Olga's Gallery

September 01, 2002

Dear Friends of Art,

In August 2002 we published the collection of Amedeo Modigliani, an Italian painter of the beginning of the 20th century. During his short, unbalanced and chaotic life he managed to create masterpieces, that are highly praised nowadays by art lovers and collectors; actually Modigliani's works are among the most expensive ones.
It was difficult to work on his biography, because on one hand, there are a lot of books about the artist, full of legends of all kinds, on the other hand, there are not many facts about him.
The topic of todays letter, one of Modiglianis love affairs, is also based on very few facts, which we interpreted in our way, you may have your own version.

Anna and Amedeo

In 1910 Russian poet Nikolai Gumilev brought his young wife, also a poet, Anna Akhmatova, to Paris. The couple came on their honeymoon.

She was tall, slender and very graceful, always and everywhere she attracted glances; Parisiens, a strange folk, openly expressed their admiration of her very uncommon beauty. Gumilev, who adored her but whose love was not reciprocal, was a little jealous, but he understood, that it was a local way and tried to be polite. Only ones man admiration suddenly aroused open irritation. The mans name was Amedeo Modigliani.

How did they get acquainted with Modigliani? When Anna recalled their first encounter years later for other people, she always told a different story, she was creating a myth, she liked myths, like her Italian friend. Most probably they were introduced to each other by one of their mutual Russian friends, the community of Russian artists, poets, and writers was rather big and Modigliani had many friends among them. Half a century later in her memoirs she would write that she met Amedeo in the spring of 1910, but saw him only a few times. During these few times she fell in love, maybe he too, because he wrote to her in St. Petersburg through the rest of 1910 and the winter and spring of 1911. I remember just a few sentences from his letters, one of them Vous etes en moi comme une hantise (You are my obsession), remembered Akhmatova. Some art historians date his nudes of her to the spring of 1910. But that seems improbable. Though willful she was, she was afraid of leaving her husband, who loved her so much, she constantly felt guilty for having feelings towards another man. Still, yes, that was a strange honeymoon.
We both did not understand one very important thing everything, that happened, was for both of us a pre-history of our lives his, very short, and mine very long. (Akhamatova)

The Gumilevs returned to Russia and Nikolai brought his wife to his mothers estate. The old estate with its strict order and discipline quite unexpectedly gave peace and freedom to Anna, who could wander in the surrounding woods and fields for hours, thinking and dreaming, turning her feelings into poems. On the contrary, it bored and irritated Nikolai. In two months he left for Africa. And Amedeo wrote her love letters, You are my obsession She wrote love verses about her obsession with him. Those are lyrical Russian verses, they could not be addressed to him as he did not know Russian, he could not understand them, these are Russian verses addressed to an idol with Modiglianis appearance Modigliani was very sorry he could not understand my poems. (Akhmatova)

As soon as Nikolai returned from Africa, Anna left for Paris. She went to Amedeo. He was occupied with sculpture at the time and was fond of Egypt. He took me to the Louvre, its Egyptian department Drew my head in decoration of Egyptian tsarinas and dancers and seemed to be fully occupied with the art of Egypt.
He adored her long neck and elongated body. Who knows, he was in love because her forms answered his aesthetic ideal, or vice versa, her shape influenced the stylistics of his works, made them so recognizable, neo-manneristic?

Modigliani subjects Jeanne entirely to his style an art historian, Doris Krystof, writes about the painters common-law wife, Jeanne Hebuterne.  Yes, on the photo Jeanne looks rather broad faced, in life she was well-built, but short, petite. Annas body was not needed to be subjected to the style, it fully answered his future style.

 Modigliani liked to wander about Paris at night, and often, when I heard his steps in the dreamy silence of the street, I used to come up to a window and through jalousie follow his shadow which slowed under my window. Thats all. Even 50 years later her prose about him is decent and decorous.
The truth is, however, in her passionate verses.




