Modigliani at Tate Modern review ***

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Modigliani

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).

 

 

 

 

 

Soutine’s Portraits at the Courtauld Gallery review ****

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Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys

Courtauld Gallery, 31st October 2017

I am afraid that the joys of Soutine’s paintings have passed me by in the past. I could see the vibrant colours and intense animation but all that skew-whiffedness left me a bit bewildered. On my last visit to the Musee de L’Orangerie (sorry for sounding like a pretentious twat) I could see there there was something from the extensive Soutine collection in the Jean Walter-Paul Guillaume Collection, but I got captured by the Cezannes. Easily done.

Anyway turns out I should have looked harder. Which is normally the solution to any art appreciation headache. This collection of Soutine’s portraits of various subjects from the French hospitality industry of the 1920’s turns out to be a brilliant introduction to Soutine’s faculties. These people are, with some notable exceptions, bursting with attitude. Painted head on, legs splayed, arms out, eyes staring right back at you, they seem to be willing you for a fight. It is almost as if they would be doing you a favour by “serving” you. Or, in private, they regard you as beneath their contempt. I appreciate that this sounds suspiciously like the stereotype of the disdainful French waiter but it is, nonetheless, plainly there in the canvases, especially in the, ahem, portraits of the waiters, the bell-hops, the valets and even the young page boys. Anyone oik like me who has ever felt intimidated in a fancy dan restaurant or hotel will recognise the look. There are five paintings hung together of the same subject in different guises, playing different roles and with very different moods. Same bloke with a high forehead, red hair, broken nose, but let’s just say he exhibits various degrees of approachability. A bit like you or me on any given work day.

The chefs give off a different vibe. Here you can see, and almost smell, their craft. Even the pastry chefs seem to have an air of meat about them. There is a post WWI Butcher Boy drowned in red but all the Chef’s whites have a reddish hue or flecks. This is where the influence of Soutine on Francis Bacon is most acute. Bacon normally screams carcasse at every opportunity but it seems old Soutine had a similar fascination for the flesh, what with his homages to Chardin’s still lifes and with the rotting joint he stuck up in his flat to the evident annoyance of his neighbours.

The chambermaids are altogether different. Arms down, hands cupped, meek expressions. I can’t really find anything about Soutine’s sexuality but it looks like his eye was drawn to submissive women and saucy boys based on these portraits. These women have more similarity with the elongated simplicity of his mate and fellow Jewish emigre in Paris Modigliani, and as the catalogue points up, even the ethereal women that the genius Gwen John contrived.

Across the whole exhibition, (just 20 paintings in two rooms so no need to work up a sweat, and the Courtauld, as any fool knows, is the most life-affirming space in Central London), the debt to masters such as Rembrandt and Courbet, and colour master Fouquet from an earlier time, is clear. Soutine painted precisely what he saw. This took time but the resulting effect is that he didn’t hang about when he finally saw what he wanted. Hang dog eyes, misshapen ears, pouty lips, chins, foreheads, pointy limbs, whatever leapt out at him, leaps out at us. And all that sticky, oily colour. Vibrant but not in the cartoonish way of some of the German expressionists, but earthy, fleshy, silky. Just like say your man Rembrandt.

Soutine was an outcast in some ways as a Russian emigre, whose Jewishness meant he had to abandon Paris in both wars. Fortunately he made a few quid in his later life but in the end, on the run, he died because he couldn’t get to a hospital quickly enough to treat his stomach ulcer. A small funeral, this was a “degenerate” artist after all, but Picasso pitched up. That tells you something.

His distinctive position as a bridge between the realism of past Masters, and the abstraction of the generation which followed him, took a bit of time to take root despite the acclaim in his lifetime. I would be surprised if his work was everyone’s cup of tea, but if you open your eyes, like I did, I think you might be very pleasantly surprised. Of course no one looks like this but most of us ordinary people look like this.

 

Creating Modernism in France at the Ashmolean Museum review ****

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Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 20th April 2017

So a day trip to the Ashmolean to take in this exhibition and a bit of the mighty Ashmolean’s permanent collection, (favourites include the Sickert room, the Medieval English collection and the Chinese ceramics and art). Well worth it since you ask.

So this loosely, and not entirely accurately, titled exhibition takes in highlights from the very fine collection of Ursula and R Stanley Johnson, from the Romantics and Neo Classicists of the early C19, through Impressionism and Post Impressionism,  and into the myriad of movements through the early C20, notably Cubism. It does a grand job in showing just how complex and exciting the evolution of Modernism was in France (largely Paris obviously) during those heady days. The collection, I gather,  was initially centred around drawings which feature especially in the first half of the exhibition, but in the second half we do get some lovely paint. Just goes to show what you can do if you send years studying art history, inherit a gallery from your dad and then deal your way to this.

There are plenty of examples of drawings from the top notch greats of the canon but what I found most interesting was the showcasing of many works from those who might not be considered household names, notably Juan Gris (three works here), Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger and Jacques Villon. Talking of Juan Gris if you quickly tire of the crush of schoolkids and tourists ticking off of Guernica in the Reina Sofia wander off to Room 208 – a collection of stunners by Gris.

Now I can take or leave all the Romantic and Neo Classicist stuff, actually no I can leave it, with Ingres and Gericault in particular a complete mystery to me. There is however a fine JL David drawing (Old Man and Young Woman) once owned by a Mr Henry Moore apparently. So I only really started to pay attention at the Manets, in particular the lithograph here taken from the Berthe Morisot portrait in the Musee D’Orsay and the delicious watercolour of a Mirabelle Plum. Degas drawings are then given an extensive workout (I am sorry I just can’t get too excited about these) before we get to some wonderful Cezanne drawings with the Study of Pine Trees the most remarkable to my eyes. Manet and Cezanne – to this day I wonder why it took me so long to get it. There is also a Portrait of Doctor Gachet which apparently is Van Gogh’s only etching – great stuff.

From here it is the Picassos and Legers which I guess will wow the punters but I was drawn to Jacques Villon, the brother oF Marcel Duchamp and Raymond Duchamp Villon, and his contemporaries, Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes. All three were part of the Puteaux group whose key exhibition was in 1912, the Salon of the Golden Section. In particular I would point to to Villon’s watercolour study Soldiers Marching, and the oil portrait and drawing of his father, to Jean Metzinger’s oils, The Yellow Feather and Landscape, and to Albert Gleizes’s Still Life, his landscapes and the Stravinsky portrait. For any of you, like me, who often finds themselves more admiring, rather than really enjoying, the cubism of Picasso and Braque, I think you will get a lot of aesthetic pleasure out of these particular works. I guess some might say they veer a little towards the decorative, (and some poncey critics won’t countenance them next to big Pablo), but there is an easy immediacy here and lots of lovely colour, so I am smitten. I had seen a smattering of works elsewhere by these three but paid insufficient attention. They are now firmly on the “actively seek out’ list. Apparently the Johnsons have a truckload of Golden Section artists. I would pay good money to see those.

So there you are. A wonderful collection, easy to take in, in a top notch institution. It was a bit busy when I went (same as the Fitzwilliam when I go) and it doesn’t have any late opening as far as I know but well worth a visit. Mind you only a week left – sorry.