Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917-45 by Ruth Brandon (1999)

Surrealism is not a new or better means of expression, not even a metaphysic of poetry; it is a means of total liberation of the mind.
(Surrealist declaration, January 1925, quoted page 233)

Born in 1943, Ruth Brandon will turn 75 this year. She’s written four novels and seven biographies of figures from the early twentieth century (such as Houdini, Sarah Bernhardt). This big book (524 pages) is a long, detailed and very accessible account of the origins, rise and spread of the Surrealist movement, from its sources in the Great War, through into the 1920s and 1930s when it was, arguably, the dominant art movement in Western Europe.

However, Surreal Lives is, as the title suggests, more a story about the people than about their writings or art. And when it does touch on the latter, it’s mostly about the writing than the paintings. Around page 325 Brandon briefly refers to the core Surrealist painters – Jean Arp, Yves Tanguy, André Masson, Joan Miro – at which point I realised that we’d heard almost nothing about them in the preceding pages.

No, the central thread of the book is the life and career of the ‘pope’ of Surrealism, the writer, poet, critic and organiser, André Breton. Each of the nine longish chapters focuses on a key figure in the history of Surrealism – the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire who first coined the word ‘Surrealism’, the joint founder of Dada, Tristan Tzara, the inventor of conceptual art Marcel Duchamp, Breton’s partner in crime the poet Louis Aragon, the Catalan phenomenon Salvador Dalí who joined the movement right at the end of the 20s – but the text always reverts back to their effect on Breton, their threat to Breton, how Breton managed them, alienated them, dismissed them from the movement, and so on.

Along the way we meet plenty of colourful characters, such as the experimental writer Raymond Roussel, Breton’s close friend Jacques Vaché who committed suicide aged just 25, the American photographer Man Ray, the millionaire socialite Nancy Cunard (who had an affair with Aragon), the domineering Gala Eluard who left her husband the poet Paul Eluard to become Salvador Dali’s lifelong muse and protrectress, the young psychiatrist Jacques Lacan whose collaboration with the Surrealists made his name and who went on to become one of the most influential French intellectuals of his day. All these and many more.

The book is full of stories of scandalous behaviour, passionate affairs, casual sex, drug addiction, madness and suicide, in the best bohemian manner.

I was particularly struck by the ‘open marriage’ of Paul and Gala Éluard, both of them enjoying multiple partners. For a while the marriage blossomed into a ménage à trois with the painter Max Ernst, and I enjoyed the anecdote of the three of them travelling to Rome to lure the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico into the Surrealist camp, using Gala’s body as bait. All four of them went to bed together, though de Chirico later said he didn’t enjoy it – and he didn’t join the movement!

But, as I’ve mentioned, in its focus on the writers, on their manifestos, questionnaires, articles and reviews, their letters and diaries, Surreal Lives tends to be very text-based and so doesn’t shed much light on the art of Surrealism (for example, the first Surrealist exhibition, La Peinture Surrealiste, was held at Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1925 and I don’t think Brandon even mentions it.)

but then this reflects the historical reality, since Surrealism was first and foremost a literary movement, founded by three poets (Breton, Aragon and Philippe Soupault) and dedicated to writing volumes of verse, manifestos, publishing a succession of magazines (La Révolution surréaliste 1924-29, Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution 1930-33, Minotaure 1933-39), and so on.

It was only towards the end of the 1920s that the Surreal painters came to prominence – in 1928 Breton wrote Surrealism and painting to reflect this. It was only with the arrival of Salvador Dali in their midst in 1929 that the visual arts side of the movement began to vie with the writing and then, during the 1930s, to dominate it.

So Brandon’s focus on the writers reflects the history, but not the Surrealist legacy as we experience it today. Most of the Surrealist writings have disappeared, a lot was designed to be ephemeral anyway, a lot was never translated into English.

Instead Surrealism’s enduring impact in the English-speaking world has been via the bizarre and striking paintings of Dali, Max Ernst, Magritte and many others. The Surrealist heritage is almost entirely visual and Brandon doesn’t have a lot to say about the visual arts (or sculpture). The only visual artist she describes in any detail is Dalí (although the chapter about him is actually about the trio of talented Spaniards – Dalí, Luis Buñuel the film-maker and the poet Frederico García Lorca, and their close relationships and rivalries).

I can imagine a completely different book which would cover the exact same period of time, but focus on the relationships between Arp, Miro, Masson, Tanguy and so on, trying to clarify their relationship to the artists who came before them and how they thought of and interpreted ‘surrealism’. None of that is here.

For this reason, and because the influence of Surrealism becomes considerably more diffuse in the 1930s, with a bewildering cast of hangers-on, increasingly diverse artists and writers all showing its burgeoning influence – I felt the first half of the book was the most compelling. I particularly enjoyed the detailed description of the character and importance of Apollinaire who coined the word Surrealism, and of Duchamp’s trips to New York and his early friendship with Man Ray. I was also thrilled by the riveting account of Dadaism in Zurich and Berlin which, for the first time, really explained the origin and history of that movement to me, making it real in terms of the people and personalities involved.

I’ve known the names of many of these people – Tzara, Aragon – for decades. Brandon’s book for the first time brought them vividly, fascinatingly, to life. It’s a great read.

Left to right: Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Hans Arp, Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, René Crevel, Man Ray

Left to right: Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Hans Arp, Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, René Crevel, Man Ray (Paris, 1930)

I made brief notes on the first four chapters or so, before my review began to feel too long. For what it’s worth, here they are:

1. A bas Guillaume

We start with Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet, writer and art critic who was gifted with an uncanny sense for the new and important, who had championed cubism in the early 1910s and is here because of his role as patron to the young and ambitious André Breton, the humourless bully who would become the pope of Surrealism.

