Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Modigliani and the Russian beauty: the affair that changed him

Modigliani’s drawing in black crayon of Anna Akhmatova, Woman Reclining on a Bed, c1911 (GETTY)

At six feet tall, raven-haired and ravishingly beautiful, 21-year-old Anna Akhmatova proved something of a sensation when she arrived in Paris on the arm of her husband in 1910 – people would turn to look at her in the street. The couple were on their honeymoon, and, being poets of some repute in their native Russia, headed straight for Montparnasse, then the favoured haunt of the Parisian avant garde. Here they mingled with the penniless painters, sculptors, poets and composers who had moved to the area from the increasingly chichi Montmartre, in search of cheap rent, cheap cafés and run-down buildings that might serve as studios.

One such artist was the 25-year-old Amedeo Modigliani, who had arrived from Italy four years before. With an aristocratic Roman nose, a strong jaw and a mop of jet-black hair, he enchanted Anna, and the two became inseparable. “This was a meeting of hearts and minds,” says Richard Nathanson, who has helped put together an exhibition of Modigliani’s drawings at London’s Estorick Collection, which opens this week. Modigliani drew her 16 times, according to Nathanson, but many works have been lost in the intervening years; three of the 28 drawings in the show are of Akhmatova. “Once you look at the connection [between them], you see it everywhere in his paintings.”

Born Anna Andreevna Gorenko in 1889, Akhmatova belonged to an upper-class family of landowners. She grew up in Tsarskoye Selo (Tsar’s Village), a fashionable area on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg and near one of the royal summer residences. It was here that she met her husband, Nikolai Gumilev, while shopping in a large department store. He pursued her for years, even attempting suicide in the name of unrequited love (although, Nathanson says, Gumilev had tired of Akhmatova by the time he finally married her).

In 1906, when Modigliani moved to Paris, Akhmatova was making a name for herself in Saint Petersburg, reciting her works in the infamous literati hang-out known as the Stray Dog Café. Her father insisted she wrote under a pseudonym so as not to disgrace the family name, and she chose Akhmatova, after a Tartar ancestor. Love was her favourite subject, and her voice intoxicated readers from the start. The writer Kornei Chukovsky said that her first book, titled Evening, “accompanied the next two or three generations of Russians whenever they fell in love”.

Poetry united Akhmatova and Modigliani. While Akhmatova’s new husband caught up with old friends in Paris, Akhmatova took to visiting Modigliani. By day they would take walks or sit in the park. Years later she wrote in her memoirs, “Whenever it rained (it often rained in Paris) Modigliani took with him a huge old black umbrella. We would sit together under this umbrella on a bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg in the warm summer rain. We would jointly recite Verlaine, whom we knew by heart, and we were glad we shared the same interests.”

They must have made a funny pair – he almost a foot shorter than her, in a three-piece suit of corduroy that had a distinctly raffish air; she in her Belle Epoque finery. She compared him to the Greek demi-god Antinous, who was the Emperor Hadrian’s lover and impossibly beautiful. “In his eyes was a golden gleam,” she said. “He was unlike anyone in the world.”

“All his dreams came together in this woman,” Nathanson says. “She had an otherworldliness and such sheer physical beauty and grace.” When she left for Saint Petersburg with her husband a few weeks later, there followed a torrent of letters. Modigliani didn’t usually bother writing to his paramours – and there were a great many, both before and after Akhmatova – so the exchange was rather extraordinary. His feelings must have been reciprocated, because the following year Akhmatova came back to Paris by herself. She stayed for several months this time, renting an apartment near the church of Saint-Sulpice, and wrote a poem about their love, Heart to Heart Is Never Chained. The final stanza reads, “Why, oh why, should I find you/Better than the one I chose?”

On one occasion she visited Modigliani, but found him absent. “We had apparently misunderstood one another so I decided to wait several minutes,” she said. “I was clutching an armful of red roses. A window above the locked gates of the studio was open. Having nothing better to do, I began to toss the flowers in through the window. Then without waiting any longer, I left. When we met again, he was perplexed at how I had entered the locked room because he had the key. I explained what had happened, 'But that’s impossible – they were lying there so beautifully.’”

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