Modigliani, Seated Nude (La Belle Romaine), 1917. Photo: Culture Whisper
At the very heart of this ten-gallery exhibition is a twelve-strong harem of Modigliani’s indecorous female nudes. With swan-like necks, almond-shaped eyes, curvaceous hips, rounded breasts, and with many bearing pubic hair, Modigliani’s nudes encroach seductively on the viewer. They unite as one omnipotent force. We are told by the curators' text panels that 'these modern nudes proved shocking' at the turn of the century.
Modigliani, Nude, 1917, Private Collection.
But why they caused such scandal remains a mystery; Tate’s curatorial team skirts the issue. Painting in the early decades of the twentieth-century, Modigliani followed in the footsteps of far more provocative Parisian artists including Edouard Manet and Gustave Courbet. Both rejected academic painting and the smooth lines of idealised nudes for bolder, more realistic depictions of the female form. In comparison to the nudes of Manet and Courbet, the latter the creator of the quasi pornographic L'origine du mode, Modigliani's seem almost bashful.
Even the idealised nude in Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres' 1814 La Grande Odalisque, clearly an inspiration for Modigliani's Nude (above), is far more racy than its later adaptation. The hand-painted silk drapery, the exposed breast, and the bejewelled headdress of Ingres' odalisque emphasise her nakedness. Her sexuality is palpable. She lures you into her lair.
Modigliani, Head, c.1911. © President and Fellows of Harvard College
But Tate Modern’s show reveals that there is far more to Modigliani than his fascination with the female form. We see a selection of glorious sculpted heads in gallery five and a stellar group of preparatory drawings in ink and wash in the adjoining gallery.
Intriguing portraits of his inner circle pepper the walls every which way we turn: Picasso, Modigliani’s lover Beatrice Hastings, and his first patron Paul Alexandre all glare at us from within their gilded frames. But, above all, we see Cezanne.
The Post-Modernist breathes life into Modigliani’s palette, into his brushstrokes and into the very subject matter itself. Modigliani’s The Little Peasant is clearly a re-interpretation of Cezanne’s Boy in a Red Wasitcoat. Anyone who has seen the spectacular exhibition of Cezanne’s portraits currently on at the NPG will soon spot the similarities.
Of course, Modigliani is far from an amateur copyist. While most early twentieth-century artists experimented with Cubism, Modigliani forged his own very distinctive figurative style. He gave his models angular profiles and stylised features. His sultry, expressionistic works populated by nudes and elongated figures with blank, unknowable eyes are instantly recognisable. Today, they command huge sums at auction. His style would little develop over his short life, but it would later make him one of the most famous, and faked, painters of the twentieth century.
Modigliani, The Little Peasant, c.1918. Tate, presented by Miss Jenny Blaker in memory of Hugh Blaker 1941
It is a testament to the power of his talent that when people think of Modligiani, they think of his art before his desolate story.
Born in Italy in 1884, Modigliani moved to Paris in 1906. A dapper, bourgeois, slightly stiff young intellectual, who sniffed at Picasso's 'workman's clothes'. Yet, soon Modigliani and his nudes took the city by storm. In the throes of artistic revolution, fuelled by sex, drink and drugs, the beautiful Modigliani soon capitulated to the Bohemian pleasures of absinthe, hashish and opium. Before long, he succumbed to addiction, and eventually tuberculosis, dying destitute and a failure at the age of 35. His pregnant lover, the beautiful poet Jeanne Hébuterne, leapt from a window to her death the next day.
Seeing more than 100 of Modigliani’s portraits in one place is a remarkable, dare we say it, entrancing experience. Of course, ten rooms of Modigliani is a lot to handle, but the visual reward is well worth the pursuit.
|What||Modigliani Exhibition 2017, review , Tate Modern|
|Where||Tate Modern, Bankside, London, SE1 9TG | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Southwark (underground)|
22 Nov 17 – 02 Apr 18, 10.00–18.00, Sunday – Thursday, 10.00–22.00, Friday – Saturday
|Price||£16, without donation £14.50) Concession £14.00 (without donation £12.70)|
|Website||Click here for more information|