Apollinaire encouraged Breton and introduced him to the other ‘musketeers’ of the movement, Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault. And it was Apollinaire who coined the world ‘Surrealist’, in a review of Parade, an avant-garde show put on by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, premiered in May 1917, based on a one-act scenario by Jean Cocteau set to music (and experimental noises) by Erik Satie. Cocteau had himself described the ballet as ‘realistic’ but, with its experimental music and highly stylised costumes, Apollinaire described Parade as sur-realistic, the French word ‘sur’ meaning on or above. Above-realism. Beyond-realism.

This new alliance – I say new, because until now scenery and costumes were linked only by factitious bonds – has given rise, in Parade, to a kind of surrealism, which I consider to be the point of departure for a whole series of manifestations of the New Spirit that is making itself felt today and that will certainly appeal to our best minds. We may expect it to bring about profound changes in our arts and manners through universal joyfulness, for it is only natural, after all, that they keep pace with scientific and industrial progress.

As with all the other characters in the story – Duchamp, Tzara, Dali and so on – this is a very personal history and Brandon gives full descriptions of the characters’ height and build, their faces, eyes, mannerisms, ways of speaking, their charisma and presence. The aim is on getting to know these people, feeling as if you were being introduced to them at a party. Brandon deals with their theories about literature and art as they emerge from the personalities, but is thankfully lacking in the jargon-heavy theoretical interpretations of an art scholar like the feminist, Whitney Chadwick. It’s a people-first account.

The most remarkable event in Guillaume Apollinaire’s life was that, despite being the doyen of the avant-garde, he made strenuous attempts to volunteer for the French Army (despite being Polish by birth) and surprised everyone by loving the Army and fighting bravely. He was invalided out in 1916 with a shrapnel wound to the head, but died suddenly of the Spanish flu which swept the world in 1918.

2. The death of art

The next chapter focuses on the life and early career of Marcel Duchamp. Since reading the World of Art account of Duchamp by Dawn Ades and Neil Cox I have a much better sense of the overall shape and purpose of Duchamp’s career. It’s still very interesting to have loads of details added in about his time in New York during the War, how he made fast friends with the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Emmanuel Radnitzky, soon to be known as Man Ray, and also the bull-like connoisseur of fast living and high life, Francis Picabia.

They got to know the circle around the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his art gallery and magazine, titled ‘291.’

Duchamp was invited to stay in the vacant apartment of business millionaire Walter Arensberg, who became a lifelong patron and sponsor. The descriptions of the drunken parties they attended, of drunken debauchery, through which shine Duchamp’s icy detachment, his addiction to chess and bad puns, are all super-readable.

Brandon takes the incident when Duchamp’s wonderful Nude descending a staircase was rejected by the organisers of the 1912 Cubist Salon des Indépendants as the moment when Duchamp decided to abandon painting with oils on canvas (which he didn’t enjoy doing, anyway).

Duchamp vowed to abandon ‘retinal art’, which appeals only to the eye, and try and evolve an art of the mind, founding – in the process – the whole idea of ‘conceptual art’. Hence his massive importance through to the present day.

3. The celestial adventure of M. Tristan Tzara

Next we jump to Zurich during the Great War where I found Brandon’s account of the birth of Dada extremely illuminating. She describes how a disparate gang of émigré artists (Emmy Hennings [Germany], Tristan Tzara [Romania], Jean Arp [Alsace], Marcel Janco [Romania], Richard Huelsenbeck [Germany], Sophie Taeuber [Switzerland] and Hans Richter [Germany]) crystallised around the tall, blonde figure of Hugo Ball, who founded the Cabaret Voltaire in February 1916.

It was in this tiny bar-cum-theatre that this disparate group staged their epoch-making anarchic performances, shouting nonsense poetry through megaphones or to the accompaniment of a big bass drum, wearing cardboard costumes, playing random instruments, packing the performances with schoolboy pranks and silliness. The Cabaret had been going for several months before they came up with the word ‘Dada’, precisely who was responsible and what it means continuing to be a subject of argument to this day. Anti-art, anti-reason and logic, anti-bourgeois, Dada was deliberately anti everything which had led to the stupid, slaughterous war.

While Zurich was a kind of playground of irresponsible émigrés, Berlin at the end of the war witnessed the collapse of the Wilhelmine Empire (November 1918) leading to street fighting between organised, armed Communists on one side and the police and army militias on the other, to decide the future of the country. (It was during this street violence that the the well-known Communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were murdered by right wing militias in January 1919). The philosophy of Dada appeared here and Berlin Dada was founded by John Heartfeld, the inventor of photomontage, and the satirical painter George Grosz.

The fiercely political Richard Huelsenbeck had argued with Tzara back in Zurich – Tzara saw Dada as another new art movement which would propel him to superstar status in the European art world, whereas Huelsenbeck saw it as a tool in the life or death struggle for Europe’s political future. ‘Dada is German communism,’ he said, simply.

Tzara proved himself the most feverishly active of the Zurich Dadaists, pouring out provocative manifestos, sending out invitations to contribute to Dada magazine to all the avant-garde artists he’d heard of anywhere in Europe, with the result that Duchamp, Picabia and many others got roped in.

Tzara’s invitations found their way to Apollinaire, and so on to his acolyte Breton, along with wartime pals Louis Aragon and his closest friend Soupault. The ‘three musketeers’ invited Tzara to Paris.

Brandon gives a hilarious account of the anticipation on both sides as they waited for the Great God of Dada to make his pilgrimage to Paris – only to be seriously disillusioned by the short, dark, nervous figure who actually materialised, and the respectful relationship which followed but never blossomed into real friendship.

