Sunday 17 December 2017

Modigliani at Tate Modern

Amedeo Modigliani

at Tate Modern.

We chose the worst time to see this exhibition - on a Saturday afternoon when it was packed. But, due to the way the show was organised, uncluttered, with a few paintings distributed throughout 10 galleries, it was bearable and we were able to enjoy the stylised, instantly recognisable, and so unusually distinctive paintings of the artist.

Self-Portrait as Pierrot, 1915, (oil paint on cardboard)

Painted in 1915, shortly after he moved to Paris, this is a painting in which Modigliani presents himself as the tragic clown Pierrot. At the time, the figure appeared in countless pictures, plays and films. A young person shaping their identity could relate to Pierrot, a stock character open to interpretation linked to the past and looking towards the future. Pierrot could be comedic, melancholy or romantic, played by any actor or painted by any artist. In a new place, among new people, the work signals that Modigliani was ready to invent himself.

'You see the world with one eye, and you look inside yourself with the other', was Modigliani's explanation for leaving one eye blank.

His reference to Pierrot was an assertion of his Italian identity, but perhaps also an expression of his Jewishness - while the traditional Pierrot wore a tall clown's hat, the version popularised in films wore a skullcap. Defying the rising anti-Semitism of wartime Paris, Modigliani introduced himself to the British artist Nina Hamnett; 'Je suit Modigliani, Juif, Jew'.

The Cellist, 1909, (oil paint on canvas)

Soon after his arrival in Paris, Modigliani began to look at progressive contemporary art and absorbed the influence of the works he saw. Loose brushwork and bright colours made an appearance as he abandoned a more polished, traditional way of painting. 'My Italian eyes cannot get used to the light in Paris... Such an all-embracing light... You cannot imagine what new themes I have thought up in violet, deep orange and ochre'.

Caryatid, 1913-14

Caryatid with Pointed Breast, 1913-14, (pen, ink and crayon on paper)

For a brief but intense period between 1911 and 1913, Modigliani focused almost exclusively on sculpture. He also made many elegant sculptural drawings. Perhaps these were preparatory sketches for sculptures he had in mind although many appear as finished works of art. Caryatids were a recurring theme: the classical female figures who, with raised arms, also served as architectural supports.

Many who knew Modigliani recalled his early commitment to being a sculptor. His patron Paul Alexandre recalled how the artist worked around 1911-12: 'When a figure haunted his mind, he would draw feverishly with unbelievable speed, never retouching, starting the same drawing ten times in an evening by the light of a candle... He sculpted the same way. He drew for a long time, then he attacked the block directly'. 

He would abandon sculpture soon after. Already troubled by the after-effects of childhood tuberculosis, dust from the carving may have aggravated his breathing. 

Picasso, 1915

Leon Indenbaum, 1915


Max Jacob, 1916

Pierre Edouard, 1918

The painter Pierre-Edouard Baranowski, known as Bara, was a member of the Parisian Polish colony. The figure, with his androgynous grace, occupies the entire space of the painting. 

Rachel Osterlind, 1919

The Italian Woman, 1917

Young Woman of the People, 1918

Cagnes Landscape, 1919

Nude, 1917

In 1916 Modigliani started painting nudes. The models dominate the compositions, often making eye contact with the viewer, their made-up faces hinting at the growing influence of female film stars.

At the time, these modern nudes proved shocking. In 1917, when some of the paintings were included in Modigliani's only lifetime solo exhibition, a police commissioner asked for their removal on the grounds of indecency. He found their pubic hair offensive.

Reclining Nude, 1919

Marguerite, 1916

Portrait of Anna Zborowska

Hanka Zborowska Seated, 1919

Blue Eyes, (Jeanne Hebuterne), 1917

Jeanne Hebuterne was Modigliani's most regular sitter. They lived together, she was the mother of their child and the two were engaged to be married. The paintings show her in different guises. Modigliani died in January 1920 at the age of 35. Hebuterne - expecting their second child - took her own life a few days later.

Head of Jeanne Hebuterne, 1918

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