Modigliani and the Art of Making the Human Psyche Obsessively Fixated on Visual Gestalts that Trigger Human Archetypal Excitation

A. Modigliani, “Nude on a Divan”, 1918 (Reproachful Nude)
A. Modigliani, “Nude on a Divan”, 1918 (Reproachful Nude)

A. Modigliani, “Big Nude” (Grand nu), (Nude Sadly Accepting Her Posing Job)
A. Modigliani, “Big Nude” (Grand nu), (Nude Sadly Accepting Her Posing Job)

A. Modigliani, “Nude With Necklace”, 1917 (Nude Pretending to be Resting)

A. Modigliani, “Elongated Female Nude” (Nu allonge), (Nude with Counter-gaze Challenging the Viewers)

A. Modigliani, “Nude on a Red Cushion”, (Nude Imagining Herself Making Love)

ModiglRed Nude
A. Modigliani, “Pink Nude” (“Nu couche”), 1917, (Nude Concentrating on Being in Sexual Intercourse)


The first four paintings seem to belong to a different psychological category than the last two. The first model (in “Nude on a Divan”) barely tolerates the gaze of the viewers – the artist and the public. Her gaze can be interpreted as expressing her “tiredness” of being a model and even reproach to the consumers of her nudity including the painter. The second model (“Grand nu”) lets herself to be observed, but with a drop of sadness, as if, she accepts her posing job as inevitable routine, se la vie. The third one – “Female Nude”, pretends that she is resting – she is trying to ignore the whole event. She could prefer not to be where her bare-naked body is. And the fourth one, “Nu allonge”, is coming to a full ontological contact with the gazes of those who have transformed her into an object of their staring – she is, as if, emphasizing her equality with her audience. She matches the gaze of the audience, and this challenge can be the first step of flirtation and, may be, even the imposition of her emancipated-ness. In this sense she is the younger sister of Manet’s “Olympia”.

With the last two paintings the situation is radically different – here we are already not in the land of perception at all, not in the theater of the gazes. Nude on the red cushion and the pink nude (the same model, but…), as if, has eliminated the very possibility of her own gaze – her eyes are not closed and not opened. More exactly, they can be either open or closed, but Modigliani, as if, suggests that this is not the point, that the punctum of the paintings is elsewhere. It is the very body of the model which starts to be the focus of interaction with those who approaches the model via the paintings. In “Nude on the Red Cushion” and even more in “Pink Nude” the human soul (of the model) is communicating through the body. The human soul became body in order to seek contact with the very personalities of the viewers.

The body of the model here is not only alive, like in preceding paintings, but it is living. It’s moving, not externally, but internally. We are not just in the presence of an attractive or even irresistible woman’s body – woman in her body, the bodily woman, woman fully incarnated, woman as body, we are involved with this body, that is, as if, “physically” interacting with us. The model is responding to our emotional response to her being in front of us – she activates our desire by putting us inside the sexual situation before we are awakened to it. There is no question of peep-hole perception anymore. This model is reacting on our presence in front of her before we started to react on her. She doesn’t belong to our perception, but to our desire which unexpectedly became maniacally aware of itself.

We are not perceiving woman’s body giving itself to our greedy curiosity – we are already unified with this body in a blissful abyss instantly staged inside our imagination. We‘re semiconsciously sexually involved with Modigliani’s model, and our involvement is framed by the work of art. We, appropriated by her, appropriate her. The difference between two paintings, the “Nude on a Red Cushion” and “Pink Nude” – is the coloration emphasizing various tonalities (various degrees of intensity) of the model’s body. In the first painting the woman’s flesh is still an object of neutral coloration, while the second addresses her body in a process of being transformed by her own ardor, which, as if, making her blood circulate much more intensely. In the second painting the woman is involved in a sexual intercourse with us. We feel the hotness of her body. We feel the resilience of her body – this irresistible effect of resistance in collaboration. She took us much before we took her.

The painter inserts his “Pink Nude” in between our voyeuristic greed and our feeling of sexual participation with the model – we are able to surpass our sexual dreams or our factual sexual pursuits – we discover the model’s sensual trembling in the depth of a physically static – cognitive interactional experience. Modigliani’s Pink Nude is ahead of life and ahead of imagination.

The artist leads us into the painting, and he abandons us on this way, when we are already there. And soon after this very moment we feel that we are anointed into becoming the monarch of the situation – chosen by the model for love with her, and then we notice the very absence of the artist, and more, that we don’t need him anymore, and still more, that we never needed him, that all the miracle is between us and her, her and us. And we visit her again in the painting, which in reality is a magic theater making us happier than we ever are in real life. To get the woman in response to her getting us, to find ourselves as the sexual object of the model right during sexual act – without any amorous and sensual preparation is like to find ourselves right in the middle of paradise existing without hell or purgatory and against everyday life with cane of imagination and crutches of entertainment.

When Modigliani was creating his “Nu couche/Pink Nude”, he was trying to see his spiritual responsibility according to the principle of aesthetic privilege – his right to de-existentialize the sublime: to take sublimation out of life, to occupy the desire to sublimate with instrumentality and the delights of art, and with this “trick” triumphantly squeeze in the excess of “de-sublimated” pleasure into painting. Even a hundred years later we find ourselves the beneficiaries of his sophisticated boldness.

Modigliani achieves what he wants – making us the poppets of his talent and craft. He forces us to meet his model who is sexually dedicated to us before we discovered her, and her sexuality in action treats us as sexual slaves. Modigliani’s canvass is a magic membrane imprisoning us into an irresistible primordial orgy*.

*Of course, in the big world of mass culture people are exposed to naturalistic/de-sublimated “pantomimes” that overstimulate people’s sexual energies. Uniqueness of Modigliani’s “Nu couche” is that it is satisfying our de-sublimated desires as de-sublimated ones but in a sublimated context. It mobilizes the viewers’ cognitive resources to process but not modify their de-sublimated impulses in the depths of their physically static interactional experience. Modigliani uses our cognitive focus against the naturalism of imagination.