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Tête

  • USA
  • 2014-11-05
About the object
Exceedingly rare, Modigliani's elegant stone carvings are among the most coveted works of modern art.  While the majority these sculptures are in the collections of museums, the present work is the finest remaining in private hands.  Tête that has the power to enthrall those who enter its realm.  Created in the likeness of an ancient totem or deity, this magnificient carving was created in Modigliani's open-air studio at the Cité Falguière in Montparnasse.  At night the artist would illuminate these sculptures by candlelight, creating a sacred space for his goddesses of stone.   Those faced with the spectacle could not escape the power and allure of this beautiful figure.  "The stone heads affected me strangely," confessed Augustus John, the British artist who purchased the present sculpture directly from Modigliani. "For some days afterwards I found myself under the hallucination of meeting people in the street who might have posed for them… Can ‘Modi’ have discovered a new and secret aspect of ‘reality’?"  Even Modigliani was not immune to its transfixing effect.  Jacques Lipchitz remembered that "Modigliani, when under the influence of hashish, embraced these sculptures."  And Jacob Epstein, after visiting the studio one night when it was filled with nine or ten of these elongated heads, recalled that "when we had left him very late, he came running down the passage after us, calling us to come back like a frightened child" (quoted in Meryle Secrest, Modigliani, A Life, New York, 2011, p. 143). Such is the bewitching effect of Tête, a venerable idol of the avant-garde. Modigliani's work on Tête was a product of a devotional mania towards sculpture as an act of carving, or the liberation of form from a block of stone.  His passion for this process was witnessed by many of his fellow artists at this time.  The English painter Nina Hamnett observed that Modigliani "always regarded sculpture as his real métier, and it was probably only lack of money, the difficulty of obtaining material, and the amount of time required to complete a work in stone that made him return to painting during the last five years of his life" (in Alfred Werner, Modigliani the Sculptor, New York, 1962, p. XIX).  Jacob Epstein, too, described Modigliani's fanatical approach to this medium and explained that his process was integral to his desired result:  "Modigliani, like some others at the time, was very taken with the notion that sculpture was sick, that it had become very sick with Rodin and his influence.  There was too much modeling in clay, too much 'mud.'  The only way to save sculpture was to start carving again, direct carving in stone... the important thing was to give the carved stone the feeling of hardness, and that came from within the sculptor himself ... he worked furiously... without stopping to correct or ponder.  He worked, it seemed, entirely by instinct - which was however extremely fine and sensitive, perhaps owing much to his Italian inheritance and his love of the painting of the early Renaissance masters" (reprinted in op. cit., p. 130). Modigliani’s passionate avowal of direct carving is especially evident in the extraordinary richly varied surface texture of the present work; with passages alternating between an extremely fine, smooth finish to roughly hewn and chisel-marked. This expressive handling emphasized the creative process and the artist’s dedication to his newly developed aesthetic.
The present sculpture was created in 1911-12 from a single block of limestone known as pierre d'Euville, a porous rock quarried in a small town in eastern France.   Modigliani scavenged the material from construction sites around Paris, carting it in a wheelbarrow back to the studios he shared with Constantin Brancusi, who instructed him in carving.  While Brancusi's influence on Modigliani can surely be detected in his smooth carving here, another important influence was the streamlined, puckered-lipped Guro maskes from the Ivory Coast.  Modigliani had seen many examples of these African ritualistic objects at the Musée du Trocadéro, and their impact was clearly recognizable upon visiting the artist's work space: "His studio at that time was a miserable hole within a courtyard where he worked," Lipchitz remembered. "It was then filled by nine or ten of those long heads which were suggested by African masks and one figure.  They were carved in stone. I can see him as if it were today, stooping over those heads of his, explaining to me that he had concieved all of them as an ensemble.  It seems to me that these heads were exhibited later the same year (1912) in the Salon d'Automne, arranged in step-wise fashion, like the tubes of an organ, to produce the special music he wanted" (quoted in ibid.).
