Jeanne & Modi – 103 Years Later

103 years ago today, modernist painter Amedeo Modigliani & his model, wife, and muse, Jeanne Hébuterne became immortal…

103 years ago today, modernist painter Amedeo Modigliani & his model, wife, and muse, Jeanne Hébuterne became immortal…

An elusive figure inhabits the sundrenched rooms of modernist painter Amedeo Modigliani’s Montparnasse studio in Rue de la Grande Chaumière. She sits quietly in a corner, sketching; paces the corridor with a heavy step; waits at the window, looking down at skeletal trees in an empty courtyard. From Modigliani’s many portraits of her, we recognize her otherworldly gaze, her coppery hair coiled like a geisha’s, her unflattering hint of double chin. It is Jeanne Hebuterne, Modigliani’s companion, model, and muse.

Until October 2000, when her artwork was featured in a major exhibition in Venice at the Giorgio Cini Foundation, not much was known about Jeanne Hebuterne, except for the tragic story of her suicide in 1920. She was a promising young artist, fourteen years Modigliani’s junior. Much too early in their love affair, Jeanne became pregnant with their first child. She was approaching the end of her second pregnancy when, destitute, abandoned by all but Jeanne, Modigliani died of tubercular meningitis on January 24, 1920. Unwilling to face life without him, she fell backwards out a Paris window less than forty-eight hours later, and at the age of twenty-one exited a world she had but little known. The couple was survived by their daughter, Jeanne Modigliani.

 Today Jeanne H and Modì are entombed together, but at the time of her death, Jeanne’s father had her buried out in the suburbs. By this means, he hoped to distance his daughter from the scandalous man who had turned her into a woman he could not recognize: defiant, pregnant, and unmarried.  After Jeanne’s father died, her mother allowed Jeanne’s remains to be re-interred beside Modigliani, and now their grave has become a shrine where pilgrims leave offerings of flowers, paintbrushes, postcards, and letters.

Jeanne was only sixteen when she fell in love with Modigliani, legendary as a lover in Montparnasse. Fearing her parents would disapprove of him, she kept their relationship secret, spending long afternoons with the painter, working together or making love with him in his studio, dawdling with him in cafes, only to return home to her parents’ home near Place de la Contrescarpe to sleep.

Jeanne is mainly remembered as Modigliani’s favorite model. In memoirs later published by their friends, she has been portrayed as bland, brooding, and clinging. Biographers and film directors have dismissed her as a mediocre art student or just one among Modigliani’s many lovers. Her gifts and aspirations as an artist have largely been ignored by scholars and critics. Only within the last twenty years have we come to discover Jeanne Hébuterne the artist, because her work was unavailable to the public before the year 2000.

After Jeanne’s demise in 1920, her brother, the painter, André Hébuterne, took all Jeanne’s artworks from the studio she had shared with Modigliani and locked them away in his own studio until he died, thus erasing Jeanne’s identity as an artist for the time being, yet also preserving her works for a future time. So distressed was he by his sister’s death, he refused to talk about her, or share her art with anyone. But there was someone who desperately wanted to see those artworks, with good reason– Jeanne’s own daughter, Jeanne Modigliani. Throughout her adult life, Jeanne Modigliani tried to piece together fragments of her parents’ brief life together and among her discoveries was a carnet of her mother’s sketches, in possession of the Hébuterne family. With great patience, she began negotiations with the Hébuternes to release the drawings for public viewing.

In Venice in 2000, at an exhibit at the Giorgio Cini Foundation, I stumbled upon Jeanne’s carnet of  drawings,  which the Hébuterne family had agreed to exhibit for the first time in eighty years. The drawings, mainly portraits, interiors, and nudes, reveal the complex web of relationships unfolding in Jeanne’s daily life. There are sketches of her father, mother, and their home; others of Modigliani, their studio, cafes, and lastly, poignant portraits of Modigliani on his death bed.  There are also several eye-popping nude self-portraits, which are particularly striking if we consider that just a decade earlier, women were prohibited from drawing nude models in French art academies. Modigliani never painted Jeanne nude, perhaps, it has been claimed, as it was “not the Italian way” to paint one’s wife disrobed. But Jeanne had no qualms about celebrating her own body by drawing it.

