Retrospective

From the Archives: Jacques Lipchitz Remembers Amedeo Modigliani, in 1951

Amedeo Modigliani, Reclining Nude, 1919, oil on canvas.

MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK

With a major Amedeo Modigliani survey on view at Tate Modern in London, we turn back this week to the February 1951 issue of ARTnews, in which the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz remembered his friendship with the Italian painter. Lipchitz recalls nearly buying four nudes from Modigliani for a mere 500 francs, as well as details about the artists’ social circles. By the way—did you know that Modigliani briefly tried working in a Cubist mode, only to reject it not too long after? This and more feature in Lipchitz’s remembrance, which follows in full below. —Alex Greenberger

“I remember Modigliani”
By Jacques Lipchitz as told to Dorothy Seckler
February 1951

“The first time I met Modigliani he was reciting the Divine Comedy by heart and, of course, in Italian, which I did not understand, but he spoke with a voice and accent so fine that I was fascinated,” Jacques Lipchitz recalls. “That’s how I remember him best—as a warm, handsome man and always in love with poetry. He had many, many friends,” the sculptor continued thoughtfully, “but to Soutine he was especially close. When he was dying Modigliani said to Zborowski, ‘I leave you Soutine, a man of great genius.’ ”

Poetry, gaiety, comradeship and death are woven together in these reminiscences. Modigliani’s paintings themselves speak eloquently enough both of sadness and fulfillment. His tragic destiny has become art history, but it is the more complicated and human reality of a warm and lovable man that concerns the teller of the story. Considering the double retrospective of Modigliani and Soutine now at the Cleveland Museum, Lipchitz is animated. “It is very fitting that the two are reunited here, side by side, in their paintings just as they were in life. I first brought them together in 1915. It’s an interesting story. . . .”

Lipchitz faced me seated in a little clearing he had made among his sculptures crowding all around us in his studio—bronzes charged with a furious energy so different from the restrained elegance of Modigliani’s own carvings in stone. The artist still looks a great deal like the portrait which Modigliani painted of him in 1916, with concise, expressive features concentrated in a massive head. With Picasso and Braque he remains to tell the story of a group of artist friends that include many more who died before the third decade of our century, a century whose imaginative life they stirred and remade. Between 1906 and 1920 they shared poverty and a feverish spiritual intensity, nourished by poetry and often spurred by a consuming sensuality. In this galaxy of personalities the names of Picasso, Gris, Modigliani and Lipchitz are linked with those of such writers as André Salmon, Maurice Raynal, Apollinaire, Pierre Reverdy, Max Jacob and Blaise Cendrars. The story of this cofraternity, marching under the banner of instinct and emotion, can hardly be told without including other names—those of girls who were model and mistresses, wives and fellow artists: Maria Blanchard, Berthe Lipchitz, Marie Laurencin, Jeanne Hebuterne.

Lipchitz studies the plaster-greyed floor as he feels his way patiently into the story, as if he could discover in its mottled streaks and whorls the face and meaning of this malevolent and redeeming Bohemia. “It was in the Luxembourg Gardens [1913] that I first remember this young man who looked like a prince, so elegant in his worn corduroys. He was reciting long passages from Dante while Max Jacob, the poet, and I listened as if to music. Afterwards I invited both of them to a bistro nearby, a place where many sailors used to go. Max Jacob had just become a Catholic, though he was born a Jew, as I was, and so also Modigliani, though I didn’t know it at the time; and so, having been baptized himself, Max was very eager to convert both of us. He was very much touched by a vision of Christ, which had appeared to him in a moving picture house.” Lipchitz was serious and sympathetic as he spoke of the poet but happily recalled his surprise a Modigliani’s unhesitating response: “I am not following any religion myself,” the painter replied, “but if I did, I would keep to my own Jewish religion, the one that my family has followed for so many centuries in Livorno. Mine is a Jewish family that goes back almost to Roman times.”

