Only recently, with the publication of Noël Alexandre’s major monograph The Unknown Modigliani which reproduces 376 works on paper [some double-sided], given by Modigliani to his father, Paul Alexandre, has the all-important presence of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in Modigliani’s art, began to be recognized and understood.
Akhmatova’s poetic genius; charismatic beauty and elongated, sensual body struck a unique chord with Modigliani. And influenced the course of his art, at a critical juncture in his development.
Aged seventeen, he had written to his artist friend Oscar Ghilia:
Believe me, only work that has gone through the whole process of gestation is fit to be expressed and translated by style…… It is our duty never to be consumed by the sacrificial fire. Your real duty is to save your dream. Beauty too has some painful duties; these produce however, the noblest efforts of the soul.
Six years later, in a small sketchbook he wrote the words reproduced above.
What I am searching for is neither the real nor the unreal, but the Subconscious the mystery of what is Instinctive in the human Race.
Modigliani’s intense artistic, spiritual [for him no distinction existed between these two states of being] search to express what he saw as the mysterious, innermost beauty of the human soul, drew him to Buddhist, Indian, Greek, Etruscan, Egyptian, African, early Italian and Renaissance art.
Paul Alexandre, Modigliani’s most important patron and friend during his early years in Paris, observed:
With Modigliani, it is of course not just a matter of painting, but also of poetry, of literature, of everything. It is about the philosophical meaning of life.……Modigliani sought to express the inner self of his models.
Five of the six drawings reproduced in this article were, in all probability, drawn in 1911. They express the range and depth of Modigliani’s feeling for Akhmatova. And herald his later work.
One has only to look at the drawings, paintings and stone carvings which precede them to see the vital role Akhmatova played in enabling Modigliani to realise his path.
Anna Akhmatova [1889-1966] is regarded, with Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam, as the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century. She met Modigliani during her first visit to Paris in 1910, on honeymoon with her husband. She returned alone in May 1911 and became very close to Modigliani. Theirs was a union of spirit derived from their shared passion for poetry.
This tender, moving drawing portrays Akhmatova as both Egyptian goddess. And poet lost in her dream.
Erotic in its restraint and languid, sensual pose, it evokes the elongated body and ‘helmet’ of hair of the Egyptian queens and goddesses depicted in the Louvre reliefs Modigliani and Akhmatova returned to, time and again, during the summer of 1911.
Modigliani saw, portrayed in these female images of ancient Egypt, Akhmatova’s own extraordinary beauty and noble, statuesque form. Given his mystical nature, he may have imagined her as the reincarnation of an Egyptian queen or female deity.
The line is distilled to its essence – even the left arm is only suggested – to convey a purity of spirit and beauty. It is one of his first drawings to be imbued with an otherworldly serenity. And quiet, impassioned love.
Akhmatova records Modigliani giving her some sixteen drawings he drew of her. All disappeared. In her memories quoted below, of Modigliani [Memoir on Modigliani dated 1958-1965 and included with memoirs on Osip Mandelstam in Pages from a Diary], she recalls their love for each other.
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