Taken as a whole, these drawings tease us with the riddle of Jeanne’s identity – how could she be all these things all at once: a dutiful daughter and sister, a voluptuous lover, a reckless rebel, a modest schoolgirl, muse and model to one of the greatest painters of her era, defiant artist of proudly provocative nudes? Over a century, myths have sedimented around Jeanne Hébuterne like layers of mother-of-pearl. Was she a self-effacing victim or a woman with a mind of her own?

This is what I set out to explore in my novel LOVING MODIGLIANI. The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne.

“Brilliantly researched, imaginative cross-genre historical fiction…The book’s inventive afterlife is as vividly drawn as the streets of Paris.”– Kirkus

“The zeitgeist is superbly captured… the protagonists lovingly sketched…a fine tribute to an artist forgotten for 100 years.” – Historical Novel Society Review

“Singularly unique and intensely ambitious and an utter joyride.” –– Indie Reader

“Eloquent, finely fashioned, deftly crafted…especially recommended addition to community, college, and university library Contemporary Literary Fiction collections.” – Midwest Book Review

Loving Modigliani brings alive the streets and cafés of Montparnasse in full multi-sensory detail… If you are a supporter of the under-appreciated women artists of their time, you will applaud Lappin’s choice of subject and you’ll love the novel’s ending. “ BonjourParis.com

Listen to Linda Lappin reading from Loving Modigliani here on YorickRadioPodcasts

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100 Years Ago — Katherine Mansfield and the Wish to be Real

On January 9,1923, Katherine Mansfield died in Fontainebleau, just outside Paris, at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. In October 1922, she had set out for Fontainebleau in the company of Ida Baker, for an interview with Gurdjieff. Deep depression and a spiritual crisis had led her to this decision, as she wrote in a letter that winter:

It seems to me that in life as it is lived today the catastrophe is imminent; I feel this catastrophe in me [. . . ] This world to me is a dream and the people in it are sleepers. I have known just instances of waking but that is all. I want to find a world in which these instances are united.

To her husband John Middleton Murry, she had written in December 1922 “I want to be real.”

She hoped to be admitted as a pupil of Gurdjieff’s teachings, but instead was welcomed as a guest with a very special regime which she describes in her letters. She rose at seven-thirty and lit a small fire in her room. The crumpled pages of the Literary Supplement were just the thing to get the blaze going. She washed in icy water, dressed before the fire and then went down to an abundant breakfast: eggs, toast, gorgonzola, quince jam. After breakfast she tidied her room and if weather permitted, she took a stroll around the grounds, observing the pupils busy with construction and yard work or visiting the farm animals kept as livestock. After lunch, some days she had a Russian lesson. On other days, bundled in her fur coat, she would help out in the kitchen at small task — like scraping carrots or peeling potatoes. Or she might be assigned the task of arranging flowers.

The culmination of each day at the Prieuré was the sacred dance class held after dinner. Though she had never cared for dancing, this dancing, she explained to Murry, was something different: it appeared to her as ‘the key to a new world within one’.  ‘I have no words with which to describe it. To see it seems to change one’s whole being for the time’. 

Despite what might seem a regimented schedule, there was also time for Katherine to nurture friendships with the other pupils — many of whom were artists, musicians, dancers, and this is one aspect of her life at the Prieuré that she underlined often in her letters. Her writing mentor, Richard Orage, who had become a transmitter of Gurdjieff’s teachings, has collected his conversations with her at the Prieuré in his book, “Talks with Katherine Mansfield.” Although Gurdjieff had advised Mansfield to use her time there for complete rest, to “live in her body again,” and not to use her energies writing –she did think deeply about her work at this time, and about the changes she wished to make in her life and in her writing.

Reflecting on her past work, she confessed to Orage: “I’ve been a camera.  But that’s just the point.  I’ve been a selective camera, and it has been my attitude that has determined the selection; with the result that my slices of life (thank you, Mr. Phillpotts!) have been partial, misleading, and a little malicious.  Further, they have had no other purpose than to record my attitude, which in itself stood in need of change if it was to become active instead of passive.  Altogether, I’ve been not only a mere camera, but I’ve been a selective camera, and a selective camera without a creative principle. ”

According to Orage, she believed she had found that new creative principle but still had to put it into practice.

