“When I know your soul, I will paint your eyes” – Modigliani
What may be the most unusual characteristic of Modigliani’s portraits is not the prominent elongation of their features, but their eyes. Particularly in his later work, Modigliani would tend to leave the eyes of the subjects of his portraits blank. What is noteworthy, is that even with the absence of this “window to the soul” there is much of the subject’s personality that Modigliani conveys in gesture – not quite in hand gestures as much as in the tilt of the head. Unlike Picasso, Modigliani was not intent on rearranging facial features but on reducing and simplifying to the basic essence of a personality without losing it altogether.
Modigliani was inspired both by African masks and sculpture (a medium he abandoned early on in his career when stone dust would interfere with his health). Neither of those mediums do eyes well, and in this way the artist seem to pursue a form of portraiture that “reveals even as it seems to conceal”. And if Modigliani’s portraits are like masks – from both the emptiness of their eyes and their reductive sameness – they are paradoxical masks that show us something more of the inner lives of the subjects.
He painted more portraits of his friends, acquaintances, lovers, professional models (when he could afford them) and people he saw on the street and invited to sit for him, rather than portraits on commission. His portraits, while simple at first glance, have an appealing depth to them.
What he ended up being was a painter of ‘types’ – drinking buddies, collectors, implacable seated women, wanton or sleeping nudes. As an artist and a painter he created art not in an attempt to shock the audience or to outrage, but to say, ‘This is what I see.’
Author: Hiba J Ali