Issue 137: 2018 01 18: Modigliani

18 January 2018


Tate Modern

Reviewed by William Morton
The Little Peasant, copyright The Tate
A great exhibition of the work of an artist whose individual style is instantly recognisable. Amedeo Modigliani was born in 1884 in Livorno, Italy into a Sephardic Jewish family.  Although initially rich, they later faced financial problems.  Amedeo himself suffered from tuberculosis when young.  He did study art in Italy but there is nothing in the exhibition produced before 1906 when he moved to Paris aged 21.  There he took to the bohemian life with enthusiasm, taking drugs and drinking heavily and having numerous affairs and associating with artists such as Picasso and Brancusi, many of whom he painted. As an artist, Modigliani concentrated almost exclusively on people and, in particular, on portraits.  There is only one small landscape (of Cagnes in the south of France) in the exhibition, which he described as an experiment.  Many of the portraits are magnificent and, as well as those of his fellow artists, there are fine ones of other members of his circle such as his early patron, Paul Alexandre, and his art dealers, Paul Guillaume and Léopold Zborowski. Cézanne clearly influenced Modigliani in the early stages of his career as can be seen in two striking pictures, The Cellist and The Beggar of Livorno, where both the general approach and colours are reminiscent of the former.   Cubism was another influence and African art of which Paul Guillaume was an advocate.  The Russian poetess, Anna Akhmatova, with whom Modigliani had an affair recalled having to accompany to him to the Egyptian gallery of the ethnography museum frequently such was his enthusiasm for the art displayed there. Between 1911 and 1913 Modigliani largely devoted himself to sculpting human heads and their debt to Egyptian and African art is clear in elongated necks, flattened faces and almond eyes. The sculptures are professional and interesting but without the power of the paintings. In 1916 Léopold Zborowski took over as Modigliani’s art dealer and would appear effectively to have taken over the running of his life at the same time.  It was he who suggested to the artist that he paint the well-known series of nudes, many of which are in the exhibition, and supported him while he did so.  Presumably, he thought they were likely to sell well. The resulting paintings are sensuous and striking and wonderfully coloured.  The models are confident in themselves and their bodies.  The exhibition literature delicately refers to the possibility of them combining modelling with prostitution (surely not!) but there is nothing gloomy or sleazy about the pictures. Towards the end of the First World War, Zborowski despatched Modigliani to Nice in the south of France.  During his stay there, he produced some of his best work with a fine use of colour such as The Little Peasant (a nod to Van Gogh perhaps?) and the portrait and nude of Elvira, and tried his hand at landscapes. In 1919, Modigliani returned to Paris to a studio found for him by Zborowski.  By this time he was living with Jeanne Hébuterne who had a child by him.  There is a series of paintings of her from this time in the exhibition in which she, in the centre, curiously lacks character; but they are masterpieces of colour. Photographs show Modigliani as well-built but his lifestyle and childhood tuberculosis caught up with him and he died, destitute, in 1920 at the age of 35.  Jeanne Hébuterne, pregnant with their second child, committed suicide shortly afterwards.  Only after his death did his work come into its own. One of his nude paintings sold for $170 million in 2015. The exhibition runs to 2 April 2018
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