A Tale of Two Artists

This isn’t the kind of thing that I usually write about but it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Now that my son is touring Europe and having the opportunity to see for himself some of the greatest works of art I’ve been thinking about this even more. When you look at a work of art are you able to remove yourself from the artist as a person? Does the person affect the image? I never thought so before. I always looked at art for it’s esthetic value or it’s meaning or for the thoughtfulness it might provoke. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I discovered that the way I felt about an artist as a person could change the way that I felt about his art.

Perhaps I am becoming more judgemental as I become older. Or maybe I’m just firmer in my convictions.

I’d like us to look at two artists; Marc Chagall (1887-1985) and Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920).

Toronto had an exhibit of Modigliani’s work about eight years ago. I was excited to go as I had always enjoyed his work. As I walked around the museum with my sister listening to the recording explaining his life and his work my feeling of pleasure changed to one of disappointment and eventually disgust. What follows is what I learned about this artist as a person.

Modigliani was born in Italy later settling in Paris. He died of tubercular meningitis exacerbated by an addiction to alcohol and to narcotics. He became the epitome of the tragic artist. Although he was known to have frequent affairs he lived with Jeanne Hebuterne. At the age of 20 she gave birth to their daughter, at the time of his death she was pregnant with their second child. Narcissist and egotist that he was he had her make a pact that when he died she would in turn kill herself. The day after his death Jeanne threw herself from the 5th floor window of her parent’s home killing herself and her unborn child. A woman of her word.

On a lower level of egotism Modigliani had an ongoing feud with Picasso. He was jealous of Picasso’s greater success both financially and in reputation. He felt that Picasso was using his ideas although he equally could be accused of using Picasso’s cubist ideas in his own work.
I find it impossible to look at his portraits of Jeanne and see any sort of love or respect. The image on the right is of Jeanne HebuterneJeanne Hebuterne

Now let’s take a look at Chagall. To be honest when I went to see his exhibit I was feeling a little nervous. What would I find out about this artist that would change my opinion about his work?

Wedding of Marc and Bella ChagallChagall was born in Russia later settling in Paris. His worked synthesized Cubism, Symbolism and Fauvism.
In 1910 he met Bella Rosenfeld who would later become his wife. He called her “the woman who was my inspiration”. After she died suddenly in 1944 he stopped all work for many months. When he did resume painting he was concerned with preserving Bella’s memory.
The image that I have posted of his work is of his and Bella’s wedding. He placed himself on her shoulders because his joy in marrying her made him feel as though he was light enough to float (I’m paraphrasing from something that I read quite a few years ago so please forgive me if I don’t have it quite right, I’m going for the essence of the feeling here).

As to Chagall and Picasso, Picasso said this of him; “When Matisse dies Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.”

By attending their exhibits I developed a new found appreciation of Marc Chagall and a disdain for Modigliani.

If art is meant to provoke both of these artists were successful just in different ways. So go visit a gallery, rent the informative recording you may be surprised by what you end up thinking about.