LONDON — Italian-Jewish painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani lived a life of excess. Addicted to drink, drugs and women, he died poor and young in Paris in 1920, at the age of 35 of tubercular meningitis.
Despite this, Modigliani’s output was considerable and his work is currently the subject of a blockbuster exhibition at Tate Modern, in London.
This major retrospective is the most comprehensive Modigliani exhibition ever held in the United Kingdom. With over 100 works, it brings together a range of his portraits, landscapes, sculptures and 12 of his iconic, languorous, female nudes, some of which have never been shown in the UK before.
These seductive figures, such as “Reclining Nude on a White Cushion” (1917), “Female Nude” (1916) and “Seated Nude” (1916) constitute many of his best-known works today. But in the early 20th century, the provocative paintings proved controversial, shocking the French establishment.
In 1917, they were included in Modigliani’s only solo exhibition in his lifetime, but were subject to censorship on grounds of indecency: A police commissioner objected to Modigliani’s depiction of pubic hair, finding it offensive.
However, these paintings’ inclusion here is one of the exhibition’s highlights. The models appear relaxed, their bold, curvaceous bodies and dark, almond shaped eyes gaze out with coquettish confidence.
The sensuality of these figures suggests changes in the lives of young women, who were then becoming increasingly independent. According to curator Nancy Ireson, women were of their moment in the 1910s, and their decision to pose was based on economics. Models were paid five francs, says Ireson, which was approximately twice the daily wage of a female factory worker during World War I.
Born in 1884 in Livorno into a middle class Sephardic Jewish family, Modigliani moved to Paris in 1906 in order to develop his career.
Bohemian, cosmopolitan Paris was the center of the art world and Modigliani was “blown away by what he saw as generations colliding,” says Ireson.
The city was a place of excitement and offered the painter new ideas and opinions that challenged him. He associated with poets, writers and musicians and soaked up the influence of works by other artists, such as the recently deceased Cézanne, as well as contemporaries including Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso.
This resulted in Modigliani changing his traditional style for broken brushwork and bright colors. “You cannot imagine what new themes I have thought up in violet, deep orange and ochre,” he declared.
But Modigliani also had strong ambitions to be a sculptor, and one gallery is devoted to a display of his Heads, produced between 1911-1913. The shape of these carvings reflects his interest in Egyptian, Cambodian and African art.
On a visit to his studio, Modigliani’s friend, the British sculptor Jacob Epstein, saw a series of sculpted Heads and said that, “At night he would place candles on the top of each one and the effect was that of a primitive temple. A legend of the quarter said that Modigliani, when under the influence of hashish, embraced these sculptures.”
Although Modigliani’s aspirations as a sculptor would be short lived due to a lack of financial resources and ill health — the dust from carving in stone may have aggravated his breathing — his developing style of elegant, long necks, elongated, oval faces and almond eyes would later feature in his paintings.
Modigliani followed his foray into stone with portraiture and several rooms are dedicated to pictures of his patrons and friends, many of whom were other artists living in Paris. These included Juan Gris, Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso as well as fellow Jews such as Moïse Kisling, Lithuanian cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, and the poet and painter Max Jacob, with whom Modigliani often discussed faith. Jacob is the subject of a series of pictures and a graphite drawing of him, completed in 1915, shows Modigliani’s handwritten inscription to his close friend and “brother.”
Modigliani was part of the Jewish artistic community, says co-curator Simonetta Fraquelli. “He was very proud of being Jewish and would not hide it.”
But Fraquelli was quoted by the Jewish Chronicle as saying that Modigliani was also slightly different from his contemporaries, in that the first time he faced prejudice was in Paris — whereas many of the Jewish artists had left Eastern Europe for France due to anti-Semitism.
Modigliani’s Jewishness is addressed in the exhibition as part of his story without focusing exclusively on it, explains Ireson. The curators chose not to explore Modigliani’s specific experience of anti-Semitism, says Ireson, having taken the view that much has already been written by academics on the subject.
Although Modigliani knew many people, there are a few individuals who appear repeatedly in his pictures.
In his latter years, he turned to his inner circle of close friends and lovers as willing and convenient models. They included Modigliani’s art dealer and friend, the Jewish poet and writer Léopold Zborowki, and Zborowki’s partner, Anna Sierzpowski, known as Hanka.
Despite having had a succession of tempestuous relationships with women, Jeanne Hébuterne would become one of the most important people in his life. She was the mother of his child and Modigliani’s most regular and favorite sitter — he painted her more than 20 times.
The couple met when she was a 19-year-old art student and they moved in together, becoming engaged against the wishes of her Roman Catholic parents. One of the last portraits of Jeanne (“Jeanne Hébuterne,” 1919), depicts her seated, one slender finger resting on her cheek with the rest of her hand curling, delicately, under her chin.
Despite the extensiveness of the artworks that have been assembled in the exhibition, there is a lack of focus and a frenetic quality about the show, largely due to the inclusion of its countless and tonally similar portraits. There are some compelling pieces, but the excess of works dilutes them — the sheer volume is overwhelming.
Where the exhibition excels is in its integrated virtual reality experience, The Ochre Atelier. Through the use of a headset, visitors can step into Modigliani’s last studio in Paris. Used for the first time at Tate, this immersive, thrilling recreation also includes first person accounts by those who knew the artist.
The show’s highlights are impressive, as are its ambition and scale. Its overreach, however, is also its shortcoming. Most of the art does not match the artist’s penchant for reckless overindulgence, and lacks the sufficient drama and vibrancy to sustain an exhibition of this size.
Modigliani runs until April 2, 2018 at Tate Modern, London.