4. Dada comes to Paris

The three very young friends, Breton, Aragon and Soupault, had already published the first number of their magazine Littérature, in Paris in March 1919, with financial help from the grand old man of letters, André Gide. In 1920 they published a joint work by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, Les Champs magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields), the result of days spent doing ‘automatic writing’, i.e. setting down words and sentences unfiltered and just as it came to them.

Although they tried to muster enthusiasm for madcap Tzara and his notion of Dada ‘happenings’, Brandon depicts the Parisians as more intellectual, detached and sceptical than the original Dada gang.

It turned out that Dada was a product of the unique war-time conditions in Zurich, of a mood of hysteria amid the bloodshed. Post-war Paris on the contrary, quickly returned to being a battlefield of avant-garde sophisticates, determined not to be impressed by anything. Jean Cocteau, refused a place on the editorial board of Littérature, complained in his new journal that the Dada events were boring. He complained that ‘not a single Dada has killed himself or even a member of the audience.’ Dull, eh.

It began to be clear that Paris Dada might shock the bourgeoisie – or those members who bothered to turn up to their rather tame happenings – but not many of the over-sophisticated Paris élite. What next? Brandon pinpoints this as the crux: Dada didn’t lead anywhere because it wasn’t meant to lead anywhere, it was against the whole idea of leading anywhere. But the Paris contingent thought it should lead somewhere.

The three musketeers had been experimenting with ‘automatic writing’ just before Tzara arrived, and Brandon gives a fascinating account of what that meant in practice, namely the way the poet Robert Desnos had the ability to be put into a trance or half-sleep and then write, actually write poems, while in this dream state.

Tzara’s arrival led to several years of Dadaist outrages, performances and feverish manifestos, few of which had the drive to really épater les bourgeoisie. It was after one particularly disappointing performance in 1923 that the group and its various hangers-on and associates made the decisive split which led to the founding of a new movement, named by Breton ‘Surrealism’, after the word Apollinaire had introduced seven years earlier.

And so, in June 1924 the final edition of the Dada-era Littérature appeared; and in December 1924, the first edition of La Révolution surréaliste was published, inaugurating the first phase of Surrealism (p.229).

The word ‘revolution’ was used right from the start but, as Brandon points out, at this stage none of the Surrealists were politically revolutionary; the revolution they had in mind was purely cultural and all they really knew about it was that it would involve dreams.

‘Only dreams offer man real liberty’ (quoted page 230).

They set up a ‘Bureau de recherches surréalistes’ at 15 Rue de Grenelles, opening hours 4.30 to 6.30, in order to ‘gather all the information possible related to forms that might express the unconscious activity of the mind’. Breton liked questionnaires – he wanted to be scientific and factual about his investigations of the unconscious mind: so Littérature contained many and La Révolution surréaliste even more.

Other themes

That’s a thumbnail summary of the first 230 or so of the book’s 458 pages of text, taking us up to about 1925. The rest of the book continues in the same vein: introducing new characters as they arrive on the scene, with long chapters devoted to Louis Aragon, Buñuel and Dali, and so on.

The chapter on Aragon was particularly interesting in explaining the appeal of his early lyrical poetry and prose (Paysan de ParisTraité du style 1928, and Irene’s Cunt) and how this airy fluency was squeezed out of him by Breton’s fierce policing and encouragement – Breton banned novels and lyrical writing from the movement, two things Aragon excelled at – in September he made an attempt at suicide.

But apart from the lengthy excursions into the private lives and writings of these lead figures, I’d say three big themes emerge in the rest of the book:

1. The pope of Surrealism

Breton exerted a steely grip over ‘his’ movement in a whole host of ways, including kangaroo courts which held ‘trials’ of anyone accused of betraying Surrealist values or bucking Big Breton’s authority. The first of many ‘heretics’ were his old colleague, Philippe Soupault, and the radical dramatist Antonin Artaud, both expelled after a ‘hearing’ into their crimes, in November 1926.

In 1929 a dissident group of Surrealists based round the writer Georges Bataille began publishing a rival magazine, DOCUMENT. In its nihilism, Breton’s Second Surrealist Manifesto of 1929 reflects the bitterness of these schisms, plus the turmoil in his own personal life. This is the text which contains the notorious line that the most Surrealistic act conceivable would be to run out into the street with a loaded gun and start firing at passersby (p.265). Means modern America must be the world’s most surreal nation.

Writers who were expelled from the ‘movement’ and who often took their revenge in vituperative criticism of Breton, included Robert Desnos (him of the automatic writing experiments), the pornographic fantasist George Bataille, experimental writers Raymond Queneau and Michael Leiris and, in the deepest cut of all, his closest compadre, Louis Aragon.

In 1931 Breton went ahead and published criticism of the way French Communist Party officials had given Aragon the third degree over a piece of pornography by Salvador Dali which was published in the fourth number of the magazine Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution. Aragon had begged him not to include criticism of the Party, to which he was becoming passionately attached. Breton did so anyway, and the one-time musketeers never spoke again.

2. The impact of Dalí

The arrival of Dali, and to a lesser extent Buñuel, at the end of the 1920s, was a much-needed shot in the arm to a movement which was running out of steam. Dali not only crystallised his own peculiar style of painting in the early 1930s but helped to cement a Surrealist visual identity, the one posterity now remembers it by.

Brandon’s extended chapter about Dali, Buñuel and Lorca is absolutely riveting on everything from the backward culture of 1920s Spain, through their collaboration on the famous Surrealist movies Le Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or, to the collapse of Buñuel’s fortunes during the Second World War just as Dali was rising to fame and fortune in America.

