If you’re looking for an exhibition to see over the Easter weekend, you could do far worse than to visit the impressive Modigliani retrospective at the Tate Modern.
The enigmatic artist, who tragically died at the age of 35, achieved only one solo exhibition during his lifetime – which was swiftly curtailed by the Paris police on grounds of indecency (his nudes had visible pubic hair). That was in 1917. A century later, the once-neglected artist is the subject of a captivating exhibition that reveals the breadth of his talent and charts the evolution of his distinctive style. His nudes, by the way, are now so popular that, in 2015, one sold for $170 million.
The story of Modigliani’s short life is as intriguing as his portraits. Born in 1884 in Livorno, Tuscany to a Jewish family of mixed fortunes, he developed his passion for art as a teenager. But his early years were beset by difficulty. Aged 14, he contracted typhoid fever. Two years later, he was struck down by the tuberculosis that, combined with alcohol and drug addition, would cause his premature death.
In 1906, aged 21, he moved to Paris – then the epicentre of modernism – and mixed with artists from Pablo Picasso to Diego Rivera, Jacques Lipchitz and Juan Gris, all of whom he painted. However, despite being a prominent figure in bohemian Montmartre and Montparnasse, his preference for figurative portraiture and rejection of more fashionable cubist and abstract styles left his work largely underappreciated during his life – ironically, becoming more popular shortly after his death.
An impoverished, volatile figure, but seemingly beloved by his contemporaries, Modigliani painted with such intense, subliminal emotion that his portraits create a stirring mix of intrigue and discomfort. He captures his sitters’ idiosyncrasies tenderly – whether proud, distrustful, curious or nonchalant – but endows each with a beguiling air of inscrutability. His distinctive style of almond-shaped eyes with elongated faces and bodies incorporates, at times, a nod to cubism and post-impressionism. But what really unites his subjects is a tangible dignity – from the Cezanne-inspired ‘The Beggar of Livorno’ in 1909 to ‘The Little Peasant’ painted shortly before his death.
“My real ambition is to work in stone” Modigliani once confessed. Encouraged by his contemporary Constantin Brâncuși, from 1911-1913 he focussed almost entirely on sculptures, which fill an imposing room in the exhibition. However, whether due to ill-health or the expense of sculpting material, he soon returned to portraits – but the sculpted form, with its geometrical features, clear lines and accentuated poses remains visible in his art.
While Picasso and Matisse were breaking ground with deconstructed nudes, Modigliani was challenging perspective in a different way. His highly regarded portraits of naked women are distinct for their humanity – tinged with reverence but devoid of the male gaze: his subjects are not placid figures of seduction but owners of their sexuality – confident, languorous and unfazed by their audience.
Within his distinctly modernist style, Modigliani reframes Renaissance paradigms: his defiant, quizzical ‘Venus’ is in powerful contrast to Botticelli’s original, while ‘Nude’, the exhibition frontispiece, reconfigures a classical pose with an expression of cool enquiry. Painted at a time when women were gaining increasing independence, his nudes radiate unapologetic self-assurance; their warm hues of apricot and cream dominating the dark backgrounds. Whether Modigliani actively sought to redefine perceptions of women or simply captured a prevailing atmosphere is impossible to say. It’s difficult not to suspect the former, though.
Despite their vivid emotion, what’s most beguiling about Modigliani’s portraits is the blank eyes he often gave his subjects. His early ‘Portrait of Constantin Brancusi’, a beautifully haunting image in mixed blues, avoids our gaze entirely, while other subjects are presented with one eye obscured. Asked why, Modigliani answered, “because you look out at the world with one eye, and into yourself with the other.” Perhaps this makes ‘Portrait of a Girl’, one of his most remarkable works, all the more striking for her piercing stare.
These ocular voids appear throughout his work, although he begins to play more with colour after escaping Paris for Nice towards the end of the First World War – a move orchestrated by his manager to try and restore his fading health. Modigliani was worried about the move: “All these changes, changes of circumstance and the change of season, make me fear for a change of rhythm and atmosphere.” Yet, as the exhibition makes clear, he was resolutely versatile and receptive to his environment, and his time in Nice brought in a new phase of his work. His portraits of local women and children are luminous and gentle, tinged with pale hues of peaches, mints, blues and creams. Brighter, lighter, but always slightly elusive.
As you make your way through the exhibition, though, it is the final room that is most striking – filled with portraits of his young partner, Jeanne Hébuterne, who committed suicide days after Modigliani died, pregnant with one child and leaving behind another. The final image, a poignant self-portrait painted shortly before his death, is moving and proud. Here, Modigliani appears as he must have wanted the world to remember him; diligent, dignified, but with a subtle air of tragedy. This rare exhibition is a powerful retrospective that shouldn’t be missed.
Modigliani runs at Tate Modern until 2 April 2018. For more information and to book tickets, visit the website.