March 05, 2016

Modigliani and Akhmatova in Paris


Modigliani and Akhmatova in Paris

In 1963, when Khrushchev’s Thaw was beginning to ebb, a compilation of poetry by Anna Akhmatova was published under the title The Flight of Time (Бег времени). The work spanned her entire half century career and was, of course, greeted ecstatically and even with a certain sense shock by those who, despite all the horrors of recent decades, had retained a love of Silver Age poetry.

Imposing, majestic, and no longer the svelte beauty she had once been, Akhmatova was now transformed into a cult figure. Despite long years during which the authorities had, at best, pretended that Akhmatova’s poetry did not exist and, at worst, such as in 1946, had come down on the great poet with the full, awful might of the system, for many of her compatriots Akhmatova embodied the perseverance of Russian poetry, which had endured horrific trials. Her tragic fate – the death of her first husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov; her refusal to emigrate; the ordeals of her son, who was sent to labor camps three times; harassment after the Central Committee resolution concerning the journals Zvezda and Leningrad – all this created a completely unique image.

Akhmatova was perceived as a demigoddess, as the uncrowned queen of poetry. The Flight of Time became an instant rarity that was sought after, hunted for on the dusty shelves of provincial shops, and sold to foreigners in hard-currency bookstores that ordinary Soviet citizens were forbidden to enter.

In accordance with Anna Andreyevna’s wishes, the dust jacket of this priceless little book features an exquisite drawing made in 1911 in Paris by the young and – at the time – utterly unknown artist Amedeo Modigliani. Of all the many images of her that had been produced, this is the one she chose to put on the cover of the book that in many ways came to represent the summation of her work – this, despite the fact that Akhmatova never advertised her relationship with Modigliani. Today, literary scholars try to puzzle out – with little success – which of her early poems reflect this love affair. The only place where we find the great artist actually named in her poetry is in an early draft of her famous Poem Without a Hero that was published many years after her death: “Paris in a bluish haze / And probably again Modigliani / Wanders unnoticed behind me / He has the sad ability / To distress even my sleep / And is behind many a calamity.”

Not long before her death, Akhmatova wrote about Modigliani and touched on those things that she wanted to convey and remember about their acquaintance.

As I now understand it, what most impressed him about me was my ability to read thoughts, to see other people’s dreams and other trifles to which people who know me had long since become accustomed. He would repeat over and over: “We understand one another...” He often said: “You are the only one who can make that happen.

Probably neither of us understood one essential thing: everything that happened was part of the prehistory of our life: his, very short; mine, very long. The breath of art had yet to kindle, to transform these two existences, this must have been a luminous, weightless, predawn hour. But the future, which we know casts its shadow long before making its entrance, was knocking at the window, lurking behind streetlamps, penetrating dreams, and frightening us with its dreadful Baudelairian Paris, which was concealed somewhere nearby. And everything that was divine in Modigliani simply sparkled through some kind of gloom. He was unlike anyone else in the world.

Just what happened between them seems destined to remain a mystery. We know that they met in 1910, when Akhmatova, who had just married Gumilyov, arrived in Paris with her new husband. We also know (based on Anna Andreyevna’s own words) that later Gumilyov called Modigliani a “drunken monster” – a statement that led journalists to draw the logical conclusion. Gumilyov, one might assume, had understood that sparks were flying between his wife and Modigliani, and he was provoking a quarrel with the artist on purpose. Perhaps that is what really happened, but there is no evidence to prove it.

It is entirely possible that the dissolute Italian with a penchant for drink simply irritated Gumilyov, for whom the ideal man was a hunter, a warrior, an explorer. Akhmatova, on the other hand, was charmed by Modigliani. After she returned to Russia, as she writes, Modigliani showered her with letters. Here too it is unclear the extent to which we can trust what she chooses to share with us at a distance of fifty years. Alas, Modigliani’s letters to Akhmatova have not survived and no one seems to know what happened to them.

Perhaps they burned along with the drawings that the artist gave her in 1911. Apparently there were 16 of them, and, according to Akhmatova, Modigliani asked that she mount them and hang them on the wall. However, none of Akhmatova’s countless visitors ever saw these drawings in her room. Why? Was it that she did not want to provoke jealousy in her husbands and admirers by exhibiting the nude drawings, or were they too dear to her to put on display?

Or maybe she actually came home with only one work by Modigliani – the one that appears on the cover of The Flight of Time? This drawing was always with her. Furthermore, there are researchers who believe that Modigliani never wrote any letters to Akhmatova, since he was known to despise the epistolary genre. If there is anything about which we can be more or less certain, it is that in 1911 Akhmatova again returned to Paris, now without Gumilyov, and that during this visit she spent a good deal of time with Modigliani. We can also be certain that this was the dawn of a new era. As Akhmatova herself wrote:

Mark Chagall had already brought his magical Vitebsk to Paris, and in the guise of a young unknown, the unascended luminary Charlie Chaplin was traipsing about Parisian boulevards. The “Great Mute” (as the cinema was called back then) was still eloquently silent. “And in the distant North”…in Russia, Lev Tolstoy, Vrubel, and Vera Komissarzhevskaya had died, the Symbolists had declared themselves in a state of crisis, and Alexander Blok had prophesied, “If, children, you only knew / The cold and gloom of coming days…” Three leviathans on which the twentieth century now rests – Proust, Joyce, and Kafka – did not yet exist as myths, although they were already alive as people.

At the time, nobody knew the mark on twentieth century culture that would be made by the still obscure man and woman wandering the Luxembourg Gardens and sitting on public benches (since Modigliani could not afford to pay for comfortable chairs and he probably did not want to cadge money off Akhmatova, who at the time was rather well off).

Now, it turns out, we can be sure that in 1911 Modigliani really did draw numerous pictures of Akhmatova and that their relationship was not limited to walks in the park and recitations of Verlaine to one another, as Akhmatova modestly describes it.

In 1993, Modigliani’s works from the collection of one of his friends was put on exhibit in Venice. An Italian Slavicist took a close look at twelve images of a young female nude and exclaimed, “That’s Akhmatova!”

But we are still no closer to understanding what these two really meant to one another. Why did Akhmatova choose a drawing by Modigliani for the cover of her book fifty years after the fact? Was it because she was never able to forget the romantic artist? Was it because by now she understood the full extent of Modigliani’s genius? Was it because the drawing symbolized her vanished youth? How can we possibly know?

And did Modigliani often think of his Russian lover? After 1911 he wrote no more letters to her, if indeed he wrote any at all. The artist did not have much longer to live and his life was a sad and difficult one. How tempting it is to believe that two geniuses found one another and that their relationship became a centerpiece in each of their lives. In fact, it appears that the main events in the lives of both Modigliani and Akhmatova involved different encounters and other situations.

Yet on the dust jacket of The Flight of Time we still see the figure of the Poet drawn by the inspired hand of the Artist.


Translated by Nora Favorov

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