Archive | Memories of Modigliani by Anna Akhmatova

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First published in the August 1964 edition of the London Magazine (Vol. 4 No.5)

(translated from the Italian text by Bernard Wall)

I can well believe those other people who describe him differently from what he was as I knew him, and this is why. I only knew one aspect of his nature (the grandiose one); I was only an outsider, a foreigner, a woman of twenty and probably not very understanding; and then I myself saw a big change in him when we met again in 1911. He had become in some way dimmer and slighter.

In 1910 I saw him only occasionally, but that didn’t prevent him writing to me during the whole of the winter.

Now I realize that what struck him most about me was my capacity for intuiting the thoughts of other people, for perceiving their dreams, and for various other small things that people who had known me for some time took for granted. He was always saying: ‘On communique,‘ or ‘Il n’y que vous pour réaliser cela.

Probably neither of us understood one essential thing: that everything that happened to us then belonged to the prehistory of our lives— his life being very short, and mine very long. The breath of art had not yet burnt up or transformed our two existences; it was a luminous, weightless moment, the hour before dawn. But, as we know, the shadow of the future reaches us long before the future itself reaches us; the future was tapping at the window, hiding behind the street-lamps, breaking in on our dreams and bringing dread, while the terrifying Paris of Baudelaire was over our shoulders somewhere, watching. And what was god-like in Amadeo only sparkled through a layer of darkness.

He had the head of an Antinous and eyes with sparks of gold— in appearance he was absolutely unlike anyone else. His voice remains engraved on my memory for ever. I knew he was poor, and no one knew what he lived on. As an artist, not a shadow of recognition.

At that time (1911) he was living in the Impasse Folguière. He was such a pauper that in the Luxembourg Gardens he always sat on a bench and not on the usual chairs you had to pay for. He never complained either of his pauper’s condition, which was quite obvious, nor of his equally obvious lack of recognition. Only once in 1911 did he say that the previous winter he’d had so many difficulties that he couldn’t even think of what was nearest to his heart.

I felt he was surrounded by a solid ring of loneliness. I don’t remember him ever greeting anyone in the Luxembourg Gardens or the Latin Quarterwhere everyone seemed to have a nodding acquaintance with each other. I never heard him mention anyone he knew, friend or painter. I never heard him make a joke. I never saw him drink, and his breath didn’t smell of wine. Obviously he began drinking at a later stage, but hashish had already made its appearance in the stories he told. At the time, openly at least, he had no woman companion. He never romanced (as everyone does, alas) about former loves. With me he didn’t usually talk about terre-à-terre things….His courtesy wasn’t the outcome of upbringing at home, but of his sublime spirit.

At that period he was very busy with a piece of sculpture and worked in a backyard near the studio (you could hear him hammering in the deserted alley). His studio walls were covered with portraits of improbable length (if I remember rightly, they stretched from floor to ceiling). I’ve never seen reproductions: are they still extant? He called his sculpture ‘la chose’, and it was exhibited, I think, at the Indépendants in 1911. He begged me to come and see it, but at the exhibition he kept away from me because I wasn’t alone but with friends. When I lost nearly everything I had, the photograph he gave me of the ‘the thing’ disappeared too.

During the period Modigliani was full of enthusiasm for Egypt. He took me to the Louvre to visit the Egyptian rooms and assured me that tout le reste wasn’t worth looking at. He drew a head of me with the ornaments of an Egyptian queen and seemed quite bewitched by the great art of Egypt. Obviously, Egypt was the last of his infatuations. Soon he was going to be so original that his canvases had no echoes for the people who looked at them. Nowadays this phase of Modigliani’s is called the périod nègre.

He said: Les bijoux doivent être sauvages, a reference to my African pearls, and he made a portrait of me with that necklace.

He took me to see le vieux Paris derrière le Panthéon at night in the moonlight. He knew the city well, but on one occasion we got lost. He said, ‘J’ai oublié qu’il y a une île au milieu’ [the Ile Saint-Louis]. It was he who showed me the genuine Paris.

