Modigliani only showed his paintings once in London while he was alive. There was a show at the Mansard Gallery in 1919. There was a big wicker basket of his drawings for sale; they were sold for 1 shilling each, which was less than the price of entry to the exhibition. Very few were bought. Also, Modigliani used to give his drawings away at Paris cafes, or sell them. It was “disgraceful”, said Leopold Zborowski, Modigliani’s dealer, that the artist had to “sell his work on the cafe terraces.” He would sell them for a price that amounted to as little as 2 pence, noted the artist Nina Hamnett.
I remember missing Freya Wright. Some years ago, I saw her paintings at an exhibition for Bloomberg New Contemporaries. The paintings were small, detailed, photo-real film stills – images from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Elia Kazan’s East of Eden. Some had a very beautiful, 1950s look and light. They weren’t expensive, but I didn’t think about buying one until a few months later; by then her works had been sold. Sometimes you get one moment in which to act, just one gap in space and time. And that is all.
Modigliani got a good price in 1908, when a young collector was taken to his studio by Picasso. The collector, André Level, was captivated by a beautiful watercolour of a caryatid. Modigliani would have sold it for little, but Picasso set the price that day – 25 francs. It was “one of the highest he ever received at that time”, says June Rose, one of Modigliani’s biographers. I like this aspect of Picasso: a practical and matey hustler.
In 1990 I went to Camden Market to buy a leather jacket. I wanted a vintage “cafe racer”, battered and, ideally, blue. In those days I expected to pay £30. One stall had more than 40 vintage biker jackets from the post-punk period with hand-painted artwork and lettering. They were standards of the time: PiL, Siouxsie Sioux, The Cure, Bauhaus, The Sisters of Mercy, Generation X and Adam and the Ants. The Ants jackets had well-executed bondage cartoons. There were even rocker jackets; I recall Motörhead and Saxon. They must be museum pieces now. I didn’t buy any of them. But some years later I kind of wanted all of them.
When I was a teenager, I watched post-punk be replaced by the designer 1980s. I went from hanging around Oxford Circus in a ripped jumper clutching a Skids single to checking out Gaultier on the King’s Road and trying on suits in Katharine Hamnett. I really liked her flagship Brompton Road store, designed by Norman Foster: a vast, semi-industrial hangar, whose entrance was a long, narrow passageway, like a catwalk, but you walked over a glowing glass bridge. There is one jacket from that store I still think about from time to time. It was a bomber jacket, MA-1 influenced (I think), but in soft suede, with a luxurious quilted lining. I felt very warm and protected when I tried it on, more than once.
I didn’t buy the jacket because I couldn’t afford it. I don’t think credit cards were everywhere yet, in the early to mid-1980s. Also, in those days, I was regularly taken out for lunch by an older man. He used to send me long, dull letters that I hid from parents. I can’t remember where I met him. How do these guys pick up 16- and 17-year- olds? Perhaps at the National Gallery. Recently, some of his conversation came back to me, even though I had long forgotten him. He asked me if I was ever punished at school. And if so, how they did it. I didn’t notice this gambit at the time. Now I can see more clearly. And I could easily have got him to buy me that jacket.
Modigliani was in Nice in 1919. It’s said he shared a studio with Chaim Soutine at Cagnes-sur-Mer. When they left, owing money for drink and rent, the studio was “filthy”, says Rose, “with broken dishes and a disgusting mess everywhere”. The owner kept the paintings they left behind and used them to cover his chicken coops and rabbit hutch- es. Nothing, it seems, has been heard about these canvases again. They must have been ruined. And while Soutine may not be as well known as Modigliani, his paintings, these days, sell for high prices.
In 2011, a handful of small, pale blue paintings caught my eye at a London art fair. They showed human figures diving into swimming pools. They were attractive paintings: the colours were watery and mellow, and the figures and composition made me think of German painting from the 1920s and 1930s. That day I was with a friend who tutors at Goldsmiths and the Slade. “Tempera,” she said. “He is painting in egg tempera.” I gave her a very blank look.
Egg tempera, she said, is a medium that Renaissance painters used. Including Michelangelo. It can lead to particularly bright colours. It’s what artists used before oil paint was discovered. It is “gorgeous,” she said, because you work with raw pigment; the egg yolk is a binding agent. “I haven’t seen anyone using it for years,” she added.
I noted the name of the painter, Benjamin Senior, then forgot him. Five years later, I won an award for writing about perfume that came with a large cheque. I suddenly remembered and desperately wanted to own one of those small paintings. But he was now represented by several galleries, and his stock (and prices) must have risen. Those early paintings were no longer available. I missed the moment. It even came with a signal: my friend from Goldsmiths was very positive about his work. It was slightly difficult to buy it later on.
In 1906, you could buy Modigliani in Paris at a good price. Three women’s heads, almost monochrome, thinly painted against green backgrounds, were displayed in the window of the Art Gallery, a little shop on the Rue des Saint-Pères. They were on sale for 15 francs each (in those days you could eat basic lunch in Paris for 1 or 2 francs). Similarly, his drawings: in 1908, Paul Alexandre, Modigliani’s patron, bought entire portfolios of Modigliani’s drawings for just a few francs.
The Modigliani stories are haunting because his work is now so valuable. It is hard to grasp the distance his work has travelled between worthless and priceless. It is almost eerie how his former lover Beatrice Hastings could talk about having one of his sculptured heads in her flat. Could you stick one in a corner of your sitting room and stare at it, drunkenly, by candlelight? Modigliani, she said, threw it away.
“I routed out this head from a corner sacred to the rubbish of centuries,” she wrote, “and was called stupid for my pains in taking it away. What avail for the artist to denounce such a work? One can live by it as by great literature. I will never part with it unless to a poet; he will find what I find and the unfortunate artist will have no choice as to his immortality.”
I recommend reading about Modigliani and Englishwomen like Hastings and Nina Hamnett, who were with him in Paris; he painted them both, repeatedly, I think. There might be fables of the ego and patriarchy about their stories, but they were all living their dream for a while. And in Paris, in 1910, they had reasonably good times. Much later, all their lives ended miserably. Anyway “Modi”’s painting of Hamnett is particularly beautiful. Her own paintings, which have that flavour of 1910 and 1920, had been worthless for a while, but one recently sold at Christie’s for £13,000. I was hunting for one, but that price is off-putting.
I have been thinking about items I failed to purchase. We could all make such a list. Are they more perfect and precious because they exist as unresolved desires? And can I more easily recall a jacket I never owned than one I wore and discarded? I also yearn for Modigliani drawings I could only own if I had been born a hundred years ago.
Shopping is desire, life is desire. The compression of desire to one brief moment in space and time is a little frenzy of desire. Perhaps there is a word for that: “fascination”, “craving” or “hunger”. But it’s a flash or burst of fascination that is very much in its own moment. But I can list the items I wish I had bought; they define my taste as much as the things I own. And without them, without all of them, what am I, then? To have no taste and no style – and that word is exhausted – what then?
“Lipstick and cigarettes,” wrote the artist Oskar Kokoschka, “make one forget one’s hunger.” Some of Kokoschka’s drawings are beautiful; a simple figure, a young girl with a dash of gouache to colour her skirt. Evidence that he sees clearly. And does Kokoschka point to the meaning or other side of desire? It is too sweet a line: carmine narcotic, glamour and addiction, they light up the dark.
Collage by Anna Bu Kliewer. The feature was taken from Issue 13 of 10 Magazine Australia, on newsstands now.