Modigliani & the Artists of Montparnasse

Los Angeles County Museum of Art


Amedeo Modigliani
Young Woman of the People
oil on canvas
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The work is one of inexhaustible variety and individuation, yet Cocteau felt it was incumbent on him to justify its uniformity. Say rather its singularity. The armature of Brancusi aerodynamics and African masks and kouroi sustains the portraiture of the faultless character sketch and the draftsmanship of Holbein, all proceeding from the standpoint of Cézanne and Seurat, with a very strong influence of Toulouse-Lautrec (the café sketch artist early on, later the great painter and designer) and a finished technique to be compared with anyone’s, which is seen deployed to fullness in the nudes, where the ornamentation of the elemental sculptures is replaced by his discovery of painting.


Wrestling against stone was an early preoccupation; these elongated heads make Giacometti inevitable. Elie Nadelman around 1907 already had devised a semi-abstracted portrait drawing in aerodynamic curves. That’s also when Matisse converted his Blue Nude into the bronze Reclining Nude I.


Next, Modigliani planned his stone caryatids, carven odalisques. In the midst of this, he painted the Fauve-tinged Paul Alexandre in Front of a Window and the Signac-applied Reverie (Study for the Portrait of Frank Haviland). The Portrait of Chaim Soutine (1915) has completed his adaptation to the last of his difficulties, and the Paul Guillaume of the same year quite belies the informal, catch as catch can descriptions of him given by all but the incomparable Max Jacob, who cites Picasso as authority that Modigliani was “the only artist in Paris who knew how to dress,” a fashion-setter in this regard.


The Seated Servant, the Beatrice Hastings in a Checkered Shirt and the Young Girl (all of 1916) clarify the disvestment of superfluities and the exploration of matters pertaining to the successful tools within his grasp. The Jean Cocteau in a high-backed chair allows itself to be visibly adjusted on the canvas. The Little Peasant of 1918 might be a Cézanne.


It’s hard to look at the other works by De Chirico, Léger, Rousseau, Picasso, the Delaunays, Lipchitz, Rivera, Soutine, Archipenko, etc., as they all discreetly play (for this exhibition) the role of supers in Montparnasse only to give you an idea of the times. Nonetheless, Jacob Epstein’s Portrait of Mrs. Epstein (1916) is a lively face, bangs and earrings cast in bronze with scumbled eyes. Raymond Duchamp-Villon made of the Professor Gossett who treated his war injuries a bronze mask of salvation. A certain well-known minor Los Angeles art critic is represented, I can assure you, to the life by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s 1912 bronze portrait head (evidently derived from Géricault and Rodin), The Idiot.


The portraits of Modigliani have, after all, something in common, that smile to be found in a certain painting at the Louvre.


The Los Angeles Times Art Critic Christopher Knight panned the show on the grounds that Modigliani is an incompetent. The museum subsequently auctioned off several Modiglianis in its possession.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
The Idiot
6 3/4 x 5 3/4 x 6 5/8"
c. 1912
cast c. 1930
Albright-Knox Art Gallery