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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The First "Beatnik"

I suppose we all have tucked somewhere in the back of our minds, the stereotypical "beatnik" figure, the black-clad, Bohemian, left-bank, Parisian artist of the early 1900s.  Even Americanized and transplanted to the 1950s art scene in New York, he's a sad, sensitive, figure, awash in poetry, off-beat music, cigarettes, wine, and art.  He's seen as incessantly depressed and moody.  Of course, such icons were an amalgamation of many figures who long ago gave way to the "hippie" artist of the 1960s and 70s.  I don't know if there is a correspondingly sad artist figure today.  But there was an original.

Seldom in the annuls of art has there lived a more tragic figure than Amedeo Modigliani. Born in 1884 in Livorno, Italy, Modigliani could well be considered a poster boy for over-indulgence. A contemporary of Picasso, Cezanne, and an aged Monet, around the turn of the century, this dashingly handsome teenager became a fixture (victim?) of the Paris nightlife that so fascinated and dominated the work of his friend and early mentor Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. From an early age Modigliani drank deeply of the spirit and spirits of everything Parisian. This model for Left-Bank counter culture artist-playboy, Modigliani dabbled in a number of painterly fads and styles before finding the linear, elegant simplicity of delicate, yet expressive female figures that became his artistic trademark.

Portrait of Dedie, 1917,
Amadeo Modigliani
Modigliani's figures are mostly drawn first in black paint, featuring elongated necks, noses and faces, then filled in with strong, expressive, flat colors. Absent was any effort to depict much modeling or the illusion of volume. He usually started with the eyes of his figures and could develop a finished painting within a couple hours. Living from hand-to-mouth during much of his life, his Bohemian lifestyle of heavy painting and drinking in cold, damp, Parisian cellars, or wherever he could find cheap lodging, inevitably took its toll on his health. He married one of his models at age 34 with whom he fathered two children. Setting up a household in a tiny Montmarte apartment, he finally found some semblence of a normal family life.

But sadly, it was too late. Dying of consumption (Tuberculosis) at the age of 36, he was joined a few days later by his wife who died bearing their second child. During his lifetime, his work seldom brought more than a few hundred Francs. Shortly after his death they sold for several thousand Francs. Ten-thousand friends from the Paris artistic community attended their funeral.

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