Her death in January 1923 at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau is an enigma to many – how did she end up there and why? Reading the last stories, the last journals and letters, one finds many glimpses of her hunger for a more “permanent core” of self which attracted her to the teachings of Gurdjieff. Perhaps this is what Virginia Woolf alluded to when, writing of Katherine’s diary, she remarked, “ But writing, the mere expression of things adequately and sensitively, is not enough. It is founded upon something unexpressed; and this something must be solid and entire.” It was this something “solid and entire” that Katherine was searching for, within herself.

In my novel, Katherine’s Wish, I follow the last five years of Mansfield’s life, the events, the musing, and the quest which led her to Fontainebleau.

Resources: Letters of KM, Orage: Talks with Katherine Mansfield, Lappin: Ghosts of Fontainebleau, Lappin: Katherine Mansfield and DHL A Spiritual Quest

Listen to a reading from Katherine’s Wish here

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A radio play adaptation of a part of the book dealing with the friendship of Mansfield and Virginia Woolf is available on YORICK RADIO PODCASTS. Click here to listen

The Talking Heads of Giuseppe Utano in Bolsena

The fanciful sculptures of Giuseppe Utano body forth from the dark pagan heart of Italy pulsing beneath Lake Bolsena…

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The Bolsena Sphinx

One morning a cryptic message flashed across my cell phone: “Have you met the Sphinx in Bolsena yet?”

The text was from a friend who owns a house near  Italy’s secret jewel:  Lake Bolsena, Europe’s largest volcanic lake and the spiritual hub of many cultures. For the Etruscans, this lake was the omphalos, the world navel, where once a year high priests congregated to perform rituals of renewal in the dense woods fringing its banks.  The medieval pilgrim route to Rome, the Francigena, looped around its black, pebbled shores. In May each year in the village of Marta, pagan and Christian traditions interweave in the opulent blessing of the Fish. The dainty footsteps of a saint are pressed upon a miraculous stone beneath an altar in a lakeside church and an island out in the middle was once believed to be the portal to the underworld.  With such a history behind it, I could surely believe sphinxes inhabited Bolsena,  the town from which the lake takes its name, known in Etruscan times as Volsinii.

“Not yet,” I texted back.  “How can I find her?”  Sphinxes are, generally, feminine.

Her reply was puzzling. “Just follow the pot-heads to the castle.”

??Pot heads??

My friend, a genteel English lady of aristocratic bent,  was probably  unfamiliar with the associations that the word “Pot-Head” might have for someone growing up in the seventies.  I wondered if perhaps she had made a  typo and that “Pot heads” might be “Potter Heads” – referring  perhaps to  a book publicity event celebrating the magical escapades of H. Potter, who might have felt quite at home in Bolsena’ s labyrinthine,  medieval streets.

Nevertheless, one cold spring day, we were intrigued enough to set out in search of the sphinx. The air was crisp, the lake unruffled  indigo where  chattering water birds floated and dived.  We parked along an avenue fronted by pastel villas, shaded by stout  linden trees and six-foot high hydrangeas.   Once we had stepped through the gates into the old town,  we  immediately ran into the pot-heads. These were, literally, clay pots shaped like life-size heads whose faces recalled Etruscan gods and ancient Roman ladies, strung up all along the street, suspended by  macramé ropes.  In place of hair, scraggly ferns and ivy sprouted from the tops.

We followed the bobbing heads all the way up to the Etruscan museum , where  a lusty, terracotta sphinx planter crouched at the bottom of a steep flight of steps.  Upon enquiry, we learned that this remarkable creature had been made by a local artist who kept a shop on the main street.   Finding the museum shut,  we climbed back down to look for his shop, but  that was closed as well. So we went off to lunch at Il Moro, a trattoria built over the water, where you have the illusion of being on a  houseboat, and  after a leisurely lunch of local fish,  we wandered back to the shop,  still shuttered tight. “You’ll probably find him in his studio,”  advised the shopkeeper next door, explaining how to get there.  We set off again in the direction of the castle, and when we came to a small yard strewn with terracotta sculptures, we knew we had arrived.

