On May 13, Christie’s will offer Amedeo Modigliani’s limestone sculpture, Tête, carved circa 1911-1912, in its New York Evening Sale of Impressionist and Modern Art (estimate: $30-40 million).
The present work is among the finest examples of the approximately twenty-six carved stones that defined the Italian modernist's sculptural output, and one of the last left in private hands.
Alongside Picasso, Brancusi and Matisse, Modigliani is rightly recognized as one of the pioneering masters of Modern sculpture. Modigliani differs from these artists however, in that his reputation is founded almost solely upon a unique series of works, all made in a brief and concentrated burst of creativity between 1911 and 1914. This series comprised of a sequence of twenty-six unique sculptures all created in Montparnasse in the years running up to the First World War.
As the British artist Augustus John remarked after first encountering Modigliani’s sculpture in 1913, these
“stone-heads affected me deeply. For some days afterwards, I found myself under the hallucination of meeting people in the street who might have posed for them; and that without myself resorting to the Indian Herb. Can ‘Modi’ have discovered a new and secret aspect of ‘reality’?” (quoted in A. Werner, op. cit., 1962, p. XVIII).
The present sculpture is a work that displays many of the unique motifs common to the finest of Modigliani’s stone heads. The frontal, hieratic position of the head; the elongated face; long, trapezoidal nose; smiling, v-shaped mouth; elongated ear-lobes and pointed chin are all distinguishing features, common to many of these pioneering works, but not found altogether in any of them, except here.
In Tête, as in all of Modigliani’s sculptural heads, each of these features has been seamlessly amalgamated and refined into a unique configuration. The resulting effect conjures a personal, idiosyncratic sense of portraiture.
Because Modigliani was later to be so acclaimed for his painting, it is sometimes overlooked that the artist saw himself primarily as a sculptor. He had longed to be a sculptor ever since his first discovery of Michelangelo in his youth. But, it was only after becoming close with Constantin Brancusi in Paris in 1909 that Modigliani began a practice of making his own carved sculptures; learning, under Brancusi’s direction, to carve, first into wood, and subsequently into stone.
By 1911, Modigliani had abandoned painting almost entirely and from then on, until around 1914, sculpture became almost his sole practice. Between 1911 and 1914, Modigliani produced almost all his known sculpture, very few paintings and a vast number of drawings and gouaches, all related either to sculpture or to sculptural projects. Tête is one of the series of either limestone or sandstone heads that Modigliani carved during this period.
At the basis of Modigliani’s sculptural vision was an innate concept of a sublime, timeless and all-encompassing beauty. This was a quality he had first divined from much of the Ancient Greek and Roman art he had encountered as a student in Rome and Florence. And, it was this, “truth in beauty”, he had written as a young man, that had laid the foundation for all his subsequent artistic endeavors.
The current record for a sculpture by Modigliani was achieved by Tête, 1911-1912 (an alternate example), which achieved $70.7m at Sotheby’s New York in November 2014.