Modigliani's theatrical and poetic leanings with regard to his sculpture were reinforced by his acquaintance with the young Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, with whom he had an developed an intense relationship between 1910 through 1912.  During the spring of 1911, Akhmatova was inseparable from Modigliani and wrote that "you could hear the knock of his mallet in the deserted alley" of his Montparnasse studio as he liberated the figures from their stone.  While Tête bears the linear and elongated facial features that would define the paintings of his later years, the face that perhaps can be credited as a main inspiration for this sculpture is that of the young and striking Akhmatova.  With her unusual Slavic beauty and taste for the melancholic poetry, Akhmatova left a lasting impression.  "You are for me like a haunting memory," he wrote adoringly to her in 1911.  Following their tour of the Egyptian Antiquities department at the Louvre that spring, Modigliani painted a portrait of Akhmatova dressed in the garb of an Egyptian queen, as well as several other representations of her with distinctly Egyptian embellishments. Her distinctive sharp profile became a constant feature in his production of this era, particularly in his representations of the Greek "princesses at the Temple of Diana," known as the Caryatids.  The elegant Tête, with its elongated nose, densely piled sweep of hair and intensely regal bearing, is readily identifiable as an amalgam of these influences and the artist's adoration of this specific type of beauty.
In his essay for the exhibition catalogue, Modigliani, Sculptor, Kenneth Wayne has written about the influence of antiquity on Modigliani's extraordinary sculptures: "Modigliani's sculptures share many characteristics with the Egyptian art that he loved so much and visited regularly at the Louvre.  A quiet solemnity, a profound air of mystery and spirituality, blocky forms, blank almond-shaped eyes, a beatific smile, an imposing frontality and forward stare, and decorative elements in the hair and forehead.  The blank eyes in Modigliani's sculpture also recall Greek and Roman sculptures as they have come down through time, with the painted elements worn off.  Even the rough, unfinished quality of some of Modigliani's sculptures gives them the look and feel of bruised ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman sculptures.  Modigliani's favorite material too, limestone, was the same used to make the Great Pyramid and Great Sphinx in Giza and some Egyptian and Greek sculpture" (K. Wayne, "Modigliani, Modern Sculpture and the Influence of Antiquity," op. cit., p. 76).
Tête was exhibited at the Salon d'Automne of 1912 in the famous Salle des Cubistes, a landmark exhibition in the history of modern art. The photograph of the Salle des Cubistes published in L'Illustration of October 12, 1912 shows the present work taking the dominant position on the far left, in the semi-circular arrangement described by Lipchitz.  Modigliani's sculptures were on view alonside Cubist works by the pioneers of modernism including Léger and Kupka, and offered a sensual alternative to the more severe, geometricized works of his contemporaries.   Following the exhibition, the present sculpture was acquired by Augustus John, the celebrated British artist who met Modigliani in Paris in 1912.  In his memoirs John recalled the experience of first seeing this sculpture among its companion works in the artist's studio, where they had a lingering, transfixing impact on his consciousness: "D. [Dorelia McNeill] and I visited his studio in Montparnasse one day, and bought a couple of the stone heads he was making at the time. The floor was covered with them, all much alike and prodigiously long and narrow. Returning with us to Montparnasse after this transaction, “Modi” exclaimed, ‘Ah, comme c’est chic d’être dans le progrès!’ and pressed into my hands his well-thumbed copy of Les Chants de Maldoror. This was his bible" (Augustus John, Chiaroscuro, London, 1954, p. 96).

John prominently displayed the work first at Alderney and secondly at his final home, Fryern Court. The sculpture was subsequently sold in 1955 to Dudley Tooth and thence through the Hanover Gallery to a private collector in Europe. As Erica Brausen noted in a letter to the purchaser  "In fact after Sir Augustus you are the only private collector to own it" (letter of 9th July 1956 from E. Brausen, Director of the Hanover Gallery, London).   Today, the present work is perhaps the finest stone carvings to remain in private hands.  With approximately two dozen known in existence, the vast majority are in prominent museums, including the Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University; Tate Gallery, London; Kunsthalle, Karlsuhe, Germany; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Le Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and the Musée d'Art Moderne Lille Métropole, Villeneuve d'Ascq.

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