The first Friday in January and our first full day in London in 2018. I was up fairly early as I needed to make a work related call but after that we left the Premier Inn, leaving our bags to pick up later, and took the Tube over to London Bridge. We were heading for Tate Modern as we wanted to visit the Modigliani exhibition that had opened at the end of November. A Sephardic Jew originally from Livorno in Italy, Modigliani moved to Paris in 1906. He had a hedonistic lifestyle drinking to excess, indulging in other chemical highs, and died young from the complications of alcoholism at the age of 35. This exhibition is a comprehensive survey of his work created during his all too brief time in the French Capital.
After visiting the Cezanne exhibition at the NPG the previous evening, this was our second exhibition of portraits in 24 hours and a chance to “compare and contrast”, especially as Modigliani was influenced by Cezanne’s work. I think that of the two exhibitions I enjoyed the Modigliani more. The paintings were easier to like – Cézanne’s were more complex and darker in some respects. And Modigliani has been a favourite for some time.
Self portrait (1919)
Unlike Cezanne, who also well known for his landscapes and still lives, Modigliani was something of a “one trick” artist , a painter of portraits. There is one small landscape included in the Tate’s show, but it’s best forgotten. But I love his distinctive portraits with their stylised long necks, oval faces and almond eyes, influenced by African and Egyptian art. Looking up close at so many of his paintings it was possible to see that he used paint sparingly, applied thinly compared to Cezanne. Possibly a stylistic choice but also, no doubt, influenced by financial considerations.
He did try his hand as a sculptor, though, and there’s a room full of his sculptures early in the exhibition. As with his paintings, they’re stylised heads
As Modigliani was almost a caricature of an impoverished, bohemian artist, he surreptitiously “procured” his stone from building sites around Montparnasse and this was evident in some of the pieces on display where decorative architectural features were visible.
Many of the portraits were of his friends and patrons, including
Room 8 was largely devoted to female nudes
Nu couché, (1917-18)
The exhibition website tells us that
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. Traditionally, in fine art, nudes were hair-free.
Personally, I found these some of the less interesting paintings in the exhibition. In a few cases paintings of the model clothed were displayed next to the nude painting. I found these much more interesting and attractive.
The exhibition blurb also tells us that
If Modigliani made these paintings for male buyers, their sensuality suggests changes in the lives of young women, who were increasingly independent in the 1910s. 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.
I’m not convinced by this analysis. I’m pretty certain that these paintings were created for the titillation of their wealthy male buyers and I doubt Modigliani’s motivation was to make a feminist statement.
Following on from the nudes there were portraits painted during a stay in the South of France from the end of 1918, returning to Paris the following year. The exhibition guide tells us
Modigliani made some of his strongest works in Nice. ………… In the absence of professional models, he painted local children and his friends, capturing them in warm Mediterranean colours.
The Little Peasant c.1918 © Tate
The next section of the exhibition was something different – a virtual reality experience. After queuing for a short while we entered a room where we sat down and were given a VR headset and were able to view the interior of Modigliani’s studio in Montparnasse.
Through study of documentary material and of Modigliani’s works themselves, the environment in which the artist made his last works is reimagined. In this room you can immerse yourself in a virtual reality recreation of Modigliani’s final studio, which uses the actual studio space as a template.
The next room featured portraits of Modigliani’s “intimate circle” – his closest friends, including his art dealer, Léopold Zborowski and his partner Anna Sierzpowski (known as Hanka Zborowska).
The exhibitions ends with a row of portraits of his last lover, a young aspiring artist, Jeanne Hebuterne who he met in the spring of 1917 when she was 19. Despite the objections of her parents they set up home together and a daughter was born in November 1918 while they were briefly living in Nice in the South of France. Tragically, the day after he died, despite being nine months pregnant with her second child, she threw herself out of the fifth-floor apartment window the day after Modigliani’s death, killing herself and her unborn child.
Modigliani’s portraits of Jeanne are a marked contrast to Cezzane’s painting of his wife. Unlike poor Mrs Cezanne, Jeanne comes across as a strong, beautiful young woman.
All in all a very enjoyable exhibition. Together with the Cezanne exhibition we’d seen the previous evening it made it worthwhile staying down in London for a night.