Recently, I have to find a house warming gift for some friends but was completely out of good ideas. On a similar occasion they had given me a quaich, a Scottish symbol of eternal friendship, so I felt I needed to get something more than just a card.
My friends are an unusual couple you just can’t pigeonhole. They’re intelligent, witty and true individuals and since they were moving in to a new home, I decided a decorative object would be suitable, but what to choose? My own taste runs to items from the ancient world, such as Roman and Greek sculpture. I spent ages searching for something symbolic, something with a story, but Aphrodite didn’t seem appropriate, an Alexander bust was something I knew they already had and Hippocrates would have been ideal for a doctor, but not somehow for an IT professional and a lawyer. What I wanted was something the same but also, like my friends, completely different.
My eventual choice was a Modigliani bust, an elongated female head sculpture quite different from the classical statues I’d considered and yet exactly the same. Classical and primitive at the same time Modigliani art is clearly influenced by African Masks and Polynesian statues, smooth and rounded while also long and angular, it is the contradiction which makes the statues so memorable.
Modigliani’s story is a tragic one. Born in 1884, his genius for painting was clear from an early age, but his life was dominated by tuberculosis. His mother ensured he had the best teaching, and he was very highly regarded by his art tutor, though he developed his own individual style which has more in common with the angular Art Deco movement yet to come than the curvaceous Art Nouveau still in vogue. Most of all, it is still a style of it’s own, quite individual.
Like many now famous artists Modigliani was relatively unknown in his own life. He produced a huge volume of work, often up to 100 drawings a day, but in many cases he gave these to friends or girlfriends who didn’t keep them. It seems as though he knew his life would be short, and perhaps because of that, he took to drugs and alcohol, to the point where some said his unique style was due entirely to hashish, though this was clearly untrue. He was a follower of Nietzsche and Baudelaire and came to the conclusion that the route to real creativity involved disorder and defiance. At one point in his career he destroyed many of his earlier works declaring them inferior.
As time passed his health grew worse. He was rejected for military service in the First World War and continued to live in Paris, never knowing when the next payment of his allowance would arrive. He was good looking and charming and women liked him, but although he was able to sell a few paintings during his life, he never made any money from them.
He died quite penniless, from meningitis, his sheets stained with oil from a sardine can, the only thing he had left to eat. As always, there was a woman involved. Much younger than Modigliani and on the day he died almost nine months pregnant with their second child. After his death her family took her home and she walked backwards out of a window, killing herself and the unborn baby.
The stories about Modigliani’s life are full of contradiction. Some have tried to say that the woman, Jeanne Hebuterne was just another passing fancy for the artist, but their daughter’s research showed she was an artist in her own right. Her pictures were shown for this first time in an exhibition in 2000.
The sculpture itself is clean and clear, it is a woman. We don’t know who she is meant to be; there is no legend unless we make one. No particular style of decor is required. The Modigliani bust would look good anywhere.
For me, part of the attraction of this item as a gift is the similarity between the artist and my friends. Both witty, brilliant and interesting, a rebel and an individual. There the similarities between them, I hope, will end.
Rob Mabry is a former military journalist, screenwriter, father of five and ecommerce entrepreneur. He owns Balance Bikes 4 Kids, a toddler bike store [http://www.balancebikes4kids.com] offering a large selection of balance bikes and wood bikes [http://www.balancebikes4kids.com/catalog/Wooden_Balance_Bikes-3-1.html] that help young children learn to ride a bike by focusing on mastering balance first.
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