Amedeo Modigliani’s meeting in Paris in 1909 with Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi inspired the painter to return to what he considered his true calling – sculpture. Brancusi’s artistic independence and his radically simplified forms, evocative of tribal art, made a deep impression on Modigliani. Initially he carved a series of over twenty heads from sandstone, then embarked on a study of the female figure in an ambitious undertaking that he called ‘colonnes de tendresse’ (columns of tenderness). The project was conceived as a group of caryatids – stylized representations of women that functioned as columns or pilasters in an architectural setting. These sculptures were planned for a secular temple devoted to the beauty of humankind. From 1909 until 1914–15 Modigliani explored his ideas for the project in a series of about fifty drawings.
These drawings chart Modigliani’s progressive refinement of his conception of the ideal form through an analysis of the female figure in a restricted number of poses. The caryatid drawings include examples of highly decorative figures reminiscent of Egyptian art, as well as those with greatly simplified forms, such as seen in this sheet. The influence of African art, which had such a profound effect on the art of many of Modigliani’s contemporaries, is evident in the poses of the figures and their mask-like faces. Modigliani’s search for an ideal form, worthy of a temple devoted to ideal beauty, relied on his keen observation of living bodies. The sensuality of the figure’s unfurling, abstracted forms is conveyed by such details as the volume of the thigh and the plump upper arms. The distinct hatching marks surrounding the contour of the caryatid figure are evocative of the motion of the sculptor’s chisel.
In April 1913 Modigliani wrote to his friend and only patron at the time, Paul Alexandre: ‘Fulfilment is on its way … I will do everything in marble’. The artist was embarking on a trip to Carrara, the finest marble quarry in Italy, where he hoped finally to realize his long-held ambition to sculpt his caryatids. Modigliani’s grand ambitions were never realized, and he abandoned the project because of his fragile health after completing only one caryatid sculpture (now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York). The artist returned to painting portraits, for which he is primarily known.
Text by Maria Zagala from Prints and Drawings in the International Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 105.