Meeting Modigliani

I’ve always been ambivalent about the theory behind first impressions and the people we meet. It’s commonly believed that the first is one that sticks and proves accurate over time. While my personal experience has shown this to be largely true, I have known some exceptions. Conversely, I wonder about some first impressions I’ve given in my life. Wish I could take a few of those back! 😮 I try to consider that a person might be having the proverbial “bad day” on that first encounter, but I’m inclined to think that our “truth” – our inherent nature, habits, and tendencies – can never fully be disguised, good day or bad.

Beatrice Hastings (born Emily Alice Haigh) was an English writer and poet, raised in South Africa. Her works were published in the British literary magazine The New Age. Upon moving to Paris in the years before the war, she soon became a known figure in the Bohemian circles that frequented the cafes and cabarets of Montparnasse. It was inevitable that she would cross paths with the poster boy of Bohemian Paris life, sculptor and painter Amadeo Modigliani. In 1914, after meeting the then 30 year-old artist Beatrice wrote down her first impressions:

“A complex character. A pig and a pearl. Met in 1914 at a ‘cremerie’. I sat opposite him. Hashish and brandy. Not at all impressed. Didn’t know who he was. He looked ugly, ferocious, greedy.”

J-MODIGLIANI'S-PHOTO

Beatrice sure didn’t mince words! But given what we know about Modigliani – his sickliness from tuberculosis, his hashish and opium addictions, and his violent temperament – Hastings’ initial impressions are not surprising. If anything, they’re spot on. Now look at what she wrote about her next encounter with him:

“Met again at the Cafe Rotonde. He was shaved and charming. Raised his cap with a pretty gesture blushed to his eyes and asked me to come and see his work. Went. Always a book in his pocket, Lautreamont’s Maldoror. Despised everyone but Picasso and Max Jacob. Loathed Cocteau.”

So Modi cleaned up a bit, extended himself, and confided feelings about his peers after spending time with his new acquaintance. These are the kinds of developments that naturally happen when people get to know each other better. Beatrice Hastings’ sharp eye for observation creates a portrait of an intense, complicated  man. But do her second impressions cancel out the first? Not necessarily. The second may simply augment the first. Sure Modigliani came across as more presentable and more well-mannered on the second meeting, but that does not mean the “ferociousness” he radiated the first time had evaporated. It was likely still there, only framed in a broader scope of reference. Or momentarily suspended. Or tempered by a shave 😆

I met an artist a few years ago whose first impression struck me as snippy. Then I got to know her. We became friends and are friends to this day. She’s a wonderful person but she is, in fact, snippy. Snippy in a harmless, hilarious, sarcastic way that fits well in the context of her personality. Qualities understood in a person as a whole are different than qualities perceived in isolation, detached from knowing the total individual, as they are in first impressions. That’s my theory at least.

One of Modigliani’s many portraits of Beatrice Hastings:

Modigliani-BeatriceHastings

As one would expect, Beatrice Hastings and Modigliani became lovers. They lived together for about two years until Beatrice broke it off. It seems that they were not well-matched and the relationship was doomed from the start. He was jealous and possessive, she was fiercely independent and opinionated. He had a shabby appearance, she was always well-dressed.  He used drugs, she preferred not to. He was driven by passions, she by intellect. They had vicious fights, often in public. But through it all, Beatrice sat for many Modigliani portraits and served as his muse.

hastings-1

After her affair with Modigliani, Beatrice Hastings’ life gradually spiraled downward over the course of many years. She traveled though Europe, broke acrimoniously from The New Age, and harbored bitter feelings about her former colleagues. In 1943 she committed suicide by filling her apartment with gas. In the years before her death, Beatrice had published some scathing pamphlets in which she ridiculed most of the people she had ever known and worked with, with one notable exception: Modigliani. Spared her attacks. Perhaps first impressions don’t stick after all?

18 thoughts on “Meeting Modigliani

  1. It would appear that Modigliani was a very feminine man while Hastings was a very masculine woman, in terms of their emotions.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Fascinating, with a very interesting angle!

