by Roderick Conway Morris

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Trials and Tribulations of Modigliani and Schiele


By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 9 December 2000

 

Now that much postmodern art has become overwhelmingly a matter of self-advertisement, and artists and their works are primarily products designed for marketing, it is edifying to look back to the beginning of the last century when the term "avant-garde" implied genuine experimentation and artists still regarded the struggle to find new forms of expression as a more pressing concern than instant celebrity and self-enrichment.

This lively period is the focus of two shows, one in Venice, centered on Modigliani and his milieu, the other in Milan, devoted to Egon Schiele and some of his contemporaries.

The chief revelation of "Modigliani and His Circle" (at the Fondazione Cini on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore until Jan. 7) are works by Jeanne Hebuterne -- Modigliani's wife, model and companion of the last three years of his life -- which have never been shown to the public.

Both Hebuterne and her brother, Andre, were aspiring artists and it was through Andre that she met Modigliani in Paris in 1917. By this time the familiar, classic "Modigliani woman" was well established, so the appearance of Hebuterne with her exaggeratedly elongated neck, oval face and mesmeric almond eyes must have been an uncanny experience for Modigliani. The encounter led to a passionate relationship, marriage and the birth of a daughter.

Modigliani, whose health had been never good, died of tubercular meningitis in 1920 at the age of 35. Then, the distraught, eight months pregnant Hebuterne threw herself out a window. The horror of this tragedy, increased by her brother's unreasonable sense of guilt at having failed to foresee and prevent his sister's suicide, led to a situation where, although her work was lovingly preserved, the family refused to let anyone from outside see it.

Happily, this taboo has finally been broken and Hebuterne's heirs have at last lent some 60 of her remarkable drawings for the Venice exhibition. Although influenced by Modigliani, they demonstrate a clear personality of their own. Among the most striking are Hebuterne's nude portraits of herself and other models, some of which achieve an almost Matissean minimalist deftness.

Modigliani did a nude sketch of Hebuterne for the cover of the catalogue for his show at the Galerie Berthe Weill in Paris at the end of 1917, which was closed down by the police on the grounds of obscenity. It is difficult to comprehend such an absurdity, given that these nudes so evidently derived from a long and venerable tradition begun by Bellini, Giorgione and Titian. In reality it was probably as much their unconventional style as their content that offended reactionary opinion.

Not long before this scandal, Schiele, another progressive artist, found himself in yet more severe trouble for his treatment of the nude, but for reasons that, however unjustified, remain more understandable in the context of the times.

A number of these once highly controversial works feature in "Egon Schiele and Expressionism in Austria: 1908-1925," at the Fondazione Mazzotta (until Jan. 14), along with pieces by Kokoschka, Boeckl, Gerstl and Kubin. This event has been made possible by an unusually large loan by the Albertina in Vienna of 114 works, 80 of them by Schiele, and is an occasion to savor since these works, on paper, cannot be on permanent display.

Whereas Modigliani's nudes reflect enigmatic self-possession, Schiele's are altogether more fraught with contradictions and ambiguities. At times they have a kind of unabashed eroticism, but more often they combine an unerring eye for physical imperfection, emphasize emaciation and incipient flabbiness, and manifest a whole gamut of human states from naive self-exposure and agonized restlessness, to calculated seductiveness and gauche lack of control.

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THE PSYCHOLOGICAL subtlety and depth of these works were appreciated by few, and in 1912 they landed Schiele in court, and one of his drawings was publicly burned. A charge brought against him for seducing an underage girl went unproved, but he was condemned for allowing minors to see "obscene" material -- in other words the drawings that happened to be lying about in his studio. He spent nearly a month in prison, an ordeal that left a permanent mark on him, and led to the disturbing series of tormented self-portraits that figure in the show.

Yet there are many less angst-ridden works here, too, including beautifully executed portraits, landscapes and pictures of buildings and interiors. Especially charming are sketches of his wife, Edith. These take on a particular poignancy as they were done not long before she contracted Spanish flu during the pandemic of 1918, which carried off both her and her 28-year-old husband within three days of each another.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016