Thursday, January 10, 2013

Aïcha - The Ebony Inspiration of Montparnasse


Last week, on the Entrée to Black Paris Facebook page, I posted an image of a portrait that I found on Pinterest:

Image from the Pinterest board "Not for Art's Sake"
by Octavia McBride-Ahebee


I am captivated by the beauty of this portrait as well as by the fact that it is attributed to one of my favorite Ecole de Paris artists - Amedeo Modigliani.

Photo of Amedeo Modigliani (date unknown)


I have never seen this particular Modigliani before and have never known "Modi" to have depicted a black person in his work, so I am in search of more information about this oeuvre - name, date, media used, etc.

I also want to know who the model is. Presumably the name of the painting would provide a clue, if not the definitive answer to this question. But without this information, I began to think about who this woman might be.

Suddenly, I remembered Aïcha. She was a model for many artists in the Ecole de Paris in early 20th-century Montparnasse. She was also a stage performer. I have never seen a photo of her without a turban or some other kind of head wrap, so I think that she may well be the inspiration, if not the actual model, for the portrait shown above.

Cropped image from Kiki de Montparnasse
Photo credit: Private collection of Guy Krohg

The following information is drawn from an essay written by the late Michel Fabre and published by Barnard College:

Aïcha Goblet was born in Hazebrouck, France to a Martinican father and a French mother. Her father was a juggler in a traveling circus and Aïcha joined him in the ring at the age of six, performing as a bareback horse rider. She moved to Paris at the age of sixteen and modeled for Ecole de Paris artist Jules Pascin and numerous others - including Modigliani. She had a soft spot for these artists, sometimes cooking for them and loaning them money.

Aïcha was the subject of numerous paintings by these artists. Tsuguharu Foujita painted her in the Cubist style, while Moïse Kisling portrayed her figuratively:

Portrait d'Aïcha
Moïse Kisling
1919 Oil on canvas
Image from Millon & Associés Web site

In a book called Montparnasse (1925) by Gustave Fuss-Amoré and Maurice Des Ombiaux (out of print), the authors state that "Some artists sometimes portray her with red hair, green breasts, or depict her in a variety of colored shapes. No auction of modern painting takes place at Hôtel Drouot without some representation of this Martiniquaise from the Batignolles."

Unlike her contemporary, Kiki (called the Queen of Montparnasse), Aïcha was quite modest in her habits and demeanor. Fuss-Amoré and Des Ombiaux wrote that "She has remained the wisest of models. She holds fast to the old principles ... Any coarse male who would come too close to her would face a wild cat."

Aïcha also performed on the stage as a music hall dancer and a dramatic actress. She was the inspiration for a character in the André Salmon novel La Négresse du Sacré Coeur and wrote her own memoirs. In many ways, she was a predecessor to Josephine Baker.

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