  3. maria says:

    I like your fascination with Amedeo and I know you have written about him in the past, in particular about one of his other muses–Jeanne Hebuterne, I like your angle regarding Beatrice Hastings and the lure and the loss of first impressions. The man was certainly as complicated as his life–never walked the safe path, deviated from the norm–but then it is this defiance that has stayed with us through the course of history and not because he was part of the School of Paris.
    Of course he was a gifted and a learned artist. Had he lived longer I am sure his art would have made the impression in history more than the bohemian life and lore we have had to cling to for the last century.
    I too have had a fascination with this great “one” . I find the era in which he lived in, fascinating, richly drenched in drama and history. The women who Modi lured to his studio or his bed were more than just lovers and muses. They captivated his intellect as they did his soul. But did he really care to know their “anime”? The majority of eyes on his canvases are blank— lifeless. Is this to invoke mysteriousness–or emptiness?
    We speak of the artist but what about the women who sat for him and his art? I wonder what they thought about as they sat timidly waiting until the great bohemian finished his last dab or swoosh. Had their initial impressions changed from whence they sat and from thence lay?
    Were they obliged to fall prey to his lust as recompense? Did their impressions change after time passed and the true Bohemian resurfaced after hashish and alcohol? Did being pushed out of windows(BH), pulled by plaits in public(JH) or rebuked for giving birth to an illegitimate son(ST), change their sentiments? All these women understood and knew Modi personally in their isolated and detached ways; all of them met tragic ends; and their impressions of Modi were unique and everlasting– and had nothing to do with the outside world.

    • artmodel says:

      maria,

      Your comments, and the questions you raised, are interesting and insightful, thank you! Without a doubt, Modigliani’s art, exploits, and persona are the subject of enduring fascination. He, perhaps more than anyone else, is emblematic of his time in history, when art and culture were especially potent. You mentioned that we’ll never know how Modigliani’s work might have evolved if he had not died so young. His good friend Picasso went on to live a long and prosperous life, during which he loved more women, celebrated more muses, and experimented with new styles. Modigliani, for better or worse, will forever be locked into the frame of early 20th century hashish-driven bohemian Paris years. And that certainly adds to the lore which surrounds his image.

      I appreciate you speaking to the women in Modigliani’s life and the art they inspired. Great comments. Thanks again 🙂

      Claudia

  4. doug rogers says:

    Another post that tells me these should be in a book.

  5. doug rogers says:

    Maria, it’s odd that I’ve never had a problem with his blank eyes. Rather than lifeless, they are spaces we project ourselves into the person.

    • maria says:

      Very astute of you Doug-thanks–and I agree that they are projections of oneself–but take it a step further and ask–is it the maneuvering of the artist– the condition of the muse– or the perception of the viewer? As for ‘lifeless’ I should have qualified that the Modi eyes are the tell tales of one’s own inert sense of abandonment–a different plane of existence which intellectuals such as Modigliani strived to achieve.
      Eyes are the windows–human condition painted in different shades:)

      • doug rogers says:

        All of my drawings are self-portraits.

      • doug rogers says:

        And Modigliani’s ‘eyes’, as coming out of this discussion, make me think of they way men look at women, they way people look to see, and looking as intimacy in general. We glance, we look away. We make eye contact, we break the eye contact in a dance. If all the focus is on the eyes then we stop looking. We also see as form, pattern, texture experience, colour. So in Modigliani’s work, we are driven away from seeing as being stuck on the eyes, and engage with all the other things.

  6. Rob says:

    Claudia-I love the way you thought through this piece but mostly that you give attention to things like impressions and time lapsing. Like, we all have wires or tentacles extending from ourselves and when we connect with another we might leave some possible connections dangling for a time or simply abandon some connections/aversions in favor of others. Complicated l’il critters we are!!

    • artmodel says:

      Rob,

      Complicated indeed! I agree that we send out signals all the time, like the “tentacles” you described. I don’t think it’s possible to ever really conceal them, although some people certainly try.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

  7. all I can say is: ” Find beauty not only in the thing itself but, but in the pattern of the shadows, THE LIGHT AND DARK which that thing provides. ” – Junichiro Tanizaki
    Also- Modigliani is one of my top 5 artists- and some of my conclusions about his art and the man differ from the general apocrypha

  8. Bill says:

    I think that much of the diffivulty lies in the fact that the first impression is often the only opportunity we have to make an impression at all. Not that long ago, most humans lived in small villages and towns — knowing the same people all of our lives. We had a chance to see people respond to good times, adversity, pleasure — we could take our time assessing a person’s character as it (and we) developed. Now we are only left with an impression or two of the individual’s personality — so we are left with personality as a poor substitute for character as the basis for our assessment.

    I have no problems with Modigliani’s portrait, but the eyes in the photo make me wish that I could have persuaded her not to turn on the gas.

    • artmodel says:

      Bill,

      You make a great point. i think the number of people we genuinely know well compared to the number of people we know as casual acquaintances is smaller than we think. Our assessments of people in those two categories are quite different. You hit the nail on the head when you wrote that “personality” is “a poor substitute for character”. They are distinct from each other.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

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