Modigliani’s first name was Amedeo, literally the “one who loves God.” Certainly he loved women—a lot. A sulky, handsome Italian, he had large black eyes, shiny black curls, and a big soft mouth. He had charming manners, too, and being Italian he was stylishly dressed (often in corduroy).
Amedeo loved poetry. He knew thousands of verses by heart, from medieval poems to contemporary French literature. But he had a particular thing for poetesses, and vice versa. Anna Akhmatova was a young literary talent when she fell for him—during her honeymoon in Paris in 1910. What her Russian groom thought of him, we can only imagine.
Anna and Amedeo began their romance by reciting verses and flirting while sitting on the benches in the jardin du Luxembourg. But a year later, she returned to Paris from Moscow and the whole affair became much more intense. Amedeo made numerous intimate portraits of Anna, and several nudes, but he also immortalized her intellectual strength in stone. That the short bangs are the only suggestion of her real appearance would not have bothered him—the sculpted portrait simply titled Head, now on display at the MIA, is almost certainly of her.
The geometric form of the sculpted head conveys the steadiness and force of her intellect. The piece is imbued with solemnity—this is the totem of a remote deity lost in her thoughts. Yet the Russian poetess, known for her melancholic verses, proved to be more practical than passionate. After all, what kind of security could the young artist, with his strong predilection for alcohol and drugs, have offered the 20-year-old Russian transplant, whose own vocation was writing beautiful if obscure poems? The romance between Anna and Amedeo didn’t last long, except in art.
Three years later, Beatrice Hastings arrived in Amedeo’s life. Their love story began suddenly, and it was all thunder and lightning.
She was a weird gal, emerging onto the effervescent Paris scene from London in 1914 as a correspondent of the progressive magazine The New Age. Beatrice didn’t like to go unnoticed. She dressed bizarrely: in her handbag, one was more likely to find a quacking duck and hashish than nose powder and lipstick. She had been a circus rider, among other self-declared talents. But mostly she loved to stage herself, claiming to be a poet, befriending the most avant-garde artists, and relishing her freedom—changing lovers as often as her hats
A fervent feminist, Beatrice promoted women’s right to vote, and she didn’t want to exclusively belong to Amedeo. He found this arrangement difficult, to put it mildly, and reacted with unexpected belligerence. How else would you describe dangling his lover by the legs from a window? No doubt they loved each other vehemently, fueled by copious amounts of drugs and alcohol, and fought just as intensely.
Yet drunkenness didn’t seem to impair Amedeo’s creativity. During his time with Beatrice, he abandoned sculpting and feverishly devoted himself to painting and drawing. The only way he could tame his crazy mistress, and master his jealousy, was to put her face on canvas and paper.
In 1915, he created Female Bust in Red, on view through September 21 in the MIA’s exhibition “Marks of Genius: 100 Extraordinary Drawings,” depicting—who else?—Beatrice. Here he conveys the quintessential feminine contradictions: the solid shape of the shoulder mitigated by the bashful grace of the tilted head, the primordial nakedness challenging the modesty of the closed mouth and serious gaze. The color is that of incandescent lava spilled onto paper, barely contained by the icy grey shadow. The effect is of sublime feelings mingled with torrid flesh. This is Modigliani’s muse, the woman he wanted.
Poor, alcoholic, tuberculotic, and a damned slave to his senses, Modigliani painted her in more than 20 portraits with all manner of outfits (and without). But the impossible love lasted only two years. By 1916 she was gone, along with the screams, the wrestling, the crazy dances, and collective intoxication.
In the great silence that followed in her wake, Amedeo took consolation in his less flamboyant neighbors, and perhaps asked a little servant girl to be his model. The incredulous girl sat for him, pouting in embarrassment. With a calm and loving eye, Modigliani crafted her portrait: a strand of hair falls across her forehead, she hides her swollen fingers in a tight clasp. How vulnerable, how different from the storm so recently departed. The eyes are blue and clear like ceramic tiles, the dress is plain, almost a uniform of poverty. The red is concentrated in the blushing face, unaccustomed to such attention. Against this sympathetic scene, the red explosion of Beatrice’s bust fades into the background.