Moïse Kisling (1891-1953)
Born in Krakow in 1891 to a modest Jewish family, Moïse Kisling left school at the age of fifteen to enrol at the fine arts academy, where he became the student of famous Polish painter Józef Pankiewicz (1866-1940), an enthusiast for the work of Cézanne and Renoir, and a close friend of Bonnard’s. Encouraged by his professor to go to Paris, Kisling discovered in 1910 the Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre, then Montparnasse, where he made friends with numerous painters and poets including Max Jacob, Cocteau, Braque, Soutine, and especially Modigliani, who would become his very close friend.
In 1912, he visited Ceret with Picasso and Gris, and Adolphe Basler became his first dealer. In 1913, he moved into a studio on rue Joseph-Bara in Montparnasse, and from 1914 he exhibited in Prague with Braque, Picasso, and Derain.
The variety of Kisling’s social visits and associations plays without a doubt on the eclecticism of his first paintings: landscapes inspired by pre-Cubist compositions but with a taste for colour and simplified drawing – which is also revealed in his still lifes – recall Gauguin, while the portraits borrow from Cézanne and from Cubism. His syncretic tendency is well-illustrated by the sumptuous work Nu sur canapé rouge (1917-1918), simultaneously decorative yet full of melancholy.
After war broke out Kisling decided to enlist in the Foreign Legion where he became friends with the Swiss Blaise Cendrars. Wounded during the battle of Artois in 1915 and then released from service as unfit, he returned to Paris, provided with 25,000 francs left to him by a young American architect he knew on the frontlines, who died in combat.
In 1916 he met Renée Gros, the daughter of Commander of the Garde Républicaine, whom he married the following year. He worked regularly with Modigliani, painting the same models as Jean Cocteau, while Modigliani painted numerous portraits of Kisling and Renée.
Between trips to Spain, England, and the Midi (Saint-Tropez and Sanary), Kisling regularly spent time in his Montparnasse studio with a still intact love of life.
His first solo exhibition by Druet in 1919 was met with success, and he thus became the painter of the Roaring Twenties: very prolific, he focused on feminine nudes, portraits, and flowers, influenced by Derain like many others between the wars, however Kisling did not give up his early achievements such as colour.
While his nudes in pure, pared-down forms are depicted on couches or textiles of sumptuous quality evoking the East, the faces of Kisling’s figures frequently reveal a sadness and melancholy near those of Modigliani: his art aims to create an atmosphere, often devoted to the beauty of the modern woman.
He became a French citizen in 1924, and continued to travel often to Holland, Normandy, and the Midi. In Sanary in Provence in 1937, he built a house on the water, ‘La Baie’. Shortly after moving his family into the house, Kisling was condemned to death by Germany for his activities against Nazism. Mobilised until the armistice, he then fled to Portugal. He arrived in the United States in 1941 where he spent the rest of the war. Well received by his admirers and French friends in exile, he divided his time between New York and Hollywood with Arthur Rubinstein; he was also friends with Michèle Morgan, Jean Renoir, Charles Chaplin, and Joseph Kessel. In America, he invested himself in support of an association that helped the artists who remained in France.
Back in Paris in August 1946, he discovered that his Parisian apartment was sacked, but this did not stop him from distributing to the families of artists the contents of forty-eight trunks he had brought back from America.
Arletty who posed for him in 1933 (a sensual Grand Nu) recalled in 1988: ‘He was an exceptional being. He had heart. He worked a lot, but in his home there was laughter. It was always a party. Every Wednesday, he hosted in his studio a ladies’ lunch: Colette de Jouvenel, Eva Bush, Édith Méra… There were always loads of people who would come to mooch money off of him. They never left without having something to show for it. Each time Kisling would shell out the dough. He had this kind of generosity in him. It was true solidarity, an institution before the term was even coined.’
The works of Moïse Kisling can be found in numerous museums including: the Musée du Petit Palais, Geneva (founded by Oscar Ghez), the Centre Pompidou, Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum in New York, as well as the Chimei Museum of Taïnan in Taiwan.
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