This led to a discussion of Jewish artists, and again the sculptor was surprised when Modigliani remarked that there were so few of them and that, in fact, he could think of “no one except Chagall.”

Amedeo Modigliani, Juan Gris, 1915, oil on canvas.

THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK

“But you are wrong,” Lipchitz replied, “there are many Jewish artists here in Paris, quite a few living in La Ruche. I know them myself and I can introduce you whenever you like.” Modigliani was delighted and they planned to meet very soon. “But it was not until after I returned from Spain, in the beginning of 1915, that I ran into Modigliani again. I was coming out of the Métro and he immediately reminded me of my promise. I agreed, but I was at that moment very upset by having returned empty-handed from my first expedition to the Flea Market since I was back in Paris. I told him about a painting I had bargained for without success: a rather whitish view of Montmartre, done in the naive manner, but nicely painted and almost ruined by the huge signature in blue, ‘U-T-R-I-L-L-O’ I spelled out. ‘Even with this bad signature I offered the man four francs for it, but, imagine, he asked twenty—my entire fortune!’ ‘Mon vieux,’ cried Modigliani, clapping his hand to his head, ‘it’s by one of our best artists—worth maybe a hundred francs!’ ” Lipchitz smiled ruefully, “I took the next train back to the market but of course it was gone.

“Reminded of my promise, I arranged right away for a meeting with my friends of the Jewish colony in La Ruche. This was a very picturesque place in Paris, but on the outskirts near the fortifications, with trees and open space all around. It was a large estate owned by Boucher, a good academic sculptor descended from the eighteenth-century painter. From the international fair of 1898 he had moved a group of buildings, round in shape and very odd looking, and, being something of a philanthropist, he rented these quarters to poets and painters very cheaply. Through Epstein, a Jewish painter living in La Ruche—afterwards murdered by the Nazis—the artists from the Jewish colony were invited to meet us in Chagall’s studio. Chagall himself was in Russia at the time but his place was being taken by Mazel, a photograph retoucher. As we entered the studio, Modigliani and I, this fellow was sitting very erect, absorbed in his precise work. ‘What a spine! Look how straight he is!’ exclaimed Modigliani. ‘I like such spines.’ ”

Cubism had attracted Modigliani for a time and his faceted portraits of Max Jacob and Beatrice Hastings are evidence of this flirtation, but he apparently found the cubist approach too remote from the direct sources of emotional expression, and soon abandoned it, but not before he had acquired from its disciplines a new awareness of the flat, two-dimensional surface. Like Chagall, who had come to Paris to rediscover the icons he had known as a child, Modigliani seemed to find affirmation, among his cubist friends, for his impulse to return to the early Tuscan painters whom he had loved in Italy.

By 1915 Modigliani had returned to painting, probably because the stone dust from his carving had aggravated the tuberculosis which had proved incurable during these years. Zborowski, the Polish born poet who had become his dealer, was bringing the painter before the public in several ventures, at least one of which proved rather disastrous. Lipchitz remembers Zborowski as a gentle, devoted friend of Modigliani and also as a good though somewhat absent-minded business man. Zborowski had arranged for an important exhibition of Modigliani’s paintings in the shop of Madame Weill, and in order to attract attention and make sure that the paintings were not overlooked he had placed four large nudes in the window. The reaction came swiftly, not from the public but from the police, who closed the show. Zborowski, in need of funds, and with the pictures thrown back on his hands, offered to sell all four of the nudes to Lipchitz for five hundred francs, but as the sculptor explained with a wry smile, “What could I do then with four nudes?”

Having just been married in 1916, Lipchitz asked Modligliani to paint a portrait of his bride and himself and suggested that the picture be composed in the manner of a typical photographer’s wedding portrait, one of which they had already had taken. Modigliani agreed and set the price, as usual, at ten francs a sitting; the work to be done in Lipchitz’ own place. Modigliani had no studio of his own at this time, but usually worked in any spot where he could set up his easel for the afternoon in the sitter’s quarters, including, in one case, a cellar. Later he often painted in Kisling’s big studio in Montparnasse, where he found varied subjects for portraits in the personalities from all over Paris who loved to congregate there.

Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hébuterne, 1919, oil on canvas.

THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK

Modigliani arrived at Lipchitz’ studio one afternoon to begin the double portrait and the sculptor remembers that the three of them talked so much it seemed as if no work were being done. Yet by late afternoon the picture was finished. Modigliani considered his commission completed, and it was, according to Lipchitz’ description, a well-realized portrait as it stood very lightly and spontaneously done. However, he pointed out to Modigliani that “We sculptors like ‘matière,’ something very substantial and built up. Could you work on it a little longer?” “Well, if you want me to ruin it—all right,” the painter shrugged, “I’ll come back tomorrow.” Actually Lipchitz kept him at work on the portrait for two weeks, probably, the sculptor guesses, the longest time Modigliani ever spent on a single painting.

It rained constantly during the time and Lipchitz recalls that Modigliani was provided with rubbers and wraps by a motherly young girl, a student with whom the painter was then living. The sculptor was impressed by her tender solicitude though Modigliani himself usually seemed displeased by her ministrations. Lipchitz shook his head re-enacting his puzzlement over this relationship. “She was so motherly and he was so vexed. One day when she and I happened to talk alone—Modigliani had not yet arrived—she told me that the child I had seen with her once or twice, a baby boy, I believe, was Modigliani’s child, though he, believing her unfaithful, would never own it was his. Actually, at this time Modigliani had already met Jeanne Hebuterne. “He told me one day—referring to the student girl—‘I know somebody who is very different from this wet chicken.’ ”

The legend of Jeanne Hebuterne is now the property of everyone: a young art student, the daughter of a small grocer in Paris, she was disowned by her family when she went to live with Modigliani as his common wife. She bore him a child in 1917, shared the trials of those last ears of broken health, then, when death came in 1920, ended her own life. Lipchitz pictures Hebuterne as an ambitious young artist with more intensity than warmth; a girl who burned like a cold flame, who lashed out with fury at whatever stood between herself and Modigliani. She may not have been a great heroine, but there is something about her fierce passion and rebellion that forbids us to find her pathetic.

Jeanne Hebuterne is familiar in Modigliani’s paintings as the slender girl with ice-blue eyes and the long oval face—thin even for Modigliani’s attenuated stylization—framed by blond hair pulled back severely from the bare forehead. Well know, too, is the face and defiant carriage of her constant companion, l’haricot rouge, the red haired girl that Modigliani painted almost as often as his wife.

Lipchitz remembers Jeanne Hebuterne as “very Gothic” in appearance, with long blond braids she liked to wear falling straight at her side, and gowned in flowing dresses, flouting the short skirted style of the time, and fashioned by herself with a sure “aesthetic” sense for line and color.

Most of Modigliani’s portraits are distorted, but the resemblances are very real. Many drawings were made in cafés and some were exchanged for a meal or a few drinks. Once Lipchitz and Modigliani challenged each other to make portrait sketches of each other over a café table. Modigliani was drinking heavily and Lipchitz finally had to give up since his model was so unsteady it was impossible to follow his movements; but the Italian, grasping his pencil delicately, and beginning, as usual, with the eyes, set down a remarkably sensitive and controlled likeness.

It was sometime after the portrait of Lipchitz and his wife was finished, when they were living in the house of a workman in Montparnasse, that the sculptor was awakened one night at about three a.m. by a furious knocking. It was Modigliani, obviously very drunk, who stood there when Lipchitz sleepily opened the door. Without pausing to listen to protests regarding the hour, he made his way to the shelf where Lipchitz kept his books. “I know you have those poems of Villon—they were here before. . .” Lipchitz, remembering they had mentioned the book at the time when the portrait was painted in his house, lighted a kerosene lamp, found the volume for him, and then, when his attempts to postpone this literary session went unheeded, reluctantly returned to bed. Modigliani, who had thrown himself into a chair, began to declaim the verses in a voice that was not only dramatic, but also so loud that before long the aroused workman and everyone else in the house began to pound on the floors in protest. It was hours before the painter’s thirst for Villon was appeased and quiet descended on the terrified house.