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Inside Mr. Utano’s studio

We rang the bell once, and after a long wait, the artist, looking as though he had just woken up from a nap, answered the door, and graciously invited us in. While he put on a pot of coffee,   we sat down on worn leather chairs drawn up to a  worktable spattered with daubs of dried clay. Row upon row of dusty heads – satyrs, goddesses, nymphs, gargoyles  seemed to observe us as we sipped our espresso.  I could very well imagine Mr. Utano carrying on long conversations with this army of heads.  It occurred to me that when no one was there at night, all those heads chattering together probably made one hell of a noise.

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That was our first trip of many trips to the shop and studio of Mr. Utano, whose fantastical creatures now fill my home and garden.  Utano, a transported Sicilian who studied marble sculpture at the Carusi Workshop in Carrara, has also worked as a painter and restorer, and has even tried his hand at acting.  His fanciful sculptures body forth  from  the dark  pagan heart of Italy pulsing  beneath Lake Bolsena, and from the sun-drenched, temples of Magna Graecia in his Sicilian homeland.

For an artist like Giuseppe Utano  who fishes for iconic figures in the great sea of the unconscious, Bolsena and the surrounding areas of Tuscia and Maremma are a rich terrain for research.  Etruscan tombs with their satyrs, mermaids, chimeras, and masks –  gothic gargoyles and bestiaries,  baroque sculpture gardens, like Villa Lante or Bomarzo, with their sculptural itineraries of enlightenment, alchemy, and transgression are situated within a short drive from here, as is one of the twentieth century’s greatest esoteric sculpture gardens, the Tarot Garden of Niki de Saint Phalle.  There is just something in this myth-saturated landscape, in these mossy old stones blunted with time,   that  conjures beautiful monsters to the mind.

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In baroque garden design, some scholars believe, the sculptures embodied human consciousness and emotion.  Proper placement could alter fate, or  transmit an epiphany  or even ecstasy to visitors to the garden.  Utano’s better pieces crackle with emotion, wit, and sensuality. Some smile benignly, while others snarl, howl,  laugh, beguile you with a penetrating stare.  Some chastely hold candles, others flaunt conical breasts, or ripple sexy mermaid tails.  The bolder ones display Utano’s theatrical genius for the grotesque and the demonic, evoking that  great spirit of gardens and nature, Pan.  What must be remembered is that the energy irradiating from a work of art  is conferred to matter by the artist’s hands  — it’s that spark that gets lost in mechanical reproduction.  Each of these pieces is unique and not mass produced in series.  That’s what gives them their peculiar lifelikeness.

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Placing gargoyles, masks, or monsters outside homes or sanctuaries was a way to warn intruders or the evil-intentioned.  With that in mind, we commissioned Utano to make us  a Gorgon to protect the gate of our private courtyard which we wished to shield from indiscreet gazes.

“Some people tell me they think this one is too ugly,”  he said,  pointing out a boyish satyr with a seraphic expression.

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We couldn’t disagree more.

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Mr. Utano at work

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Our protective gorgon

Mr. Utano’s shop is now called La Medusa.   See the website for more information.

Copyright Linda Lappin, author of The Etruscan, Signatures in Stone: A Bomarzo Mystery, The Soul of Place: A Creative Writing Workbook,   & Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hebuterne. Photo credits, L. Lappin, S. Baldassarre, G. Utano.

A Child of the Sun…

Oct 14, 2021 marked the 133rd anniversary of Katherine Mansfield’s birth. Born in New Zealand, “ a little land with no history,” as she once described it, she moved to London definitively in 1908. She had studied in England previously from 1903-1906, and had hoped to make a musician’s career there, but soon discovered she had no real talent for it. The petite, plump girl in glasses lugging a ‘cello up the stairs to her unheated bedsitter was destined to find other means of expression for her immense talents and ambitions. No one back in New Zealand who had read her girlish writings — some of which had shocked her elders — would ever have imagined that she would have changed the face of modern English literature.

