The unsettled artistic life and often erotically charged art of Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) is the subject of the latest book Catching Desire by Carmelo Militano. Last week we talked to the writer, winner of several poetry prizes and faithful follower of Shunga Gallery about his views on the sensual art of Modigliani, Picasso, Cubism and his fascination for shunga.
SG: Can you tell us a bit about your background? Your profession, interests, place of birth….etc.?
CM: I was born in a small rural village in Southern Italy called Cosoleto, province of Reggio di Calabria. At its peak the village was probably no more than 1, 200 people. My parents immigrated to Canada when I was a child of two. Thus, my first language was the local Calabrian dialect of the region, however, I write in English and speak the national or ‘official ’ Italian as well. I was educated in Canada and attended the two local universities. I have a B.A. Honors in Literature and a Secondary Education Certificate. My second degree is a Master’s degree. I also did some graduate work at Exeter College, Oxford. Except for living in Italy for one year when I was a student, I have lived and worked all my life in Canada.
I am both a writer (see my webpage) and secondary school teacher; my students are between the ages of 16 and 18. I teach History, English, and Psychology. I also work as a free-lance journalist and radio broadcaster. For three years I was the host of a half-hour poetry show once a week. I interviewed poets and writers about their latest work and writing process.
Fiction and Poetry
After many years I recently retired from teaching and now write full-time. My interests are vast and varied. Obviously as a writer I love to read, and especially enjoy fiction and poetry, but I also read history, essay collections, biography and some natural science. My other interests include film, travel, photography, architecture, hiking, food, and fitness.
SG: How did you come across the work of Modigliani and what fascinates you about his work?
CM: I first came across Modigliani in the poetry section of a Vancouver bookstore. On the counter in front of various poetry books was a small matted postcard print of one of his nudes. I was struck by the vivid apricot colour he used and the sensual curves, the sheer volume and voluptuousness you could see in the nude woman even though it was only a small reproduction. At the time I was also curious about modernist painting and Italian artists in general, regardless if they were painters, filmmakers, or writers. So, here was a fellow Italian painting and drawing beautiful nudes. I was immediately curious about who he was and his work.
SG: How does sensuality manifest itself in Modigliani’s paintings in your view?
CM: What makes Modigliani’s nudes sensual and fresh is their frankness and uninhibited way they pose and his unique style, the way he draws and paints and his use of colour. A hundred years ago his style was a shock to most, perhaps even vulgar. There is nothing in the frame-such as an ancient classical reference, discreet modesty, position- to distract or legitimize for the viewer the fact he is looking at a beautiful nude woman lying unadorned on a couch or blanket nude and often she staring back at you. His nudes both invite you in and reveal themselves with a frankness you don’t see until the advent of erotic photography.
He is also, as far as I know, the first painter in the West (other than Courbet’s Origin of the World) to include or paint a model’s pubic hair. The nudes look or return a sensual gaze, others exude an erotic mischievousness and still other nudes shut have their eyes as if wearing a mask or lie in post-coital erotic slumber. Regardless of the face, they all are sensual.
Modigliani achieves this by combining together with what we would call a ‘center-fold posture’, vivid flesh colors, and wonderfully drawn full-figured curves and big wide opened eyes and full breasts. Modigliani’s nudes are alive, quick, with the flavor and spirit of immediate apprehension. It is interesting to note that both Modigliani and Picasso appreciated the exaggerated frankness found Shunga prints when they first arrived in Paris in the early 20th century.
SG: Is it true that he had some kind of feud with Picasso?
CM: Picasso and Modigliani had a love/hate relationship in Paris. Initially, they respected each other’s work, shared models and girlfriends, poverty, and hung out in the same cafes such as the Café de La Rotonde, Le Select, and La Coupole to name a few in the glory days of Montparnasse. But when Picasso’s work took a turn towards Cubism and his status and wealth took off after WW1 their friendship took on new tensions and things began to fall apart. They embraced two very different artistic visions: Expressionism (Modigliani), Cubism( Picasso). Picasso was adored and Modigliani was ignored. Picasso’s Cubism became the flavor of the month and was embraced by American collectors, especially after Gertrude Stein’s promotion and blessings.
Hate for Cubism
Modigliani hated Cubism. It was not beautiful and to his mind was geometry not art. Modigliani refused to join the fashion-he thought Cubism was a fraud- and stuck to his own vision or view of art, the beautiful, real, and sensual. Rivalry and jealously soon followed which led to friction and animosity between the two. Picasso and others suggested Modigliani join the Cubism band wagon and make some money. Modigliani refused to join the wave and fell further and further into the abyss of drink, drugs, and poverty. But, oddly, the chaos of his life never entered his art. Modigliani was never celebrated in his lifetime. He died broken and penniless.
CM: I don’t know why so many in Canada are drawn (pardon the pun) to Shunga art. Perhaps it is our cold and dark winters. Hahaha…Or perhaps, it is because the majority of Canadians are open-minded and tolerant. The Christian moral disapproval of nudity and sexuality is not a widespread cultural thing in Canada. I also think it is because we are ok with people having different private lives and different tastes in art and life.
SG: I read somewhere that you are an avid movie fan since your teenage years. What is (or are) your favorite movies?
CM: There are so many good films being made different from the tedious mainstream American stuff Hollywood regularly spits out. I like foreign films, for example, the erotic thriller from South Korean, The Handmaiden by Park Chan Wook, Iranian film, Sheepe, the Japanese film Burning, Italian film, Happy Lazzaro, the Moroccan film, Much Loved to name a few. The latest film I really enjoyed was the Academy Award winner Parasite.
SG: You told me earlier that you joined our bulletin a while ago and love shunga. What do you particularly like about this art form?
CM: My interest in Shunga art is, I think, an extension of my long interest in Western erotic literature, photography, and art. I have also always loved the delicate and meditative Japanese wood cut prints, Japanese poetry, especially the poetry of Basho, and the fiction of (Haruki) Murakami. So, my interest in Shunga is an extension of my curiosity and appreciation of Japanese art and literature. I admire and like how Shunga art can be delicate and fierce, humorous and lusty; I delight in how Shunga artists embraced the variety of erotic feelings, subjects, and activity; their curiosity and commitment to represent the erotic in its various forms. Lastly, the simple frank lusty power of most Shunga art is in itself impressive.
SG: Do you have a favorite shunga design?
Thanks a lot for the interview and your interesting insights Carmelo!
Cliffhanger: Shortly, Carmelo will write a short story on a shunga painting and two shunga poems…so be tuned!
Carmelo’s passionate work Catching Desire is now available online from Ekstasis Editions or Amazon.
Carmelo Militano is a writer, free-lance broadcaster, literary critic, and teacher. He is the author of two poetry collections (Morning After You and The Stone Mason’s Notebook) as well as three books of prose: The Fate of Olives, Sebastiano’s Vine, and Lost Aria. Militano is the winner of the 2004 F.G.Bressani award for poetry, Naji Naman poetry prize, and silver San Giovanni poetry prize. All three of his prose works have been short-listed for various literary awards.
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