And the stories about their bizarre sex lives! According to Dali, (gay) Lorca was in love with him and tried to sodomise him on two occasions. However, Dali was not gay (although he was not exactly a ‘normal’ heterosexual, being obsessed with masturbation and voyeurism). The closest Lorca could get to having sex with Dali, who he was obsessed with, was by hiring a (flat-chested and therefore boyish) woman, who he had sex with while Dali watched. It’s worth buying the book for this extraordinary chapter alone.

From the moment of his arrival Dalí dominates the story till the end of the book. The final chapter relates the contrasting fortunes of Dali and Breton, who were both compelled to spend the Second World War in New York. Dalí thrived, gaining enormous publicity through a series of ever-giddier publicity stunts. He was on the front cover of Time, he sold everything he painted and began to get seriously rich. Breton, in sharp contrast, refused to learn English, refused to give interviews, and struggled to make a living delivering broadcasts on the French-language part the Voice of Liberty radio service.

Breton was disgusted that, for Americans, Dalí became the face of Surrealism. The final pages in the book are devoted to a thought-provoking debate about who, in the end, had the most lasting legacy, Dalí the showman, or Breton the thinker and doctrinaire.

3. Surrealism and communism

In the later 1920s and then throughout the 1930s Breton’s rule became more dictatorial and more overtly political.

Breton’s relationship with the Communist Party of France was troubled (he was formally expelled from it in 1933) and fraught with paradox. He decided he wanted to put his movement at the service of the Party and the proletariat at precisely the moment – the late 1920s – when Stalin was cementing his grip on the Soviet Union, expelling Trotsky in 1928 and introducing the doctrine of Socialist Realism (in 1932).

Insisting that Surrealism was a revolutionary movement, and larding his manifestos with references to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but excluded from alliance with the official Soviet Party line, Breton sought out the leading exponent of World Revolution, travelling with his wife, the painter Jacqueline Lamba, to Mexico to meet Trotsky (staying as the guest of Diego Rivera’s former wife Guadalupe Marin). Even here, as Brandon shows, Breton couldn’t stop himself from lecturing Trotsky (of all people) just as he harangued all his colleagues back in Paris. I’d love to know more of what Trotsky made of his humourless acolyte.

Surrealism’s relationship with Communism is a vast topic, the subject of countless books. It of course varied from one Surrealist writer and painter to another, and also varied with individuals over time. What comes over from the book is that their vexed and troubled relationship with Communism became more central to the movement in the 1930s. Whenever Communist commissars or officials of the French Communist Party appear in the narrative, it’s hard not to sympathise with their patronising attitude to the artists. Compared to the fratricidal stresses they were having to negotiate and the fraught power politics back in Moscow, the Surrealists must have seemed like spoilt schoolboys.

Footnote – surreal suicide

Early in the Second World War Albert Camus wrote his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus to address what he saw as the most pressing issue facing intellectuals, the issue of suicide. The immediate context was France’s catastrophic defeat and occupation by Germany in 1940 which, for many ordinary French people, had overthrown all their values and made them wonder if there was any meaning or purpose in the universe.

But reading this book about often quite hysterical artists made me realise that a surprising number of Continental artists and writers were afflicted by suicidal thoughts between the wars.

In fact Breton included the question ‘Suicide: Is It a Solution?’ in the very first issue of La Révolution surréaliste in 1925 (to which the Surrealist writer René Crevel had answered ‘Yes, it is most probably the most correct and most ultimate solution.’)

Later on, the writer Jacques Rigaut said: ‘Suicide should be a vocation… the most absurd of acts, a brilliant burst of fantasy, the ultimate unconstraint…’ (quoted page 375) before he did, indeed, kill himself.

It sheds much light on Camus’ work to read it against the wave of artistic suicides in the previous twenty years.

  • January 1919 Andre Breton’s bosom buddy Jacques Vaché takes an overdose of opium
  • December 1925 Russian and Soviet poet Sergei Yesenin hangs himself
  • July 1928 Greek poet Kostas Karyotakis shoots himself
  • September 1928 Louis Aragon takes an overdose of sleeping pills, but survives
  • November 1929 Surrealist poet Jacques Rigaut shoots himself through the heart
  • April 1930 Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky shoots himself through the heart
  • December 1931 American poet Vachel Lindsay poisons himself
  • March 1932 English artist Dora Carrington shoots herself
  • April 1932 American poet Hart Crane jumps overboard an ocean liner
  • December 1935 German-Jewish journalist, satirist and writer Kurt Tucholsky takes an overdose
  • February 1937 Uruguayan playwright and poet Horacio Quiroga drinks a glass of cyanide
  • October 1938 Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni drowns himself
  • August 1941 Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself
  • September 1940 German literary critic and culture theorist Walter Benjamin took a morphine overdose
  • March 1941 English novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, drowned herself
  • February 1942 Austrian novelist and playwright Stefan Zweig takes a barbiturate overdose

Read in this context, Camus’s notion of ‘the Absurd’ seems less like a bold new concept than a belated attempt to catch up with and define a mood of nihilism which began during the Great War itself and had became steadily more oppressive during the 1930s, well before France’s humiliating defeat.


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Modigliani by Doris Krystof (1996)

Taschen Publishing specialise in medium-sized art books (23 cm tall x 18.5 cm wide). They’re all originally written in German, this one was translated into English by Christina Rathgeber. I picked it up for a fiver in some art shop years ago, and dusted it off and reread it to coincide with visiting the big Modigliani exhibition at Tate Modern.

The text is eminently readable and it has 88 good quality colour reproductions, not just of paintings and sculptures by the man himself but of works by contemporaries like Picasso, Kirchner and Brancusi, as well as classic nudes by Titian and Giorgione, quoted to compare and contrast with Modigliani’s famous nude paintings.

It is a real visual treat just slowly flipping through the pictures and soaking them up.

