Tate Modern, 5th March 2018
One Modigliani nude or one Modigliani portrait is a thing of not inconsiderable beauty. Less so, one hundred, or what feels like hundreds. The elongated bodies, the mask-like faces, the blank, almond-shaped eyes. Look beyond the USP’s though and the influences, from which Modigliani never really escaped in his short life, are clear. Cezanne, Kees van Dongen, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Braque, his mates Soutine and Brancusi, the art of Africa, the Khmer art of Cambodia. If you mix with the best there is a chance your own work might fall a little short though.
Mind you this has proved a pretty popular exhibition I think. I postponed on a couple of visits to the TM, put off by the queues. If there’s a queue to get in, I reckon, you ain’t going to get to see much. This may reflect the virtual reality recreation of AM’s last studio space in Montparnasse which forms part of the entertainment. No surprise that I can’t be doing with that sort of thing. It probably also reflects his bad boy reputation. He managed to hold out until he was 35, eventually succumbing to the TB which he carried through his life, but was permanently poorly and penniless,not helped by knocking back the absinthe and smoking prodigious quantities of hash, in part to hide the TB symptoms. He dressed like a dandy, when he wasn’t getting his kit off in public, never missed a party, and wasn’t picky in his choice of lady friends. He was a very good-looking chap. He read all sorts of dodgy literature to prepare himself for the life of bohemian excess, Nietzsche was a favourite, as well as immersing himself in all that Antiquity and the Renaissance had to offer in his native Italy, and, when in his cups, he reportedly worked like a dervish.
Barely sold a canvas in his lifetime and destroyed a lot of his early stuff. Relied on mates and dealers for studio space and materials. Moved to Paris in 1906 and lived in Montmartre and Montparnasse, natch. Eventually his dealer Leopold Zborowski sorted out a public exhibition for him in 1917 in Paris to showcase his nudes, but this got “closed” on its opening day by the coppers because it was too dirty, what with loads of lady fluff being on show. Dumped his muse, poet and art critic Beatrice Hastings, to take up with young toff dauber, Jeanne Hebuterne, with whom he had a daughter. Wants to marry her, but Mum and Dad unsurprisingly think their daughter can do better than a penurious, drug addled artist, raddled with TB, and say no. He dies, she, eight months pregnant, chucks herself out of a window.
And if all that were not the epitome of artistic excess, he goes and gets himself buried in Pere Lachaise. So AM had, and has, a reputation to keep up. Which has been fuelled by avid collection of his many works (and plenty of fakes) through the last century. The first work in the exhibition is a self-portrait from 1915 where AM sees himself as Pierrot, the sad clown, the trusting fool, one eye obscured, which sets the scene for AM’s invention of himself as the ultimate bohemian artist.
Is the art any good though? Well there is a salacious thrill in the room of nudes but, engage your brain and it soon passes. His models wear expressions of complete indifference. The transactional nature of the nude painting has rarely been more apparent. Cliched soft-porn? Don’t ask me, there’s some worse stuff from the High Renaissance, but it’s pretty sleazy. The portraits show more variation if you ask me, with posture, expression, colour, there is much to ponder and, I admit, enjoy. There is much biographical significance given his wide circle of mates in the heady atmosphere of Paris in the 1910’s (and the 1890’s, 1900’s and 10920’s mark you). Cocteau, Picasso, Gris, Rivera, amongst some lesser lights.
There still seems to me to be a hefty distance between artist and subject, and not just because he painted masks. Not quite the distance that Cezanne employed to allow him to concentrate entirely on what he saw in his portraits. (Cezanne Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery review *****). Modigliani does not, alchemically, turn people into brush strokes even though his portraits echo those of Cezanne. Nor is this the confrontational distance that his mate Chain Soutine conjured up in his portraits of hotel folk, the f*ck you stance of his bell boys for example, (Soutine’s Portraits at the Courtauld Gallery review ****). No this is a distance, a lack of connection, which seems to me to be closer to neo-classical portraiture. Filtered through the lessons of cubism, Modigliani can then focus on what, I think, he mastered, to wit, the line. It is not the colour, the brush stroke, the paint, which excites, but the first marks, the lines that create the structure. The shape the faces, the curve of the thighs. One of AM’s nudes is even explicitly posed to ape Ingres’s Grande Odalisque.
Which maybe why I found the room of sculptures the most interesting. Modigliani didn’t persist with sculpture beyond a year or so in 1912: the work was tiring given his ill-health and the materials expensive. The limestone busts on display here are thrilling. The elongated faces, almond eyes, swan necks would all be exhausted in two dimensions but the debt to antiquity is here more vivid. The volume which is absent from the paintings brings a new, literally, dimension. The room prior to the head vitrines shows some of AM’s preparations and sketches for more substantive public sculpture where, again, the artistic precedents are writ large.
AM left Paris in 1917, at the behest of his dealer, (artistic not drugs), and headed to the French Riviera with Jeanne Hebuterne. Other artists did the same. There is a distinct shift in the intensity of his work, reflecting the light maybe, but maybe the poor fellow eased up a bit on the sauce. There is even a tiny landscape. It’s not much kop though. Still everything here seems a bit less of a struggle, less of a show than the wall to wall nudes of the prior room, mostly from 1917, with a few later, softer examples.
Gaugin, van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, Picasso, Modigliani. These are the biggest brands from the years when Western art was ruptured. I take a bit of persuading on Gaugin, but it’s not tricky to work out what’s special about the next four. But Amedeo Modigliani. Hm, on the basis of this exhibition I am not so sure. Definitely worth seeing this uncluttered, expansive, extensive and expensive collection, this is big bucks art after all, and there are a fair few paintings here secured from private collections, but not a patch on the Cezanne portraits which were, until recently, gracing the walls of the NPG (and where, mystifyingly, there were no queues on the occasions I visited).