Modigliani at Tate Modern review ***



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).






Monochrome: Painting in Black and White exhibition at the National Gallery review ****


Monochrome: Painting in Black and White

National Gallery, 22nd November 2017

For as long as there has been Western art there has been black and white painting. Used in preparation for works in colour, to heighten the impact of light on a subject, to “imitate” other art forms such as sculpture and photography, or simply for its own aesthetic power, it seems like many of the big names in the canon have given monochrome painting, or something close to it, a whirl.

That’s pretty much all I learnt from this exhibition. No matter. There are more than enough wonderful paintings on display to paper over the fact that the thin premise is stretched beyond breaking point. And I don’t care about the “omissions” that the criterati always start bouncing up and down about whenever these thematic overviews are constructed. Of course I would be bloody ecstatic if Guernica was included, or a bunch of Goya’s “black paintings” had filled a room here, (mind you they have way more colour in them than you might think), but I think I get why they are not there. I also get why there are no drawings, the clue is in the exhibition title. Though they have smuggled in van Eyck’s sketch of St Barbara – fair dos though its van Eyck. Oh, and a piece of stained glass. And a manuscript. Hmm this pedantry thing is contagious.  Let’s just work with what we have instead of having a pop at the curators for stuff that plainly they had no chance of borrowing.

So what stood out for me. Well the Hans Memling altarpiece, the Donne Triptych from 1478, is a stunner. Shown partially closed so that we can see through to the intense colours of the Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors, with the saints Christopher and Anthony painted in grisaille on the outside panels looking like stone statues. Memling’s figures always look a bit “softer” to me than say van Eyck from a few decades prior, and the compositions more straightforward. I was also taken with the charming Nativity from another Netherlandish master, Petrus Christus (from around 1450) which was ostensibly included to show off the way grisaille was originally used in the margins of devotional paintings, here to create a frame from an architectural arch with some Old Testament action portrayed

in the same room I was also drawn to a couple of drapery studies from two of the finest Renaissance draughtsmen, Ghirlandaio (this from about 1472) and Albrecht Durer, a spooky women seen from behind from 1521. I know these are just bits of cloth but I can get very excited about cloth in Renaissance pictures and the monochrome heightens the contrast between light and shade.

In the next room most people seemed drawn to Ingres’s Odalisque in Grisaille, a monochrome version of his colour painting of the same nude lady subject. Her skin does have a strange waxy quality here but I am always a little uncomfortable in the presence of nudes (pictorially I mean, in real life I would be mortified). There are plenty of other stunners on show in this room led by the Jan van Eyck St Barbara from 1437, executed in silverpoint and touched up with ink and some oil in the background. Apparently the first deliberate monochrome work in Western art, it is not clear if this was what he intended, but it is amazing to see the detail of its creation close up.

Opposite this is a Maternity from the end of the C19 by Eugene Carriere, a Symbolist, which is striking for its ghostly representation of a serene, but somehow pained, mother and daughter, which echoes a classic Madonna and child. Next door to this is Picasso’s Infanta Margarita Maria from 1957, the little weeble princess from Las Meninas, here rendered in partially cubist fashion. Apparently he rendered all the characters from Velazquez’s meta masterpiece in all manner of ways, but this shows why PP is the man when it comes to monochrome and captures the essence of the brattish Infanta. I don’t know if she was a brat but she always looks pretty Veruca Salt, high maintenance to me.

As if that wasn’t enough there is also one of those scratchy, black and white oils from Giacometti, here of wife Annette from 1957, where he seems to obsessively paw at the paint to capture the spirit of the sitter. Colour never really played a part in Giacometti’s work so no surprise he is here.

The next room has a whole bunch of paintings intended to mimic sculpture including a Titian and a Tiepolo for those inclined to that sort of thing (I am not). The Mantegna is worth a good peek, with all its different stone colours, and dramatic movement, but it is quite busy. No surprise then that I was drawn to the Jan van Eyck Annunciation diptych from 1433-35. These amazing grisaille figures, unlike the Memling, were inside the diptych panels and were meant to emulate the small devotional panels made in prior periods from ivory. You could touch them. I mean don’t touch them. That will get you into a lot of trouble but they are perfect. The bottom of the plinths sit on the wooden frames, the niches recede into inky blackness, the drapes are incredible, the fingers so elegant yet the lady grasps her bible quite firmly, they both seem to have the best curling tongs ever made for hair, the shadow cast by the angels wings is properly fuzzy and the gravity defying stone dove makes me snigger every time. I say every time. I mean the one time I stood in front of this for an inordinately long time in the Thyssen-Bornemisza where it is housed along with some other Northern Renaissance gems. The Prado done the road has more than its fair share of Netherlandish wonders, best of all van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross, worth getting on a plane to Madrid all by itself, but the T-B, gets close if you like this sort of thing. And the T-B is great if you want a whizz through Western art, with its half an Ark approach (one of everything).

