Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Modigliani, Soutine and the Legend of Montparnasse

Maurice Utrillo, Place de l'église à Montmagny, c. 1907

With very little choice of exhibitions in Paris this summer, I made the conservative choice to go to the Pinacothèque for Modigliani, Soutine et L’Aventure de Montparnasse. The exhibition showcases the collection of Jonas Netter, an Alsace businessman who amassed paintings by a handful of chosen artists in the teens and twenties. Unlike other exhibitions of this nature, while the accompanying text is interested in the collector and his motivations, the works on display are given ample attention by the Pinacothèque.

That said, while the collection comprises some really exquisite paintings by Utrillo, Modigliani, Soutine many of the other works were second rate at best. As a collection, other than the contemporaneity of the works purchased by Netter, the one cohering principle appeared to be his taste and fascination for color. I was reminded of the brilliant colors of Franz Marc, August Macke and the other innovators of German abstraction that were working contemporaneously.  But the similarities to the work of the Germans did not, unfortunately, extend further than the palette. Most notably, even though the paintings collected by Netter were all painted in the years of WWI there is no indication, anywhere, in any of them, that there is a war going on outside of the frame. So other than the canvases by Utrillo, Modigliani and Soutine, there was very little of pressing import.
Maurice Utrillo, Porte Ste Martin, c. 1908
I didn’t know Maurice Utrillo’s paintings before, and so was pleasantly surprised to find their interesting incorporation of the influences of what would have been the relatively recent invention of photography. In street after street after street, Utrillo invites us down the street lined with houses. This view down a road lined with houses, with only ever one or two anonymous figures of little consequence, in an urban environment was clearly Utrillo’s preoccupation. And the perspective is always that seen through a slightly anamorphic photographic lens. It was as though he was searching for the reproduction of the photographic vision.
Maurice Utrillo, rue Muller à Montmartre, c. 1908

 Also, of interest for Utrillo was the sky. His skies are always grey, but they span the gamut of grey’s possibility: from blue, to red, to purple to green greys. And in each case, even though the skies are grey, they reflect an extraordinarily luminosity. Utrillo is a painter who has a consciousness of the rapidly developing modernist aesthetic, while all the time, adhering to the principles of pictorialism. His canvases are vibrant and filled with a warmth and energy, and yet, they are not the kind to be reproduced ad infinitum and placed above the mantelpiece.

Amedeo Modigliani, Fillette en bleu, 1918
The real treat of the exhibition was however the multiple Modigliani portraits: the familiar elongation of the body and the face, the spare background, the earth toned palette, all of these familiar traces of Modigliani really shine when the portraits are shown in great number. The first thing to captivate me was that for all intents and purposes, each sitter might be the same body, and even the faces are always the same shape, and yet, each has their own very distinct and powerful personality. The little girl in blue is gentle and innocent, the Russian woman enigmatic and reflective, for example. And the overwhelming individuality of each sitter is held in the loose strand of hair that falls to the forehead, the look of the eyes, the tilt of the head, the hair cut, the color of the cheeks, the shape of the eyebrows, the purse of the lips. These otherwise tiny details take over to articulate the depth of the sitter.
Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait de la jeune fille Rousse, 1918
The angles and sparsity of the background, and the blandness of the clothes also seem to create figures who are outside of social station. The portrait is timeless, the people are classless and somehow ageless. Compositionally, Modigliani must have been influenced by the modernist aesthetic, as the bodies come out of the backgrounds and, at time, it feels as though they are sliding off the painting into our space. Because their background — both painted and social — is of no apparent significance, as I started to think they might rather have slid out of their space and into ours.
Chaim Soutine, L'Homme au Chapeau, 1919-20

And lastly, the Soutines. Again, like the Modigliani’s, Chaïm Soutine’s canvases have a clarity of vision and a master of the medium that is nowhere to be found in many of the other works in the exhibition. His portraits are a revelation as these figures emerge out of the paint, and simultaneously, appear to be in the process of receding into its depths. In the thick, luscious paint that is as much the subject tof Soutine’s paintings as is the sitter, color, paint and its ability to be pushed around the canvas do battle with representation in the form of the figure. As a consequence, the L’homme au chapeau, La Folle and even Soutine himself in his Autoportrait appear troubled, melancholic and uncertain because of his struggle to be realized in paint.

Chaïm Soutine, La Folle, 1919
As my friend James pointed out, what makes Soutine's portraits compelling is they sit on the precipice of figuration and abstraction. neither realist, and not quite abstraction, these figures are painted as if disappearing into the future of the twentieth century painting, namely, abstraction. And yet, they are filled with expression that we are drawn into their world, and particularly, to their agony and isolation. Thus, while Modigliani is concerned to find identity in the details of an otherwise anonymous face repeated over and over again, Soutine seems less convinced by the twentieth century's chant of the triumph of the individual.

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