The life of the bohemian, as I have lived it myself, may contain great temptations. In more mature years, however, one is no longer inclined to overestimate this way of living--one rather regrets to have wasted so much youthful strength.
Modigliani, who had been trained at the academies of Venice and Florence, in his first Paris period painted only small portraits in thin colours which he applied to very rough canvas or, often, to smooth cardboard. The results, here and there reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec or, in their greyish green tonality, of Whistler's work, were entirely different from the paintings of the "Fauves," which could be seen at the two "Independants." They had style and, compared with those, they were moderate and cultured in colour as well as in design. To make them appear transparent, Modi covered them, when dry, with coloured varnish in such a way that his pictures were sometimes ultimately covered with as many as ten layers of varnish: their pellucid, iridescent tone was thus reminiscent of old masters. His manner of drawing was also peculiar. He used to draw from life on thin paper, but before the sheet was quite finished he put a second sheet, covered by graphite paper, underneath and on it traced the original drawing in a very simplified way. However much I was delighted with his paintings, this manner of drawing I considered as too abbreviated and mannered. While he developed his own style of painting in later years, his manner of drawing remained on the whole unchanged. Once he sat down to it he could thus produce dozens of portraits.
When, after some time, I moved to Berlin I took a number of those attractive oil paintings along, hoping to find some amateurs for them. But in the course of a year I did not succeed in selling a single one of these exquisite little pieces. They were to be had for 10-20 Marks--today, they would be worth thousands, for Modi's pictures, after his death, fetched the highest prices among all modern painters.
He painted two oil portraits of me in his studio, 7, Place Jean Baptiste Clement; the larger one decorated a wall in the Salon d'Automne of 1907 where it remained more or less unnoticed: This studio was a dilapidated hovel on a treeless, ugly piece of ground, and although it was as miserable a place as could be imagined, depressing and neglected, like the hiding place of a beggar, one always liked to go there, for it had an artistic atmosphere where one was never bored. Modi was always in good spirits, never said anything that was commonplace; he had read widely and could recite Dante or Ariosto most impressively in his mother tongue. This extraordinary mixture of intelligence, unselfconsciousness and lively interest in everything delighted all those who knew him. He had the real character of a painter, entirely tied to this world, sensual, unmetaphysical. At the same time, he was also the son of a dying epoch, with the stigma of decadence and the unsteadiness of the uprooted Jew. It was typical of him that he liked to have those, who used them, tell him about poisons and drugs: hashish, morphia and opium. This man was an epicurean, always on the search for sensations and refinements. And although he was at that time not yet himself a victim of drugs and drinks, his inclinations certainly led that way. But in other fields he was also acquainted with the oddest and most unusual things.
The three dandies, Whistler, Oscar Wilde and d'Annunzio, fascinated him very much, and he was most eloquent in praise of their peculiarities. Lack of money forbade him to be extravagant himself. His position, by the way, could not be called more difficult than that of numerous other young painters. When he was in the possession of ten francs he invited those who happened to be in his company to a glass of vermouth, and in less than an hour the money was spent. He never had anything because he could not economise. I never knew whether his family ever sent him anything, or if not, why not. According to him, his parents were quite well off. One of his brothers was the then very well-known socialist deputy Modigliani, whom Mussolini later persecuted. Modigliani never spoke of his family with irony and scorn, as other young artists and writers tend to do in order to vent their anger. And he was full of love and admiration for everything that concerned his country.
He had his troubles and difficulties every day--but that did not disturb his animated serenity. He liked life too much as it was then led romantically, the life of the Butte in those days.
After I had left Paris we continued for some time to exchange letters, partly in connection with his small oils, which I was not able to sell. Later--perhaps in 1909--I learnt from a third person that the dilapidated studio had one night collapsed over Modigliani's head and that the fire-services had to be called to extricate him from the ruins. Fortunately, he was unhurt.
It was at that time that Modigliani's plastic period began. Influenced by negro art, he started a kind of cubist portrait sculpture which, however, within his life-work, does not seem very important.
"The Young Modigliani: Some Memories," by German expressionist painter and printmaker Ludwig Meidner (1884-1966), is reprinted courtesy of The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 82, No. 481 (Apr., 1943), pp. 87-91, www.hurlington.org.uk. This art section is inspired by London's Tate Modern "Modigliani" exhibition, November23, 2017 to April 2, 2018.
By Ludwig Meidner