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Monday, November 21, 2011

The Last Bohemians

Self-Portrait, Amedeo Modigliani,
Sometimes, seemingly trivial events serve to divide that which was from that which is to be. On July 14, 1789, a small mob stormed a nearly empty prison in Paris. So began the French Revolution. A 500-year-old monarchy died, a republic was born. In December, 1955, an African-American seamstress was asked to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus. And so began the civil rights movement in the United States. In 1969, the Department of Defense organized an electronic communication network between various private and public research facilities called ARPANET, and so began the Internet. On January 25, 1919, a virtually unknown artist died in the charity ward of a Paris hospital. And with him died the French domination of world art. He was symbolically the last of a dying breed, sometimes called the Last Bohemians. His name was Amedeo Modigliani (right). He'd been done in by poverty, tuberculosis, alcoholism, drug abuse, and obscurity. Days later, as his cortege passed through he streets of old Montmartre, thousands, many of whom had never seen his work or even knew his name, lined up to pay their respects, sensing, without really knowing why, that an era was coming to an end.

Portrait of Maurice Utrillo, 1921,
Suzanne Valadon
There were four of them--Maurice Utrillo, Jules Pascin, Chaim Soutine, and Modigliani. Utrillo was French; Pascin, Bulgarian; Soutine, Lithuanian; and Modigliani, Italian. All had ended up in the streets and gutters of Montmartre, the early twentieth-century cradle of Modern Art. Utrillo was literally born there, and like the others, could well have died there. Born in 1883 to a teenage street urchin eking out a living as an artist's model, he was an alcoholic by the time he was 15, institutionalized by the time he was 18. Saved from self-destruction by his mother and later by his wife, he continued to paint until his death in 1955, the only one of the four to survive the streets and obscurity.

Self-Portrait in a Derby Hat,
Jules Pascin
Jules Pascin (right) was a little younger than Utrillo, quite a bit more talented, and much more academically trained, studying art in Vienna, Munich, and Paris, traveling broadly all over the world, including Mexico and the U.S. His street scenes and portraits were among the best of the four. However, to put it politely, he was also a restless playboy sort. He restlessly committed suicide in 1930.

Soutine (below), was Lithuanian, the tenth of eleven children. He ran away from home to escape a life of tailorhood. His father, a tailor, expected him to follow in his footsteps. He ended up in Paris, studying art, living in a tenement next door to a slaughterhouse where he would go to paint the raw sides of beef and explore his expressionistic color tendencies. He was even known to take home beef carcasses, not to eat but to paint. Abject poverty led him to suicide as well, though at the last moment, a friend happened by and saved him from hanging. Later, through his friend, Modigliani, he met an art dealer who advised him to leave Paris. He did, and met a rich American collector of Modern Art, Dr. Albert Barnes, who bought nearly 100 of his paintings (half his unsold stock of dark, colorful, landscapes and portraits). Though financially comfortable, he grew increasingly reclusive, refusing to exhibit his work. He died in obscurity in 1943. In 2006, his 1924 painting, Le Boeuf Écorché, sold for the equivalent of more than $21.9 million, almost three times its appraised value.

Chaim Soutine, 1916,
Amedeo Modigliani
So why was Modigliani's passing so great a turning point? The torch had passed. One by one, artists thereafter deserted Montmartre for Munich, or New York, of anywhere but Paris--even Picasso (though he spent the war years there, practically under house arrest). From 1919 on, no new art movements came from the city. Dada and Surrealism for a time found a home there, but they were just passing through on their way somewhere else. The exciting spirit of innovation and the combustible mix of talent and creative turbulence were gone, long before Hitler's horde goose stepped their way down the Champs Elysse`. The Last Bohemians were the final, pathetic chapter in a 300-year-long tradition of French dominance of the arts beginning as far back as Charles II. There have been glowing embers flaring up from time to time since, but they too died. Art, and Paris have not been the same since.

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