While Modigliani is today known primarily as a painter, it is clear from the accounts of his contemporaries that he had a deep-seated ambition to be a sculptor. He trained as a painter and yet, curiously, introduced himself as a sculptor when he first arrived in Paris.1 The German critic Curt Stoermer, who met Modigliani in 1909, believed the artist 'felt destined to be a sculptor. There were certain periods when the urge started and thrusting all painting tools aside, he snatched up the hammer'.2 Nina Hamnett, who met Modigliani in the spring of 1914 observed: 'He always regarded sculpture as his real "metier" and it was probably only lack of money, the difficulty of obtaining materials, and the amount of time required to-complete a work in stone that made him return to painting during the last five years of his life'.3
Some time during the first six months of 1909 Modigliani moved to the warren of studios known as the Cité Falguiere at 54 rue du Montparnasse, and through his friend and patron Dr Paul Alexandre sought an introduction to his neighbour, Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957). The meeting with Brancusi seems to have galvanised Modigliani's sculptural ambitions and for about the next five years he devoted himself to sculpture and related drawings. Although an exact chronology of the sculpture has not been established, it is generally agreed that the twenty-five stone carvings that have survived were all made in this period, that is, roughly between 1909 and 1914. Of these sculptures, all are carvings of the human head, with the exception of the Caryatid in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Australian National Gallery's Standing nude, the largest sculpture by Modigliani.
The idea for a sculpture of a standing female nude can be found in a number of Modigliani's drawings which are dated by the artist, but are generally thought to have been executed around 1910-11.4 The drawings present a remarkable diversity of types of vaguely archaic inspiration, no doubt reflecting Modigliani's various enthusiasms; in 1909 he is supposed to have talked endlessly of African art, while in 1911 he 'was raving about Egypt' and sketching the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova 'in the headdress of Egyptian queens and dancers.5
Standing nude is an anthology of archaic motifs. The gesture of arms folded high across the abdomen is a pose common to the earliest known sculpture, prehistoric votive figurines and Cycladic idols. The elaborate coiffure, recalls the bag wig of Egyptian art, while in the suggestion of earrings and incised necklace there may be an echo of early Cambodian or Khmer sculpture which Modigliani admired in the Musée Guimet. African sculpture plays an important part in the form of the head with its extreme elongation and hatchet chin. The long narrow nose, now broken, and the heavy lidded eyes appear to follow the example of Baule masks from the Ivory Coast while the tiny tube-like mouth and delicately incised eyebrows are characteristic of Senufo masks from region. Although some of Modigliani's drawings of a standing figure have the stance and proportions of early Greek sculpture-a source of inspiration that survives intact in his Caryatid — the bold, rhythmic contours of Standing nude appear to be closer to African sculpture. This is an impression often confirmed, albeit inadvertently through a drawing traditionally entitled Nude with African statue c.1913 (Mrs James W. Alsdorf collection, Chicago). 'I have been unable to find an African statue resembling it', one historian has written, referring to the so-called African statue in the drawing, 'and yet it is the most African of all his works: the interplay of forms, the broken rhythms of the curves recall Africa without any specific reference'.6 The African statue is actually a drawing of Standing nude.7
This drawing clearly made after the sculpture, is revealing also in that it shows Modigliani contemplating some additions to the sculpture, notably a crown or capital that rises above the existing height of the sculpture marked by a horizontal pencil line. The curlicue volutes at the top of this capital are echoed at the base of the sculpture. Architectural terms seem the most appropriate when describing these additions, and reflect a conception of the figure as a standing caryatid, beginning as plinth and culminating in capital. Standing nude conforms to this notion with its massive lower torso and legs merging into a plinth, and its head-dress, extending back in concertinaed volutes and squared off at the top like a platform ready to take a capital. It has often been observed that many of Modigliani's carvings of heads, with their columnar necks and squared off tops and backs, have a similar architectural association; in one sketch Modigliani made this analogy explicit, drawing a half column with its plinth alongside the lower part of the face and neck of one of his elongated heads. On other occasions he drew his heads as supporting capitals.8
Contemporary reports suggest that Modigliani intended his sculptures for an architectural setting. According to Paul Guillaume, his dealer at one time, Modigliani dreamed of creating a temple to mankind which would be surrounded by hundreds of 'columns of tenderness'.9 Such thinking, though on a more modest scale, is probably reflected in his arrangement of seven of his carved heads at the Salon d'Automne of 1912 as 'Têtes ensemble décoratif'10 and was also sensed by Jacob Epstein when he visited Modigliani in 1912: His studio at that time was a miserable hole within a courtyard, and here he lived and worked. It was then filled with nine or ten of those long heads which were suggested by African masks, and one figure [perhaps Standing nude]. They were carved in stone; at night he would place candles on top of each one and the effect was that of a primitive temple.11
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.110.