Painted in 1913, Le buste rouge (Cariatide) is a rare painting dating from Modigliani's years as a sculptor. For between about 1909 and 1914, Modigliani focussed on his medium of choice, stone carving. Le buste rouge (Cariatide) itself echoes the reduced, elongated forms of the most elegant and celebrated of Modigliani's sculptures. This painting is one of the most important of the rare 'Cariatide' oils of the period, as is reflected in its exceptional exhibition history and the fact that it is illustrated in colour in Ceroni's monograph on the artist. Despite being widely exhibited, Le buste rouge (Cariatide) has never been on the open market since its early purchase by Jonas Netter.
Modigliani painted only a handful of paintings in 1913, reflecting the central role that sculpture was playing in his life at that time. The most attributed to 1913 is half a dozen, of which five appeared to echo, as does Le buste rouge (Cariatide), the forms of the sculptures that he was executing in parallel. Here, the viewer is uncertain as to whether this is a painting of a model or of one of the sculptures. Indeed, one wonders if there is an important difference, as the figure has a goddess-like solemnity that is somehow detached from the real world. With her blank eyes staring out into the world of the viewer, this is a strange, perfect figure of sublime, elegance and simplicity. The mystical presence of the figure in Le buste rouge (Cariatide), and indeed in Modigliani's sculptures, was attested to by the visitors to his studio, which apparently resembled a strange temple, the stone heads littering the place and, at night, supporting flickering candles on their heads. The manner in which Le buste rouge (Cariatide) looms from the darkness of the background, with the magnificent blue aura around the figure's head, hints at just such a light-source-- this could be a painting of one of his sculptures at night, or of one of his models, but regardless of the source appears to tap into a long-standing concern with the essence of woman and with the invocation of a new ideal.
The reduction of the forms that build up the female figure reveal the influences of several different factors in Modigliani's life. On the one hand, there is a clear debt to African sculpture. Modigliani's sculptural works were themselves often compared to the art of the Baulé and Fang peoples, sharing with them certain traits such as stretched, minimised features. At the time in Paris, few other artists appeared to be reducing the forms of his subjects in any similar manner, and indeed the few times that Modigliani's sculptures were exhibited or viewed during his life, they tended to meet with scorn from those outwith the avant-garde circles. Several artists had shared this interest in reducing forms to seek a new, more intense, direct and truthful visual reality: Picasso, as was clear in his proto-Cubist masterpiece Les demoiselles d'Avignon, and Brancusi, one of the few sculptors to have made significant developments in this direction at the time. Modigliani himself had spent some time visiting Brancusi's studio where he was less the recipient of lessons than of knowledge, of kudos, of the confidence to create the art he intended. Brancusi, Cubism and African art all influenced Modigliani, but less in terms of style than of permission-- they gave him faith in his own vision, as his friend and fellow sculptor Jacques Lipchitz recalled:
'Modigliani, though he admired African Negro and other primitive arts as much as any of us, was never profoundly influenced by them any more than he was by Cubism. He took from them certain stylistic traits, but he was hardly affected by their spirit' (Lipchitz, quoted in A. Werner, Modigliani the Sculptor, London, 1965, p. xxiii).
Like the sculptures, Le buste rouge (Cariatide) has a totemic presence, a spirituality heightened by the dark blue aura/shadow that surrounds the figure. The sheer stillness and inscrutability appears to owe something to the hieratic art of Egypt as much as to that of Africa. This appears less as a portrait than as an idealised vision of a deity, some strange, timeless modern guardian. At the same time, the fact that Modigliani has reduced these features to such a degree in no way diminishes their relation to the people in the world around us, a curious factor noted by Augustus John. The British artist visited Modigliani several times, and indeed in 1913 bought a couple of sculptures from him (at that point, Modigliani had no dealer, and so such transactions were exceptionally rare for him). Telling of his visit, John explained how haunted he was by the mask-like presence of the sculptures:
'The stone heads affected me deeply. For some days afterwards I found myself under the hallucination of meeting people in the street who might have posed for them, and that without myself resorting to the Indian Herb. Can 'Modi' have discovered a new and secret aspect of 'reality'?' (Augustus John, quoted in ibid., p. xviii).
So too in Le buste rouge (Cariatide), Modigliani has managed to fuse abstraction with representation. The pared-down forms-- an oval here, a triangle there-- that comprise the face and body nonetheless are filled with a universal relevance, an ability to relate directly to the passers-by who people our streets and our lives. Where African and Egyptian sculpture may have appeared redundant and archaic to the viewer in Paris in the 1910s, in Le buste rouge (Cariatide) Modigliani has adapted their idiom in order to create an image that is filled with an urgent currency.
Within a short time of painting Le buste rouge (Cariatide), Modigliani was forced to abandon sculpture for various reasons, not least among them the detrimental effect that the powder and the energy were having on his already fragile health. He therefore began painting a great deal more, a great contrast with the intense scarcity of works from the sculpture years. Indeed, both in the red figure and subject matter, Le buste rouge (Cariatide) appears to prefigure the great nude paintings of the following years with which he is most frequently associated and for which he is most celebrated, an irony considering his avowed desire to be a sculptor, not a painter. The fusion of these two strands, sculpture and painting, means that Le buste rouge (Cariatide) provides an intriguing crossover, an insight into the importance that sculpture held for Modigliani both as a medium, and as an arena in which he developed the ideas of form that would come to be harnessed in two dimensions in his oils.
Le buste rouge (Cariatide)
Oil on canvas
THE PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTOR
Chiba, Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, Modigliani et son époque Paris 1910-20, April - May 1997, no. 1 (illustrated p. 23, with incorrect mesurements); this exhibition later travelled to Osaka, Kintetsu Museum of Art, June 1997; Yamagata, Yamagata Museum of Art, July - August 1997; Niigata, Niigata Museum of Art, September - October 1997; Miyazaki, Miyazaki Museum of Art, November - December 1997; Kitakuyushu, Municipal Museum of Kitakyushu, December 1997 - January 1998; Tokyo, Daîmaru, January - February 1998.
New York, The Jewish Museum, Modigliani: Beyond the myth, April - September 2004 (illustrated p. 104, pl. 19, with incorrect measurements); this exhibition later travelled to Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario and Washington DC, The Phillips Collection.
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
31 7/8 x 21¼ in. (81 x 53.9 cm.)
A. Ceroni, I dipinti di Modigliani, Milan, 1970, p. 89, no. 38 (illustrated in colour pl. V; with incorrrect mesurements).
T. Castieau Barrielle, La vie et l'oeuvre de Amedeo Modigliani, Paris, 1987 (illustrated p. 65).
O. Patani, Amedeo Modigliani. Catalogo generale. Dipinti, Milan, 1991, no. 42 (illustrated p. 71, with incorrect measurements).
Léopold Zborowski, Paris (no. 391).
Jonas Netter, Paris and thence by descent to the present owner.