On Passion and Innovation

What the life of Modigliani can teach us about creativity.

Posted Apr 26, 2018

Public Domain
Source: Public Domain

An exploration of creativity can be informed by the study of the muse—the rarest element in the periodic table of creativity, a catalyst that not only quickens the spirit but deepens the brilliance and meaning of the art that is produced. So, let us look into the life of the artist to explore the nature of creativity.

In honor of a Modigliani painting "Nu couché sur le côté gauche" selling for $170 million, the 2nd-highest price ever for a painting at auction, let’s consider the life of this exceedingly passionate artist. Modigliani was truly prolific, constantly sketching, making as many as 100 drawings a day. Sadly, he destroyed many of them, which is a common practice for artists seeking to renew their passion.

Like his contemporary Vincent van Gogh, Amedeo Modigliani endured a bohemian impoverishment; often flat broke, he was known to exchange works of art for meals at restaurants. This condition lasted well into his final days—he died of tubercular meningitis in a hospital for the homeless. He would have been amused to learn that one of his nudes, one of the less important ones that he failed to name, would someday sell for such an unbelievable sum. Instead of paying for a meal, the painting would have bought the entire café and all the buildings around it.

What is truly memorable about Modigliani was his passion for love and life. The Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel wrote, in her best-seller The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, “Love is messy; infidelity more so. But it is also a window, like none other, into the crevices of the human heart.” Well, there probably wasn't an artist who mastered the art of infidelity better than Modigliani. No better place to investigate the crevices of human passion and creativity.

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Although diminutive of stature, Modigliani was larger than life. He had big black bedroom eyes, framed by shiny black curls, and a big soft mouth. If he were alive today, he'd be a constant user of Tinder. Yes, it should be noted that he was an excellent pick up artist; he memorized thousands of poetry verses by heart, from obscure medieval works to contemporary French love poems, all finely tuned for seduction. He never parted from his copy of Les Chants de Maldoror by the French poet Lautréamont. Everything he did was in service to his obsession of love, sex and passion.

Modigliani was an adherent of Nietzsche’s philosophy and his adulation for the German philosopher’s ideology prompted him to adopt a similar brand of enthusiasm towards sex and its regenerative power. 

And just look at his work. His style is so adoring of the feminine—elongated faces, coquettishly tilted heads, lithe poses that accentuate sensuality and evoke an Egyptian version of divinity. In 1917, he debuted his first and only solo exhibition at Berthe Weill’s gallery in Paris. His show boasted a display of 30 drawings and paintings commissioned by his dealer Leopold Zborovski. The artist’s nude figures quickly became the subject of public scandal, and the police shut down the show within hours. When the police were asked why, the captain meekly responded, “He showed pubic hair.”

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

But Modigliani’s adoration of women wasn’t just skin deep, he also loved intellect. The first woman to capture his heart was a brilliant Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova, who was considered the darling of the St. Petersburg poetry scene, who made her mark by participating in the equivalent of modern poetry slams at the avant-garde Stray Dog Café. She and her futurist compatriots celebrated the dawn of a new century, just as we are doing today. She went on to be considered one of the most significant Russian poets of the 20th century, and was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in 1965.

Modigliani seduced her, or rather, they seduced each other, during her honeymoon in Paris. They were immediately inseparable, even by her new husband, who had pursued her for years, even attempting suicide in the name of unrequited love. In her memoirs, she wrote, "Whenever it rained (it often rained in Paris) Modigliani took with him a huge old black umbrella. We would sit together under this umbrella on a bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg in the warm summer rain. We would jointly recite Verlaine, whom we knew by heart, and we were glad we shared the same interests."

Modigliani was a foot shorter than the six foot tall, fully elongated Akhmatova. She was likely his inspiration for his famous motif and oeuvre. The artist Jean Cocteau said. "Modigliani never consciously stretches faces, exaggerates their lack of symmetry, gouges out an eye or lengthens a neck. All that happens in his heart."

After Akhmatova, Beatrice Hastings arrived. Modigliani fell like the proverbial ton of bricks for her, an effervescent free spirit. She dressed outlandishly. In her handbag, you were more likely to find a quacking duck and hashish than makeup. She had been a circus rider, a poet, a correspondent for the progressive art magazine The New Age. But most important, she was a polyamorist—changing lovers as often as her bizarre hats—relishing her freedom, adoring the avant-garde, the Holly Golightly of her time. And that was the emotional glue for Modigliani. Fueled by liberal amounts of drugs and alcohol, they argued and fought like rock stars. He was reported to have dragged her about by her hair. Another time, he dangled her by her legs from a second story window in a jealous fit. But Beatrice gave as hard as she got, and would smash chairs on his head.

For Modigliani, taming this amazing, beautiful, desirous wild thing was next to impossible, so capturing her face on canvas and paper was the best he could do. His creativity was driven by profound jealousy and obsession. The result of this was that she became his greatest muse, and he painted over 20 portraits of her. To be his muse, she had to become the woman he wanted so badly it seared and branded his heart.

After Beatrice, an endless procession of dalliances followed, and his last mistress, Jeanne Hebuterne, 14 years younger, was so in love with him that she threw herself from a window the night after his death. Nine months' pregnant, she killed both herself and their child. Everyone loves a tormented artist and Modigliani was the poster child for living life out loud.

Okay, so let’s talk about what this has to do with innovation. It's simple. Just ask yourself, why do you do what you do? Is it really a job or a passion? When asked why he was an artist, Modigliani said, “What I am searching for is neither the real nor the unreal, but the subconscious, the mystery of what is instinctive in the human race.”

So what’s your artist’s statement? Why do you invent, create, innovate?

Can you tell us why what you do, or even why you yourself, matter?

Who is your muse? How crazy in love are you?

How much hardship are you willing to endure for your art?

What will you sacrifice at the altar of creativity? Did you know that the word sacrifice is from the Latin sacer "sacred" combined with facere "to make"—meaning “to make sacred.” So what can you consecrate as your contribution to humanity?

If what believe you are working from passion, just how passionate are you truly being? Are you inside or outside your comfort zone?

Are you making your life as beautiful and meaningful as your art or invention? 

Are you living your life out loud? 

This is an opportunity to declare your passion. Let us know in the comment section.

Note: Modigliani’s painting that sold for $170 million; the buyer was Liu Yiqian, a Chinese billionaire who, together with his wife, owns the Long Museum in Shanghai. He was once a handbag street-seller and taxi driver, and he made his fortune in real estate and pharmaceuticals and has built one of the greatest collections of classical Chinese works of art as well as contemporary art. Now that’s another story of passion and an unstoppability.