Nude / 1917 / Oil paint on canvas / Private Collection

A Sense of Line and Purpose

1st December 2017

The new Modigliani exhibition at Tate Modern aims to rehabilitate an artist whom the gallery’s director describes as ‘lost to history.’ Jill Glenn went to find out more…

Tate Modern’s comprehensive homage to the Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani opens with a room containing a single work: Self Portrait as Pierrot, painted in 1915. It’s a brave curatorial move: at just 430 x 270 mm, this is an understated little number, rather dark and dull, easily overlooked… but it is rich with significance. Modigliani was 31 when he produced it; he had been in Paris for ten years, and had only five more left to live. The tragic character of Pierrot appeared in countless pictures, plays and films; he existed vividly in the contemporary imagination as a representation of the possibility of change, open to all interpretations. Modigliani’s peers – writers and musicians, artists and sculptors – would have understood the subtle message: he was ready to reinvent himself. In a place that he had called home since 1905, but where, as a Sephardic Jew, he would always be something of an outsider, he was on the cusp of some of his best work.

He had already exhibited both oils and watercolours, met a young doctor who became his first patron, and been influenced by Cézanne and other progressive painters. Some of these early works, painted when Modigliani was living in Montmartre – ‘the village on the hill’ – are on show in Room 2 (City Life): they’re attractive; they have energy, with bright, strong colours and relaxed brushwork – but it is in the next section, entitled Grand Ideas, that his long-term individual style starts to manifest itself. Here we have elegant sculptural drawings, possibly preparatory sketches for contemporary takes on classical sculptures, and they show clean lines and purposeful structures. Exhibited en masse, they impress with the intensity of the repeated expression of the same idea. They have both grace and strength.

Between 1911 and 1913 Modigliani was fully committed to a career as a sculptor, an ambition he was unable to pursue when it became apparent that the dust from carving aggravated lungs already weakened by childhood asthma and tuberculosis. Fewer than 30 of his sculptures remain in existence today – and the Tate has assembled nine of them in a glorious sequence that makes me really regret he abandoned the stone so soon. They are delicate and powerful, occupying their own particular space in the trajectory from classical to contemporary. I could look at them for a long time.

When he turned his attention to portraiture, he brought some of the precision of sculpture to the process. He flirted with cubism (and admired Picasso intensely), although ultimately he remained committed to his own particular version of figurative representation. Rooms called Creative Networks and Kindred Spirits display his creative development – and the vast number of people of many nationalities with whom he was familiar. In 1914/15 he made several paintings of the writer Beatrice Hastings, with whom he was in a volatile relationship. The drama of their lifestyle, however, was suspended when he came to the canvas: his portraits are composed with a core of stillness, even when his sitters clearly have attitude…

…as do the women whose personalities dominate the large room called Modern Nudes. In 1916 Modigliani acquired a new art dealer, who encouraged him to return to the nude. The curators are at pains to stress that, although these paintings were made for male buyers, they represented a flowering of female independence (the professional models, for example, eared five francs per sitting, around twice the daily wage of a factory or shop girl) at a time when society was changing dramatically. These women, far from being objectified, demand to be looked at, challenging the viewer. Wherever possible, to remind us that she is more than just her body, the nude has been hung alongside a clothed portrait of the same woman. Today they appear striking, but hardly revolutionary; at the time they were sufficiently shocking as to be censored, and several were removed from Modigliani’s only lifetime solo exhibition on grounds of indecency. Modigliani saw the female body as it really was, and painted it pubic hair and all: not the done thing in traditional fine art.

Just as the artist himself embraced modern concepts in a fast-moving world, the curatorial team has taken a contemporary plunge and introduced virtual reality to the Tate: the opportunity to spend time ‘in’ the Ochre Atelier, the artist’s last studio, located on the rue de la Grand Chaumière in the vibrant area of Montparnasse. It’s a genuinely enriching experience (at least for this virtual reality novice): worth queueing for, but, with limited capacity, the advice is to go early. You have been warned.

In the final hall, room 11, we find a second self-portrait, painted in all probability in that very studio in 1919: larger (1000 x 645 mm), and showing an artist apparently more far confident and in control, with a palette in his hand. It’s displayed alongside pictures of several of his intimate circle of friends, including half a dozen of Jeanne Hébuterne, his lover and the mother of his daughter. Jeanne was, by now, his most regular sitter, and the positioning of these portraits along one wall gives the lie to the criticism that Modigliani’s work is formulaic and prone to ‘constant stylistic reiteration’, as Laura Cumming put it in The Observer. These treatments of Jeanne demonstrate plenty of variety around the features and in the tender attention to detail, within, of course, his trademark depiction of elongated bodies, almond eyes and reserved but direct gazes.

For all the impression of composure his last self-portrait gives, Modigliani was a man under pressure. His health was poor, he was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and his finances were in disarray. In January 1920, at the age of 35, he died of tubercular meningitis. Jeanne Hébuterne, nine months pregnant with their second child, took her own life two days later.
Modigliani’s rackety, vulnerable life fits the romantic myth of the artist perfectly – and it would be easy to let the story get in the way of the art. Don’t be distracted. These are paintings worth paying attention to in their own right; it’s surprising that Frances Morris, Director of Tate Modern, feels obliged to describe Modigliani as ‘an artist lost to history’.

His funeral at Père Lachaise, attended by Picasso, Brancusi and Max Jacob among others, was a splendid affair. Sculptor Jacques Lipchitz later wrote: ‘So many friends, so many flowers, the sidewalks crowded with people bowing their heads in grief and respect. Everyone felt deeply that we had lost something precious, something very essential.’ It’s that which curators Nancy Ireson and Simonetta Fraquelli have tried to convey in this substantial retrospective. Essential, with nearly a century’s hindsight, may be overstating the case, but there is something about Modigliani’s work that I find very precious indeed.

Modigliani continues at Tate Modern until 2 April 2018: See www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/modigliani for prices and opening times

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