LISTEN NOW! YORICK RADIO PRODUCTIONS UK Celebrates Katherine Mansfield’s birthday with a bonus episode: a discussion of Mansfield’s life & a reading from Katherine’s Wish.

Traditionally Mansfield has been seen as a pioneer of the short story in English. Some detractors have tried to lessen her reputation in recent years by overemphasizing her debt to Chekov. Feminists and gender studies scholars, like Angela Smith, see her as a representative of “liminal experience,” that which lies beyond the fixed boundaries of gender, identity, self. Friends and biographers alike have puzzled over her penchant for “playing” with many masks and names and with the mendacious lives that seeped from her fiction into fact and then back again.

Her death in January 1923 at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau is an enigma to many – how did she end up there and why? Reading the last stories, the last journals and letters, one finds many glimpses of her hunger for a more “permanent core” of self which attracted her to the teachings of Gurdjieff.. Perhaps this is what Virginia Woolf alluded to when, writing of Katherine’s diary, she remarked, “ But writing, the mere expression of things adequately and sensitively, is not enough. It is founded upon something unexpressed; and this something must be solid and entire.”

The Prieure where Gurdjieff’s institute was housed.
Mansfield died there in January 1923

Gurdjieff

A few of Mansfield’s stories may seem dated today – but most have stood the test of time. Many are masterpieces: The Woman at the Store, The Daughters of the Late Colonel, The Fly, Prelude, The Man without a Temperament. Her journal, diaries, and letters remain among her best loved works – and, like Virginia Woolf’s diary, give us a full portrait of Katherine as a woman as well as a writer. The moods, flashes, experiments; the epiphanies and the anxieties , the make-overs and the mistakes of a writer’s working life are all there to be pondered, sifted through, studied, absorbed.

Though Mansfield lamented the “fragmentary” nature of her work – and strove despite the pressures of her illness continually for a higher level of achievement, many readers find a mysterious “wholeness” and sense of unity in the stories, diaries, letters, and fragments all taken together, in a seamless coalescing of art and life. Mansfield was not only a story-teller – she herself was the story, a story whose quality fascinates and yet refuses to be defined.

This may be why she has appeared often in the fiction of her own day and later times as a “character.” She appears as Gudrun in DH Lawrence’s great novel , Women in Love and as the protagonist of his late short story, “Mother and Daughter.” She appears as Walter Bidlake’s pitiful wife in Huxley’s Point Counterpoint. More generous snapshots of Katherine appear throughout Woolf’s diary and writings, showing us how deeply Mansfield continued to influence her, even long after her death. Nelia Gardner created a fictional portrait in an early fictionalized biography: Daughter of Time. CK Stead gave us a portrait of Mansfield’s early years, in Mansfield in 2008, the same year I published Katherine’s Wish with Wordcraft of Oregon. Several more have followed.

Though I consulted innumerable sources in my research while writing Katherine’s Wish, the most fascinating of all was James Moore’s incomparable study: Mansfield and Gurdjieff, by now a collectors’ item. What is it about her story that obsesses us so? The brevity of her life? Her fragility? Her nonconformism? We find so much of ourselves in her stories and especially in her diaries and letters. But she won’t be pinned down to any one identity, or to any of the many stories we weave about and around her. For though she belongs to many, she is possessed by none.

Katherine’s Wish, available from Wordcraft of Oregon

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Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne by Linda Lappin

Boys' Mom Reads!

With twists and turns at every step, this is a don’t-miss-it historical mystery!

When her husband and mentor, renowned painter, Amedeo Modigliani, dies after a short but brutal illness, Jeanne, 21 and pregnant with their second child jumps out of a window of her parents’ Parisian flat two days later and also dies. As a spirit, she tries to reunite with Modi but eventually ends up returning to the apartment and studio they shared, where she watches people she knew remove her things, even discovering her one last secret artwork hidden in the wall space behind a large cupboard. The painting, one that Modigliani had begun, was of Jeanne and their child, but when he’d rejected his initial work, intending to destroy it and start over, she’d saved it and added his likeness to the family portrait. Dubbed a lost Modigliani, its existence had become a myth in the world…

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