Biography

The outline of Modigliani’s life is clear enough. Born in 1884 to an arty Jewish family in northern Italy (his mother translated poetry, wrote essays and book reviews), his creative tendencies were encouraged so that by age 14 he was studying at the art academy in Livorno. He studied from books and attended a life drawing class; he visited Rome and Florence and Venice where he revelled in the Old Masters. He attended the Venice Biennale of 1903 and stayed there two years.

By which point it was time to move on and he headed for the Mecca of modern artists, Paris, arriving in 1906. Quite quickly he made important friends, not least the Spaniard Picasso and the Romanian sculptor Brancusi. For the next few years he experimented with a number of styles, from Cézanne (who had died in 1906 and quickly had several exhibitions devoted to his late work) to Edvard Munch, who impressed everyone with the work displayed at the Salon d’Automne of 1908 – although he avoided the main new movement of the day, Fauvism (given its name in 1905 and which flourished for the next few years).

Similarly, Modigliani was well aware of, but avoided, the arrival of Cubism in 1908, pioneered by Picasso and Braque, which swept up many lesser talents. Instead, he pursued his core interest of depicting the human form using outlines of graceful arabesques.

From about 1909 to 1912 Modigliani devoted himself entirely to sculpture, heavily influenced by the new taste for ‘primitive’ art from Africa and Oceania which became modish from around 1905, and by his friendship with the modernist sculptor, Brancusi.

Although some of his sculptures are obviously influenced by (copies) of African fetish masks which were becoming popular in artistic circles, Modigliani was just as obsessed by the idea of the caryatid, the statue of a woman bearing the weight of a building which had been developed in ancient Greece. He produced scores of sketches and variations on this crouching, hunched-up, female shape.

Eventually Modigliani gave up sculpting, maybe because the dust was bad for his chronic tuberculosis, but his painting style was now purified of the earlier variety and experimentalism – the faces in particular from now on were all variations on the elongated, oval shape with schematic, one-line features (eyes, eyelids and mouth all drawn with a crisp elegant line) which he had perfected in the sculptures and in the numerous preparatory sketches he made for them.

He continued to paint a wide variety of portraits of friends, lovers, fellow artists, collectors and patrons, and in the middle of the Great War began to paint a series of nudes. These differ from the portraits in being really simplified – the skin tone is generally a consistent warm orange colour, and the facial features are purified down to a handful of lines. They sold well – what’s not to like?

Towards the end of the War, Modigliani was advised to head south by his dealer and set up shop in Nice, along with his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne, mother of his daughter. Here he painted lots more portraits, but in a noticeably lighter style, and of ordinary people – instead of the rich and famous of Paris’s art world – of peasants, hotel cleaners, and even of children. These, along with the nudes, became his most popular images.

By 1919 he was back in Paris, and the final portraits of his mistress and patrons show a further tendency to elongate both the neck and the face even more, making each person even more of an abstract collection of lines and colours.

Modigliani died after a long decline in his health on 24 June 1920. Soon afterwards friends and acquaintances, lovers and patrons began writing their memoirs, and quite quickly the myth grew up of the handsome, charming Wunderkind artist, who endured great poverty in his undying devotion to his art. And his paintings began to sell.

The works

Early paintings

Having seen a lot of the ‘greatest hits’ at the Tate Modern exhibition, I was taken by the more out-of-the-way works included in this book, especially of the early works before he’d perfected the Modigliani ‘look’.

Sketches

From early on he developed a hyper-simplified line, which comes over in nude sketches and then very much in the sketches he made from African artefacts in the Louvre and the Museum of Ethnography.

Sculptures

He took up sculpture in 1909, nobody knows why. Perhaps because he had always revered the sculptural legacy of his native Italy, perhaps because his paintings weren’t selling, perhaps because he moved to a bigger workspace in Montparnasse, perhaps because he met Constantin Brancusi in 19090 and was hugely influenced by him. Or all of the above.

Brancusi (b.1876) had perfected a smooth highly stylised way of working in stone which anticipates Art Deco.

Modigliani’s sculptures are of two types, a squat square type, which could fit at the top of a column –

And the much-better known, highly elongated, ‘primitive’ mask like heads. Although the politically correct like to raise the issue of ‘cultural appropriation’ and the way so many of the avant-garde artists of the 1900s looked to sculptures from Africa or Oceania, the book points out that there are also strong European origins for this look, in the stunningly abstract heads carved in the Cycladic islands of Greece thousands of years BC.

Apparently he conceived of the sculptures, these stone heads, as all being together in one place, creating a kind of temple of beauty. This may partly explain their thematic unity, that they were designed to be displayed and seen as an ensemble.

Nudes

Krystof makes a simple but effective point that it’s not so much in the sculptures but in the sketches for the sculptures, and especially in the sketches of caryatids, that we see Modigliani really simplifying his technique, perfecting a way of depicting the human body entirely made up of simple, one-line, shallow curves – no sketching, and repeated lines or cross-hatching – just one pure line to create the body’s outline, another to distinguish to the two legs, meeting another curve which creates the loins, two simple curves, maybe a bit pointed, to indicate the breasts, a curve for the mouth, a long narrow triangle for the nose, two almonds for eyes – in many ways a child’s eye view of the human body.

She also makes the good point that these curves are consciously not like the focus on blocks and squares and diagonals and geometric shapes of the suddenly fashionable Cubists. It is in pursuit of shallow curves that Modigliani is at odds with the art of his own times, a one-off.

And so to the female nudes which make up about 10% of his output – about 30 nudes in total – and in their simple outlines, as well as their very simple orange flesh colouring, present a kind of cartoon simplicity and pleasingness.

He began painting them in 1916, helped by the important patronage of dealer and friend Léopold Zborowski, who lent the artist use of his apartment, supplied models and painting materials, and paid him between fifteen and twenty francs each day for his work.

