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Nude 1917Oil paint on canvas890 x 1460 mmPrivate Collection

Modigliani at Tate Modern

1 December 2017 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

Amedeo Modigliani was an Italian painter, who rose to prominence at the beginning of the twentieth century. Though Modigliani died young in 1920 – of tubercular meningitis, exacerbated by his poor living conditions and increasing alcoholism – in these extraordinary years in Paris, he established himself as an influential artist through his challenge to figurative painting.

Modigliani moved to Paris from Livorno in Italy in 1906, when he was just 21. The first room of the exhibition contains examples of the early work he undertook in those first few years in the city.  There are some touching aspects to this room: a couple of paintings are displayed in glass cases, showing paintings on both side of the canvas, hinting at Modigliani’s poverty as a young artist, and his dedication to practising his craft. One of these is a portrait of Constantin Brancusi, the Romanian artist and sculptor who was extraordinarily influential in this early period of Modigliani’s artistic life. There is also a striking nude from 1908, the form for which Modigliani is arguably best known. Unlike his later more sensual work, in this painting, the woman lifts her head high and though her eyes are closed, she sits stiffly with her body slightly turned away from the frame.  In these early works, though influences of other artists can be seen - particularly Cezanne, whose portraits are currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery – the facial expressions already demonstrate a kind of wistfulness, a kind of seriousness that traverses much of his work.

Modigliani was part and parcel of the wider artistic community emerging in Paris at that time, specifically in the less built-up areas of Montmartre and Montparnasse. In room 3, the curators display a film in which they include shots of those areas when Modigliani would have been there. Interestingly, they have included two bits of new research, footage of the salon des temps – the only show of his sculptures in his lifetime – as well as new information about the importance of cinema to Modigliani’s everyday Paris experience. New research undertaken by the Tate suggests that the space below his small flat was a cinema, and one that he attended frequently. This sense of community is carried throughout the exhibition, through the many portraits he painted of his friends and associates. As well as the early Brancusi portrait, there are also portraits of painters like Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso, as well as writers such as Jean Cocteau, and the writer and editor Beatrice Hastings.  This speaks to the shared interests and working practices of these artists living in Paris at that time.


Image credit: detail from Juan Gris, 1915 (c) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Though Modigliani is known predominantly for his nudes, this exhibition also hosts some of his sculptures. Between 1911 and 1913, the artist became very interested in the medium, and prepared many sketches, some of which are also contained in this exhibition.  In these sketches, he shows a particular interest in the caryatid, the female figure often serving as a column in classical Greek architecture. Here we recognise the shape of his famous, melancholy faces and elongated body shapes, demonstrating their basis in earlier artistic and architectural forms. Unusually, nine of his sculptures are on display, housed in a room on their own.  In this selection, his interest in the composition and idiosyncrasies of the human face are again displayed; this suggests that though Modigliani eventually abandoned sculpture, the preparatory sketches and sculptures themselves inspired his interest in the possibilities of human form, and particularly the face


Image credit: Head, c 1911. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Lois Orswell © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

This interest is felt in his portraits as well as his famous nudes.  Both forms make the subject of the painting the central focus, but whilst the portraits show men and women of all ages, the nudes are almost exclusively young women.  This genre of painting has been the subject of numerous studies that discuss the problems of agency and objectification implicit within them, questioning the impact of a form in which young woman are looked at, without being able to look back. The curators, an all-female team, frame these nudes in terms of empowerment, pointing out the financial independence given to these women by posing as an artist model, as well as the explicitness and directness of their sexuality. In several of these nudes, woman are shown with pubic or armpit hair, something that saw these images banned for public indecency.  Some woman are shown with made up faces, hair dos, and necklaces; one interesting example shows two paintings of a woman, one with clothes on and one without, hung side by side. The woman, known as Almaisa definitely has personality as reflected in her dress and striking jewellery. In the nude she cranes her head, as if attempting to look over the frame, perhaps at Modigliani whilst he is painting.  However, though we may admire her, it is not quite convincing to think of these women as uniquely or newly empowered.

Though Modigliani certainly reinvigorated a historical form in a new context, questions still arise about the way in which we look at the nude in the gallery space. However, in the artists’s idiosyncratic way of transposing expression and personality into form, he makes them extremely worthwhile viewing.
 
Modigliani is at the Tate Modern until 2 April 2018.
 
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