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Art Secrets: The Starfish in Her Face

The secret in her face, circled in red.

The secret in her face, circled in red.

Recently, Roberta Bartoli wrote about the many loves of the iconic bohemian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani, including the poet Anna Akhmatova, who was not his to love. The 20-year-old Russian was on her honeymoon, first of all, when they met in Paris. He was on drugs. She was melancholic. He was all over the map. It was not to be. But he immortalized the brief, melodramatic moment they shared together, in stone: the elegantly odd Head, which resembles her only in the bangs.

The sculpture is currently paired at the MIA with an ancient Greek figure of a woman carved four thousand years ago. It came from the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea, a region that inspired Modigliani in his search for simple, shorthand forms. The resemblance, in the balance of curves and angles, is uncanny. But perhaps the best homage to the Cyclades—and his onetime amante—is a hidden detail on the face.

The head is carved from limestone, a sedimentary rock formed from the skeletons of ancient sea creatures, an appropriate nod to the Aegaen. And among the most common fossils found in limestone are starfish. Look closely at the cheek and you’ll see one, a little smaller than a dime. Modigliani must have seen it, too, perhaps even structured the face around it, so it landed front and center, like a beauty mark or a kiss. A kiss, as it turns out, goodbye.