The simple graceful outlines, the soft orange skin and pink nipples, the simplified facial features, and the tonal unity of the paintings (compare and contrast with the violent garish colouring of the Fauves) makes Modigliani’s nudes understandably popular even among opponents of modern art.

Krystof also takes some time to explain another reason for their sense of familiarity, the reason they seem so assimilable. It’s because the poses are often based on established classics of Western art.

Quite systematic copying or borrowing or pastiching, isn’t it?

Krystof makes another, subtler, point. In all the classic paintings above you can see the entire body – you, the viewer, are standing some way away. By contrast, all of the Modigliani nudes are cropped, at least part of the arms or legs are out of the frame – as if you were really close up to the model, not so much contemplating them as about to fall over them. Immediacy.

Portraits

But the 20 or so nudes mark a sort of apricot-coloured interlude in Modigiliani’s core activity during his final years, which was the obsessive painting of hundreds of portraits.

Krystof divides them into two categories – one of friends, lovers, patrons, fellow artists and named individuals – the other category of scores of anonymous models, peasants and children.

They are all rougher and harsher, in design and finish, than the nudes.

To get at the essence of the Modigliani approach, Krystof compares his portrait of Jean Cocteau with a portrait done at exactly the same time and place by Moise Kisling.

The immediate and obvious conclusion is the huge amount of clutter Modigliani has chucked out – the window, shutters, table, vase, stove, chair, dog and rug are all not there – and the way he has zoomed in to focus on the top half of the body to create an image which is much simpler, sparer and more intense.

Hence Krystof’s suggestion that Modigliani developed in his portraits ‘the art of omission’ (p.53)

The same technique – cropping sitters at the bust and showing no interest in the details of the backdrop – characterises many of the portraits, which are more varied and interesting than the nudes.

Flight south

In the spring of 1918 the Germans began a final offensive. Planes and Zeppelins bombed Paris and many feared the city would fall. Up to a million people fled the capital, including Modigliani and his mistress / common-law wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, who gave birth to their daughter in 1918. The young family spent over a year in Nice and Cagnes-sur-Mer, where Modigliani painted more feverishly and intensely than ever before.

The light of the South of France lightened his palette and the texture of the paint he used, the paint is thinner. Also the local people he got to model for him lack the specificity of the Paris portraits, becoming more generic – which may account for their later popularity.

Jeanne Hébuterne

Modigliani painted at least 25 portraits of the mother of his children. Photographs of her make her look absolutely stunning, in fact she has something of the long-tressed, full-lipped beauty beloved of the pre-Raphaelites.

In his last paintings of her, the neck and face are more elongated than ever, the background painted in with lighter sketchier colours than previously.

Conclusion

This is a really handy book, containing not only nearly 90 beautiful full-colour illustrations which give you an immediate and comprehensive feel for Modigliani’s unique style, but also a more thoughtful and insightful text by Doris Krystof, than is usual for Taschen books.

Possibly my favourite portrait comes right at the end of the book, one of the few Modigliani portraits which has even a hint of feeling and emotion, in this case a self-contained, winsome sadness.


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Modigliani @ Tate Modern

His name is pronounced Mod-ill-ee-arn-ee – the ‘g’ is silent.

This is the most comprehensive Modigliani exhibition ever held in the UK, bringing together a really comprehensive range of portraits, sculptures and the largest ever group of nudes (12) to be shown in this country.

Modigliani

Modigliani

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Amedeo Modigliani died very young, on January 1920, aged just 35. By that time he had developed a look, a brand, a style, which was instantly recognisable and has made him one of the most valued of ‘modern’ painters, with two entries in the top twenty-five most expensive paintings of all time:

No. 9 – Nu Couché $170 million
No. 21 – Reclining Nude With Blue Cushion $118 million

Art capital of the world

In the 1900s Paris was the acknowledged capital of the art world, full of artists who’d flocked there from all over Europe (e.g. the Spaniard Picasso, the Romanian Brancusi). Modigliani moved from his native Italy to Paris in 1906, when he was 21.

The second room in this big exhibition shows an excellent five minute video montage of black and white photos and very basic movie footage of the Paris of the day, starting with grand scenes of the Eiffel Tower and the buildings left over from the Great Exhibition of 1900, then moving to the ramshackle buildings up the side of the hill of Montmartre, the white Sacre Coeur church still being completed, cabarets and theatres, the back alleys and tenements where the artists rented apartments and studios, and then shots of key figures of the time, Picasso, Brancusi, Gertrude Stein from the family of art collectors, Modigliani himself and some moving footage of workers manhandling lumps of the limestone he carved into sculptures.

Experiments in styles

With a good feel for the life and times of 1900s Paris we move on into a room which shows Modigliani experimenting with the variety of looks and styles on offer. Loose brushwork and abstracted figures testify to the pervading influence of Cézanne on everyone at the time. This is apparent in the very visible diagonal brushstrokes which draw attention to themselves of this early nude, or of his study of Brancusi, who soon became a good friend.

Sculpting

Between 1909 and 1911, heavily influenced by Brancusi, Modigliani went through an intense phase of sculpting. Like many others he was caught up in the fashion for exotic, non-European art, supposedly ‘primitive’ sculptures from ancient Egypt or from France’s colonial possession like Cambodia or the Ivory Coast. It had only been in 1906/7 that Matisse and Picasso both began to incorporate non-European masks and body shapes in their work. Two rooms are devoted to this phase, one showing the lovely preparatory sketches he made, showing Modigliani’s wonderful way with elegant curved but geometric lines, the other showing a dozen or so sculptures which are, without exception, faces, some squat square ones, but most a highly characteristic elongated, narrow face with a long pendulous nose ending in a little round pouting mouth.