Talking about the Venus of Milo he said that women of graceful temperament, the ones worth modelling and painting, always look clumsy with their clothes on.

In drizzly weather (it rains a lot in Paris) Modigliani carried an enormous, decrepit black umbrella. Sometimes we sat under this umbrella on a bench in the Luxembourg gardens, with the warm summer rain falling and le vieux palais à l’italienne sleeping nearby, and together we recited Verlaine whom both of us remembered by heart, happy at remembering the same passages.

I’ve read somewhere that that Mrs V.H who calls him perle et porceau exercised a great influence over Modigliani. I can, and feel I must, bear witness that Amadeo was completely educated long before he made that Mrs V.H’s acquaintance, that is, in 1910. And it is almost unbelievable to suppose that a woman who calls a great painter a dirty pig could teach anyone anything. The first foreigner to see my portrait by Modigliani in my home on the Fontanka spoke of this portrait in a way I can neither remember nor forget.

Elderly people showed us the path in the Luxembourg gardens taken by Verlaine when, with a crowd of admirers, he went to ‘his café’ where he held court, and ‘his restaurant’ for dinner. In 1911 Verlaine no longer walked along this path, but there was another gentleman in impeccable city clothes with a top hat and a ribbon of the Légion d’honneur in his buttonhole, and people near whispered, ‘Henri de Regnier’.

For us two this name had no particular significance. As for Anatole France, Modigliani (like other cultivated Parisians, come to that) could not bear to hear him mentioned. He was delighted that I didn’t like him either. And Verlain, in the Luxembourg gardens, only existed in the form of a monument, a monument unveiled that year. About Hugo Modigliani simply said, ‘Mais, madame, Hugo c’est déclamatoire’.

Once, probably because of some misunderstanding, I went to see Modigliani and didn’t find him at home. I decided to wait for a few minutes. I was carrrying a bunch of red roses. The window above the big door of the studio was open. As I hadn’t anything to do I began casting the flowers in the studio one by one. Then, as he didn’t appear, I went away.

When we met he expressed amazement that I had managed to get into the room when he had the key. I explained. He said, ‘That’s impossible— they were so well arranged…’.

Modigliani liked wandering round Paris at night and often, when I heard his footsteps in the sleepy silence of the street, I got up from my desk and through the shutters watched his shadow lingering beneath my windows.

Already by the beginning of the twenties the Paris of those days was called Vieux Paris et Paris et Paris avant-guerre.

Carriages were still plentiful and doing well in those days, with their little drinking places— au rendezvous des cochers— and my contemporaries were still alive though they were soon to die on the Marne and at Verdun. All the avant-garde artists had obtained recognition except Modigliani. Picasso was just as famous as he is today, but, for some reason or other, one always said, ‘Picasso and Braque’. Ida Rubinstein was playing in Salome and Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes (Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Pavlova, Bakst, Karsavina) had become an elegant tradition.

Nowadays we realize that Stravinsky’s destiny is not a thing limited to 1910; his work has become the highest expression in music of the spirit of the twentieth century. In those days we were unaware of this. The Firebird was presented on June 20, 1910. On June 13, 1911, Folkine put on Petrushka at Diaghilev’s.

The opening of the new boulevards running through the living flesh of Paris (remember Zola’s description) had not yet been completed (boulevard Raspail). Werner, a friend of Edison’s, once showed me two little tables at the Taverne du Panthéon and said, ‘There are your social democrats— Bolsheviks here, Mensheviks there’. With varying success women tried alternately wearing jupes calottes and jupes entravées, which almost swaddled their legs. Verse became weak and was abandoned or was only bought for the sketches of more or less famous artists. Already then I realized that the painting of Paris had devoured French poetry.

Réne Ghil propounded ‘scientific poetry’ and the so-called students of that master visited him with ill will.

An Italian worker stole the Mona Lisa so as to take it back to the mother country….

 

Modigliani often complained that he could not understand my verses and suspected that something miraculous lay concealed in them, though they were no more than my earliest shy efforts.

