Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Modigliani - Tate Modern, London. (23 November 2017 - 2 April 2018)

Self-Portrait (1919)

Fans (like myself) of Modigliani will think they have died and gone to Modigliani heaven in Tate Modern’s eleven room exhibition which continues until 2 April.  Not only do the artist’s iconic paintings and sculptures transport the audience to early twentieth century Paris, but his last studio in Montparnasse can also be experienced through a fascinating virtual reality recreation.  

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) moved to Paris in 1906 to develop his career as an artist, he was twenty-one years old.  Just fourteen years later, the artist was dead.  Years of chronic ill-health (he had suffered from reoccurring tuberculosis since childhood) had been further exasperated by alcohol and drug addiction as an adult and ultimately fuelled his tragic early demise.

Left: Portrait of Paul Guillaume (1916)  Right: Young Woman of the People (1918)

Portraiture and the female nude dominated Modigliani’s practice and breath-taking examples of these, which chart the development of his now instantly recognisable elongated stylisation, abound in this exhibition.  I have seen many of these painting reproduced in numerous books, so it was an absolute delight to see the originals.  There is a melancholy which appear to emanate from the languid poses and black-out eyes, together with the dark, rich colour palette, which I find absorbing.

Madam Zborowski on a Sofa (1919)

For a short while (between 1911-1913) Modigliani also sculpted.  He was great friends with Constantin Brancusi and Jacob Epstein, and although influences from both these maestros can be seen in Modigliani’s work, this in no way reduces the strength of his own vision.  I would have loved to see even more of this fascinated heads, but those pieces which were on display were totally exquisite.  Apparently, Modigliani’s first love was actually sculpture, but he had to abandon it  because the dust from carving aggravated his tuberculosis and also for such an impoverished artist, it was considerably more expensive to pursue than painting.

Installation View of Room 5, Tate Modern (2018)

Modigliani’s portraits included artist friends, patrons and lovers.  His nudes featured lovers too, as well as professional life models and the most successful paintings pulsate with erotic energy.  At the time they were painted, these modern nudes shocked the Parisian middle-class.  They featured in Modigliani’s only solo exhibition held in his lifetime, which was nearly shut down on the grounds of indecency.  The police commissioner involved particularly found their pubic hair offensive, as traditionally in fine art nudes were depicted hair-free.  Rather than idealised, chaste and anonymous women (depicted as symbols of females in mythology or religion for example), Modigliani painted modern women and depicted them as they really were, which to a degree challenged accepted norms of female representation.  Their personality as well as their flesh dominated the canvas.  Their faces are highlighted with cosmetics, reflecting the growing influence of female film stars and they made direct eye contact with the viewer, almost defying them to return their gaze.  L’Algérienne (1916) and Nude on a Divan (1916) are clearly the same woman.  The intensity of her gaze in both the clothed portrait and nude pose, reflect the absolutely confidence in herself and her sexuality.


Top:   L’Algérienne (1916)  Bottom:  Nude on a Divan (1916)

Of all Modigliani’s portraits and nude studies, it is those of his most regular sitter, Jeanne Hébuterne, which are the most poignant.  They met in 1917 when she was a nineteen year old art student and she soon became the artist’s muse and mistress, until his death.  Modigliani’s portraits of Jeanne show her three year accelerated maturity from a gauche teenager to a woman shaped by hightened life experiences.  They lived together in Montparnasse and already had one child when Modigliani died.  A few days later, pregnant with their second child but inconsolable in her grief, Jeanne took her own life.

Jeanne Hébuterne (1919)

The studio Jeanne and Modigliani shared together has been meticulously re-imagined in the exhibition’s virtual reality room.  Created from old photographs and first-hand accounts, this is a fascinating immersive experience, from a dog barking in the courtyard below the open window to a cigarette burning in an ashtray on the table next to your ‘seat’.  It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to feel as if you are truly sharing the same space as the artist and his tragic muse.

Still view from Modigliani VR: The Ochre Atelier, Tate Modern (2018)

During his life, Amedeo Modigliani had little professional success.  Apart from the infamous exhibition of nudes, the other other exhibition he participated in was the 1919 Salon d'Automne, in which seven of his head sculptures were displayed.  Despite his prolific output in portrait painting, few actually sold or those which did only brought in limited funds.  As is the case of many of the giants of early twentieth century modernism, Modigliani achieved greater popularity after his demise, with his colourful life story becoming immortalised in art history narratives and popular culture.  In 2015, one of those scandalous nudes sold at auction for £100 million...  Modigliani's work, however has more than stood the test of time, notoriety and Hollywood dramatisation (with some marvelous overacting by Andy Garcia).  This totally beguiling exhibition at Tate Modern definitely ranks high in my Top 10 of most eagerly anticipated and enjoyed exhibition visits.  It is a must-see for 2018. 

Top: Modigliani, Picasso and André Salmon in Paris, 1916
Bottom:  Modigliani and Jeanne in the Montparnasse studio, c.1918