The commentary tells the story that sometimes visitors to his studio at night found that Modigliani had placed lighted candles atop each of the sculptures. He told friends he planned to create a kind of pagan temple decorated with them. On a few occasions, at hashish parties, he was seen to embrace them.

In all, Modigliani made about 25 of these highly characteristic heads. A handful were included in the 1912 Salon d’Automne, the only time they were displayed in his lifetime. There are several theories why he abandoned sculpture in 1913 – possibly the constant dust of a sculptor’s studio exacerbated the childhood tuberculosis which he was always holding at bay. Possibly it was just too expensive compared to painting.

The Modigliani look

But the extensive sketches, and the really physical engagement with sculpture, had set in stone (as it were) what was now established as the Modigliani ‘look’ – elongated faces with swan-like necks and blank almond-shaped eyes were to characterise all his paintings from now to the end of his life.

This is already apparent in the many portraits he painted of fellow artists, mistresses, and the collectors and art dealers who were important in launching his career. The commentary gives a good deal of background information about each of them, for example about the several portraits of his dealer, Paul Alexandre, a leading promoter of African art. I particularly liked the ‘naive’ way Modigliani writes on the paintings: he writes the name of the subject (Picasso, Paul), his own signature, and then often writes a comment, for example writing ‘Novo Pilota’ – meaning ‘guiding star’ – onto his portrait of Paul Guillaume.

Portrait of Paul Guillaume, Novo Pilota (1915) Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume

Portrait of Paul Guillaume, Novo Pilota (1915) Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume

The elongated, cylinder-like neck, the perfectly almond-shaped face especially the pointed chin, the simple one-line depiction of the nose and eyes and eyebrows and especially the slate grey or blacking out of the eyes to emphasise the impassive mask-like effect – all these are apparent in his several portraits of his mistress-lover Beatrice Hastings who, the commentary tells us, was a British-born writer and editor who covered the Paris art scene for British magazines.

Beatrice Hastings (1915) Private Collection

Beatrice Hastings (1915) Private Collection

There are three rooms devoted to his artistic peers, to colleagues, collectors and dealers, friends and lovers and patrons, featuring his portraits of such luminaries as Jean Cocteau, Juan Gris and the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. By the time war broke out in 1914 Modigliani was very well-connected, an ‘insider’ in the Paris art world, friends with the leaders of the avant-garde, beneficiary of regular commissions from the cognoscenti.

A people person

What these three rooms really crystallise is the fairly obvious point that he only painted portraits – heads or busts or full bodies, but only individual people. Landscapes such as had obsessed the godfather of modernism, Cézanne? None. Still lives such as absorbed the Cubists, Picasso and Braque? None. Cityscapes such as dominated the Futurists from his own native land, Italy (the first Futurist manifesto was published in 1909)? None. On the strength of this exhibition it seems that he never sketched, drew, painted or sculpted anything but the human form and face. And although highly stylised, they are always recognisable, with recognisable clothes (or not), in chairs or leaning on tables in a recognisable space.

Compared to the wild experiments going on around him (Fauves, Cubism, Futurism) Modigliani’s art seems – well ‘conservative’ is the wrong word, a genuinely die-hard conservative style continued to be produced by academic painters – but understandable, assimilable, acceptable.

Modigliani’s nudes

It was with this in mind that I walked into the big room displaying ‘the largest ever group of Modigliani nudes to be shown in this country’, 12 of them, to be precise.

The commentary would have us believe that these are ‘shocking’ and ‘provocative’ works and tells the story that the one and only exhibition of them – held at Berthe Weill’s gallery in 1917 – was closed down by the police on the grounds of indecency. Apparently, this was specifically because Modigliani showed his models having pubic hair and underarm hair.

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

To be honest, I found this a little hard to credit (not that the show was closed down, but that the works were particularly shocking or provocative). I’ve just read a book about the Fauves which included plenty of Fauvist nudes which a) are really wild pictures, sometimes difficult to make out amid the riot of colour; and b) where you can, quite routinely show depict pubic hair.

Compared with any of these works from at least ten years earlier, Modigliani’s nudes seem very tame – in terms of colour (which is very restrained and ‘realistic’ – the flesh is generally flesh-coloured), in terms of line (Modigliani’s nudes are all clearly defined by wonderfully crisp, curving outlines), in terms of facial features (which are stylised but not, actually, that much), even in terms of crudity, none of the Modiglianis are as in-your-face as that final nude by Camoin.

On the contrary – they all share a similar warm orange body, lovely curves, ample bosoms, pink nipples, all depicted with super-clear, well-defined black outlines. If they so show women’s pubes, they are as neat and geometric as their oval faces. Actual women’s pubic hair is a lot more unkempt and varied than Modigliani’s tasteful version.

No, what struck me about all of Modigliani’s nudes was their restraint, their tastefulness, and several of them really did strike me as deeply conservative, particularly the nudes where he is consciously referencing the European tradition, like this one which is based on Ingres’ famous Odalisque.

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

All four curators of this exhibition are women and so you have a strong feeling in the audio commentary that they feel duty bound to discuss how women’s bodies were a battlefield in the 1910s (prompting the thought, When have women’s bodies not been battlefields, according to feminist history?), but, at the same time, want to assert that the women Modigliani depicts are not helpless victims of ‘the male gaze’ – these women are strong independent women, as evidenced by their wearing lipstick, make-up and – in some of them – necklaces or ear rings.

The commentary compares the lot of the average model to the really grim lives of working class women slaving away in factories or as laundresses etc (Modigliani’s models earned about double the daily working wage for spending a day lying on a couch).