Next door to this van Eyck is the equally extraordinary Head of A Woman (1520) from that egotist Durer again. It is a drawing, but what a drawing. Hair parted in the middle, eyes closed but not in devotion, head tilted back, round face, sort of chin dimple, light on the forehead, this is a very particular pose and a very particular model. Shiny, like metal. No sign at all of his preparation. He real was a clever fellow.

In the next room the curators have, unsurprisingly, snuck in a Rembrandt from the NG vaults, Ecce Homo, which is the height of drama. The oil from 1770 by Etienne Moulinneuf takes a famous painting by Chardin, La Pourvoiese, which was turned into a best selling print, and then creates the illusion of broken glass on top. It has to be seen to be believed, is a fine addition to the long line of deconstructed art works and the curators are pleased as punch with the inclusion, but the joke wears off pretty quickly. Nothing else to detain me in that room, you may feel differently, that is your prerogative, so on to the next room, where the influence of the camera is writ large.

I got on very well with Norwegian Peder Balke’s landscapes and seascapes. They are the height of romanticism and a teeny weeny bit melodramatic but they stir the soul, no doubt about that. Who doesn’t like wind and waves, and his tiny little Tempest from 1862, looks like it was painted “plein air”, in fact with plenty of air. I imagine the salt in the old fella’s beard and the wind knocking over his easel.

The Image as Burden (1993) from Marlene Dumas, who is new to me, is very striking as is Vija Celmins Night Sky no 3 (1991) inspired by Jasper Johns. Yet the eye is drawn in this room to Chuck Close’s gigantic portrait of American sculptor Joel Shapiro. Close was no mean photographer and his early oils used cropped portraits as the source for hyper realist, monochrome likenesses that show every wrinkle and blemish on the skin and every detail of the sitter’s features. This one however dates from 1993. By now Close was paralysed and had to attach the brush to his arm. He therefore uses a myriad of ovals within squares in different tones to build up the portrait. From afar it is like a pixellated but still very graphic and exact likeness. Close up it dissolves into near abstraction

We are then treated to the master of the “photo as painting” in Gerhard Richter. with his Helga Matura with her Fiance, which amazingly was painted in 1966. Here Richter takes his trademark photo, this time from Quick magazine, as the source. Ms Matura was a prostitute who was brutally murdered, and was the subject of salacious press attention. Richter’s blurring technique and the grey palette, “the ideal colour for indifference”, is intended to create an emotional distance from the subjects and the event. It works. I still curse the fact that  missed the Richter retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2011.

On to the final, (well not quite final), room. Monochromatism, in its purest black and white form, has an obvious attraction for artists drawn to abstraction so there was much to choose from here. Pride of place, predictably, goes to a Malevich Black Square (1929) which, i didn’t know until now, was originally hung high up in a corner to echo Russian icon paintings. Swivelling round you take in a Black and White Bar I from Elsworth Kelly rendered in entirely flat paint, an Op Art classic Horizontal Vibration (1961) from, guess who, Bridget Riley, one of those ropey “closed door” grey tortoiseshell numbers from Jasper Johns, one of Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square, 1965, a slightly dull Frank Stella, Tomlinson School Park I, 1959, one of Cy Twombly squiggly diptych from 1970, which, annoyingly, I was somewhat taken with, and a beautiful sheet of painted grey glass from our friend Gerhard Richter called Grey Mirror (1992, where does he think these titles up from).

Like I say this room is about as minimally abstracted as it gets. Mind you the final room has nothing in it. Except you bathed in yellow sodium light, so that you gradually turn grey as all the colour drains away. This is the court jester Olafur Eliasson playing tricks with you in his Room for One Colour from 1997. He was the chap he put that great big misty sun in the Tate and I saw another installation based on rippling water in Belgium somewhere that blew me away. The man is a marvel, (well the man, his studio and all his collaborators), who twists the basic elements, air, water, light, temperature, fire (well maybe not fire, yet), and then messes about with them using a hefty dose of technology to upset with the perception buttons in our heads. Sometimes daft, usually playful, and always, from the sound of them, beautiful, his large scale installations probably take ages to create and cost a bomb, but create delight. We need more delight.

So a thoroughly enjoyable exhibition even if its purpose is a bit tenuous. Perhaps best of all was the fact that the exhibition was not crowded so you can breathe and, most importantly, look. Some of the NG “Old Master” blockbusters in the bowels of the Sainsbury wing are so preposterously stuffed with punters at all times of the day and evening that, frankly, there is little point going. Not so here. You get to see a who’s who of Western art giants, with their technique exposed.

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


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.