Art Thoughts, Week 29 -- Modigliani & Shape

Boy in Sailor Suit, Amadeo Modigliani (Italian, 1884—1920) 1917, oil on canvas, BF 369.

Modigliani’s portraits seem custom-made, in a way, for the Barnes Foundation collection: they tend to be symmetrical, playing off Barnes’ own erratic symmetry. Additionally, they excel in all ways within Barnes’ four “plastic elements” – light, line, color and space – the components which, being present and in balance were, according to Dr. Barnes, the hallmark of a successful and fine artwork. Here’s the rub though – for the longest time, I was convinced that shape was also one of the plastic elements…somehow it seemed as if it must be. What are the lines in a Matisse without the primacy of shape? Where do the colors go or stop in a Rousseau, Soutine or Rouault without shape? But, shape is not a part of the elements. I will not back down that easily though; artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Mangold, Brice Marden and Elizabeth Murray mean too much to me for shape to capitulate.

And shape is primal in Modigliani’s work. Without strong shapes his paintings would disintegrate into a mass of skillful scumbling. But more than simply using shapes, Modigliani utilized a network of repeated lines to emphasize pattern and the power of opposites. How do I mean this? In Boy with Sailor Suit, there is a dominant shape pattern, and that is the arch, or vault, both closed and open. Over and over the point is reiterated: the boy’s collar and eyebrows; the background shapes; the chair back and posts; the negative shape between his knees, and so on. All of these are curved and vaulted like a church apse, and are the dominant shape-makers in the painting. Opposing these arched elements is the other important group of shape-making lines: the anti-vaults. They create a mirrored arrangement, mimicking the vaults – the rosy facial highlights under the boy’s eyes; the curvature of his nose; the cuffs of his jacket; and the hair by his part. And the most important of the shapes created by the vault/anti-vault relationship are of course, the eyes.

In Modigliani’s portraits, all roads eventually lead to the eyes. They may not even be that striking– in fact, in many of his portraits, the eyes are hollow, or are painted in with a white or colored glaze, rendering them masklike. However, our tendency to be drawn to eyes – the mirrors, after all, of our own viewing – coupled with Modigliani’s setup of them, cause the eyes to be the focal shape in his portraits. And this is certainly the case in Boy with Sailor Suit. Not only are his eyes riveting and clear, they also epitomize the vault/anti-vault relationship so dominant in the piece. In effect, they create the perfect harmony of the two shape-making lines into the almond shape, balancing out the two forces in the painting’s composition. Indeed, the eyes anchor and stabilize the entire piece, like a bridge and its reflection creating a harmonious visual calm over a body of water. And not only do the eyes convey stability and balance, they also emit an energy that flows into the rest of the painting. This is not always the case in Modiglianis, but here it is. The delicate eyebrows, the pink ears and the blush below the eyes radiate from them like a force-field; like a diagram of pulsing magnetic waves. So, in a way, instead of simply being the goal of the painting’s composition, the eyes seem to emanate the energy which animates the rest of the picture, continually recreating the dynamics which originally attracted Modigliani: from the eyes in, and back again, ad infinitum.

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