But none of this semi-political feminist interpretation really changes the fact that these are cartoons. The simple black outline, the stylised and fairly flat colouring – they could almost come from a Tintin cartoon, or from any number of subsequent comic strips. Compare and contrast with the genuinely experimental way nudes had been portrayed for at least a decade.

If the Berthe Weill show was raided and closed down it was, if anything, because the nudes were – in artistic terms – so conservative, so realistic, so figurative and so traditional in style – that they really did teeter on the brink of pornography.

No one could mistake the Matisse, Derain or Picasso nudes for soft porn, they are all very obviously far more interested in experimenting with new ways of seeing and new ways of painting than with titillation. You can’t really confidently say that about the Modigliani nudes. They are all pretty sexy and sexiness is their subject, although the curators prefer the more polite word ‘seductive’.

By this, room 8 of the 11-room exhibition, it seemed to me that Modigliani had progressed far beyond his earlier experiments, incorporated all the stylisation he’d learned from studying ‘primitive’ art and sculpting, and had emerged to produce a really consistent brand of very quaffable female nudes. Their naive simplicity makes them extremely enjoyable and explains, I think, the extraordinary prices they fetch at modern auction, tasteful, soft-porn works which any self-respecting billionaire would be proud to hang in his luxury apartment in New York, Paris, Moscow or Beijing. (Nu Couché was bought by the Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian for $170 million, Reclining Nude with Blue Cushion was bought by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev for $118 million.)

The curators can use feminist tropes all they like to try and defend these nudes but there seems no doubt that they are now, as they were then, designed for the visual pleasure of rich men.

The warm South

Towards the end of the war Modigliani was sent to the Mediterranean coast by his new art dealer, Léopold Zborowski, as a precaution against increasing Zeppelin raids on Paris and also because of his worsening health. Modigliani was worried about leaving behind his well-developed network of friends and artistic accomplices, but in fact soon settled in to a new life, not least because he was accompanied by his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne.

Again he painted nothing but portraits and, deprived of the network of professional models in Paris, took to painting local adults and then a series of children. He seems to have reacted to the far brighter light of the south by using warmed Mediterranean colours and also applying the paint much more thinly, both of which make these portraits seem light and airy.

The Little Peasant (c.1918) Tate

The Little Peasant (c.1918) Tate

Children and peasants. Is there not something a little, well, twee about some of these works? (Looking it up I see that ‘twee’ is defined as ‘excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental’.)

Again compare and contrast with his contemporaries or, in this case, with the Master, Cézanne. With the current exhibition of Cézanne portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in mind, we can see how Modigliani has learned the lessons of the old Frenchman – the patches of colour, the visible brush-strokes, the steep foreshortening of the subject and backdrop, the confrontational -full-on pose, but made it somehow, well babyish. Toy-like. Here’s a Cézanne.

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Comparing the two it seems to me the main difference is in the face. Not only does Modigliani use his simplified mask design, but, by this stage, he’s often painting his faces in a unified flesh tone (true of almost all the nudes) which gives them quite literally a baby-faced freshness. Again compare and contrast with the complex brushwork Cézanne has applied to the face of his old bloke with a pipe, let alone the wild blues and greens which the Fauves used in their portraits. Compared to all of them, surely Modigliania is tame.

In fact it’s only really the use of the mask motif which prevents his works toppling over into kitsch. In particular I felt it was only the blacking out of the eyes of the portraits (which gives them a weird voodoo science fiction vibe) which prevents them from turning into the kind of Modernism light paintings you see being hawked on the streets of any tourist trap European city.

Last works

The final room shows his last works, painted back in Paris after the war, depictions of more rich patrons and commissions, alongside a suite of portraits of his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne, who was pregnant with their second child.

Jeanne Hébuterne (1919) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Jeanne Hébuterne (1919) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

It’s notable that the flesh tones have moved away from the warm pinks of the nudes, back towards a more ‘experimental’ colouring. But the most striking thing about these last paintings is that the almond-shaped face and swan neck are taken to new extremes. Some of the people look like giraffes.

The colouring is richer and denser than in the South of France paintings. But each work, no matter how varied the subject, is now totally identifiable as a Modigliani. Who knows how his work would have continued to evolve and develop; he was half-way towards the kind of crisp neo-classical feel which so many French artists would adopt after the war.

But we’ll never know. Modigliani died from tubercular meningitis on 24 January in 1920. In a grim note we learn that just a few days later, his mistress Jeanne, nine-months pregnant, committed suicide by jumping from the fifth floor of an apartment building.

This is a really enjoyable, carefully and thoughtfully curated overview of a wonderful artist, whose draughtsmanship is a joy to look at, from his earliest works, and whose mature geometric style produced painting after painting which fills the eye with pleasure.

Modigliani Virtual Reality

Towards the end of the exhibition is an ambitious innovation – a room where about ten visitors at a time can sit and have a visitor assistant clamp onto their head a kind of helmet with built-in 3-D goggles. These give you a virtual reality tour of a computer-generated recreation of Modigliani’s studio. It’s a bld new idea and a first for Tate.

Inevitably, there was a fairly long queue for this brave new digital experience, with an estimated waiting time of 25 minutes so I’m afraid I decided not to. Some of the content can be seen on the video screen outside the exhibition which is running a film about the making of the VR experience (which I’ve embedded, below).

So my advice would be to go the exhibition soon after opening (at 10am) and go straight to the queue for the VR, do it, and then go back to do the exhibition in order.

Seated Nude (1917) Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Lukasart in Flanders. Photo credit: Hugo Maertens

Seated Nude (1917) Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Lukasart in Flanders. Photo credit: Hugo Maertens

Videos

Introduction to the exhibition by curator Simonetta Fraquelli.

Video showing how the virtual reality experience was made.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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