He gave me his drawings of me as a present. There were sixteen of them. They were lost at my home at Tsarksoe Selo, in the early years of the revolution. Only one has survived which unfortunately is less of a forecast than the others  of his future ‘nudes’.

He asked me to have them framed and to hang them in my room at Tsarskoe Selo.

The thing we talked about most together was poetry. We both knew a good deal of French Verses—Verlaine, Laforgue, Mallarmé, Baudelaire.

He never recited Dante to me. This may been because at that time I hadn’t yet learnt Italian. Once he said ‘J’ai oublié de vous dire que je suis juif’. He told me he had been interested in airmen, but when he met one he was disappointed; he struck him as a mere sportsman (what did he expect?). 

At the time the first aeroplanes (Gumiliov: ‘In heavy machines roaring, penetrate the storm clouds’) which were light and looked like bookshelves as everyone knows, were whirling round my rusty bandy-legged twin, the Eifel Tower (1889). To my eyes it looked like a gigantic candlestick, forgotten by a colossus in the midst of a capital of dwarfs. But all that has something of Gulliver about it.

… And all around raged Cubism, the recent victor—Cubism that remained a stranger to Modigliani.

Marc Chagall had come to Paris with his magical Vitebsk and was a young stroller in boulevards, still unknown, a star not yet risen. Charlie Chaplin, the Great Dumb Man, was still eloquently silent.

‘And far away in the North…’ in Russia Leo Tolstoy and Vera Komisarjevskaia died, the symbolists proclaimed they were in crisis, and Alexander Blok made prophesies in verse and prose.

The three giants on whom the twentieth century now rests (Proust, Joyce and Kafka) had not yet become myths, though as men they were alive.

In the years that followed, when I was sure that a man like him must have reached a stage of flory, I used to ask people who came from Paris about him. But the answer was always the same— ‘He’s unknown; I’ve never heard of him.’ Neither A. Ekster, the woman painter from whose school all the ‘left-wing’ artists of Kiev emerged, nor B. Anrep, the well-known mosaic-worker, nor N. Altman who in these years (1914-15) painted my portrait- none of them knew anything about him.

Only, once, Nikolai Gumiliov— when we made our last journey together to see our son at Bezezk (in May 1918), and I mentioned Modigliani— described him as a ‘drunken monster’ or something of the sort and said he had had an unpleasant encounter with him in Paris when Modigliani had protested on hearing Gumiliov talking Russian in the company of some friends. Yet neither of them had much more than three years to live….

For a long time I felt I would never hear of him again— and yet I was to hear a great deal….

Modigliani was contemptuous about travellers. He used to maintain that travelling was a substitute for genuine action. he sedulously kept Les Chants de Maldoror in his pocket, a book then very rare. He told how once he had gone into a Russian church during the Easter Mass to see the procession, as he loved magnificent ceremonies. And a ‘gentleman who was probably very important’ had exchanged the Easter kiss with him. Modigliani, I feel, utterly failed to grasp what it meant….

At the beginning of the N.E.P. period, when I was a member of the Committee of the Writer’s Union, we used to meet in the studio of Alexander Nikolaievitch Tikhonov in Leningrad (36 Mokhovaic Street, the Universal Literature publishers). At that time postal relations with foreign countries were being resumed and Tikhonov used to receive many books and reviews from abroad. During one meeting someone handed me a copy of a French art review. I opened it. There was a photo of him… a cross…and a long obituary from which I learnt that he was a great painter of the twentieth century (I recollect that he was compared with Botticelli) and that there were already monographs about him in English and Italian. Then, in the thirties, Ehrenburg told me a lot about him and dedicated verses to him in Lyrics to the Vigils— he had known him in Paris later than I had. I also read about Modigliani in François Carco’s book From Montmartre to the Latin Quarter, and in a serialized novel whose author set him besides Utrillo. I am able to state with absolute certainty that his figure is not remotely like Amadeo as he was in the years 1910 and 1911.

Here, nowadays, everybody interested in contemporary art knows him. And abroad he is so famous that, alas, they devoted the film Montmartre 1919 to him.

Bolshevo 1958-Moscow 1964

 

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