These were years when Modigliani scarcely slept at all during the night. Since fits of coughing denied him real rest he preferred wandering from café to café or snatching a few hours of uneasy sleep in the studio of a friend. Soutine, to whom he had become increasingly devoted, never refused him shelter, even though he had but one small bed. Modgliani told Lipchitz of his plight one night when Soutine, as usual, had offered him a bunk on his studio floor. Awakened in acute discomfort after an hour, he discovered that he was black with bedbugs. After he cleaned them off as best he could, he decided to outwit the crawling army by surrounding himself with water. “But,” he told Lipchitz disconsolately, “it was no use, they went up to the ceiling and dropped down on me!”

Amedeo Modigliani, Jacques and Berthe Lipchitz, 1916, oil on canvas.

ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO

Modigliani’s life was not always so hectic. When he had first come to Paris he had been installed in a neat, well-kept apartment and he was known for his meticulous dress. “Montmartre ruined him,” Lipchitz said positively, with his first intimation of vehemence. “I mean,” he added, as if reconsidering, “this life in Montmartre ruined his health. As a painter he fulfilled his destiny—completely.

“Not all of us lived like that,” the sculptor when on earnestly. “Many of us, whether in Montmartre or later in Montparnasse, worked long hours with strict discipline—I and Juan Gris and many others. But we were all poor and we tried to help each other.

“In the last few years of his life Modigliani lived a more ordered existence. With Jeanne Hebuterne and their little girl, who was around three years old, he had a small apartment which Zborowski helped him keep up. He even went to the south of France that last winter, I believe, and they were expecting a second child. Modigliani worked more steadily and his paintings were becoming known. In fact,” the sculptor spoke with measured emphasis, “it was exactly at the time when I and all his friends felt most reassured about him that Kisling brought the shocking news of his death. It all happened so suddenly—a day and a night in the hospital, meningitis set in, and that was all . . .”

“It was another friend,” he resumed, “a friend whose name I will not mention, who came back from the hospital morgue and told me all that had happened. He described how Jeanne Hebuterne had come there, thrown herself upon Modigliani and covered his face with kisses. She fought furiously with officials who fried to pull her away because they know how dangerous it was for her—especially pregnant as she was—to touch the open sores that covered his face. It was only a few hours later that she returned to her father’s house and threw herself from its rooftop. Her family forbade that she be buried beside her husband, but I believe they were afterwards brought together . . .”

“Not long after this little student girl died of tuberculosis.” Lipchitz nodded gravely. “It seems as if he took all these girls with him.

“While Modigliani lay dead in the hospital, Kisling and Moricand tried to make a plaster mask of his face and made a very bad job of it. Not knowing how to remove the plaster, they had shattered it into a thousand pieces, and it was in that state that they brought it to me, all in fragments with hair and flesh still adhering to it. I worked very patiently and hard to put all these pieces together, and where parts were missing I filled in myself. The mask was finally completed and we made twelve copies for the heirs. There is a good bit of Lipchitz in that mask.

“The day of the funeral everyone went to say goodbye to Modigliani. There was not a single soul left in Montparnasse—anyway you could well believe it. On foot we trekked in an endless procession all the way across Paris to Père Lachaise and it seemed as if there were clouds of flowers. . . .”

Lipchitz had apparently finished his story with a clam, almost remote thoughtfulness, following with his eyes the snow eddying against the studio window. The silence seemed oppressively unresolved until he broke it with abrupt earnestness: “Modigliani said to me more than once, ‘I wish a short and intense life.’ ”

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