When you're drunk it's so much fun -- 
Your stories don't make sense.
An early fall has strung 
The elms with yellow flags.
We've strayed into the land of deceit
And we're repenting bitterly,
Why then are we smiling these
Strange and frozen smiles?
We wanted piercing anguish
Instead of placid happiness. . .
I won't abandon my friend,
So dissolute and mild. 
1911 (Paris)
-- translated by Judith Hemschemeyer

Originally published (in Russian) in the book Evening, 1912

(Unfortunately its the mark of any poetry rendered into another language it preserves the idea, but not melody, music, feelings and, that is why, not the essence of the original. Sorry to say, but we did not find any English version of translation equal to the original poems.)

The truth is in Annas jealousy and irritation with all his other women, especially the one, Beatrice Hastings. The strange love affair between Modigliani and Hastings lasted for nearly 2 years. Beatrice was a journalist, a poetess, a circus artist, a follower of Blavatsky, talented spiritual medium She wrote of Modigliani, A complex character. A swine and a pearl. I read in an American essay, writes Akhmatova, that one Beatrice Hastings made a strong influence on Modigliani I can, and think its necessary, to state, that he was well educated long before his meeting with Beatrice And I doubt that a woman, who calls the great painter a swine, can enlighten somebody.  Anna could not forgive the unknown rival the word swine.

Akhmatova and Modigliani kept their affair secret, she was afraid to go with him to places where she could meet people who knew her husband, he liked mysteries and did not insist.

He never drew me from life, she writes playfully. Of course at the age of 70 she wanted her youthful love affair to look respectable.  He gave her 16 paintings of her, but she kept only one, decent and seemly. Where are the remaining 15? She said that they were destroyed during the Revolution. But were they? Did she bring them to Russia? The only one, which she brought, she hid too. She concealed all evidence of her Parisian affair from her husband. Only once she mentioned Modiglianis name in front of Gumilev in May of 1918, and his reaction was immediate and negative, he called the painter drunk beast. And they both had only three years of life ahead and big posthumous fame, she comments sadly. (Amedeo would die in January 1920, and Nikolai would be shot by Bolsheviks in 1921 as a counter-revolutionary.)

In two months Anna and Amedeo parted, not to meet ever again, she returned to St. Petersburg and he stayed in Paris Now they ascended separately each to his own fame.



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Song of the Last Meeting

My heart froze helplessly.
But my step was light.
Absent-mindedly I put a left glove 
On my right hand.

It seemed that there were so many steps,
Though I knew there are only three!
The autumnal whisper of maples
Pleaded, Die with me!

Im deceived  by my cheerless
Changeable, wicked fate.
I answered, Dear, dear!

Me too. Ill die with you
I looked at the dark house.
Only the bedroom was lit by
 Indifferent yellow candlelight.

(The strange thing is that another young lover of Modigliani, Jeanne Hebuterne, would really die with him)

These verses became so popular in Russia, that later Akhmatova hated them. I dont understand why these poor poems of a shallow girl are re-published so many times, she would write about her poems of 1910-1911.
In 1940 Akhmatova started a big poem, Poem without a Hero. In one of the working variants she has the following lines, where she called her first lover by name:


Paris is in dark mist
And probably again Modigliani
Imperceptibly follows me.
He has a sad virtue
To bring disorder even to my dreams
And be the reason of my many misfortunes.

Nobel Prize laureate and a close friend of Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky, said concerning Akhmatovas essay about Modigliani, Its Romeo and Juliet played by persons of royal blood. Akhmatova laughed, she liked the joke, and she saw that those who can read understood her restrained story pretty well.

Poems. By Anna Akhmatova. Leningrad. 1989.
Amedeo Modigliani. By Anna Akhmatova. In Prose of the Poet. Moscow. 2000.
Russian Secrets of Paris. By B. Nosik. St. Petersburg. 2001.

We also published a collection of works of Russian painter Nathan Altman, who painted a famous portrait of Anna Akhmatova.

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