I confess I didn’t know much about Amedeo Clemente Modigliani, an Italian Jewish painter and sculptor, before going to the retrospective at the Tate. I didn’t do any research before going as I wanted to look at his art with fresh eyes uninfluenced by opinions. I was aware of him but not as familiar as his contemporary’s Picasso, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Diego Rivera to name but a few.
Modigliani moved to Paris in 1906 during the heyday of the Post-Impressionist period. His arrival put him at the centre of artistic experimentation. All these young artists were pushing the boundaries of what was possible and socially acceptable amidst a fog of absinthe, drugs and debauchery. Modigliani’s behaviour stood out as extreme even in these Bohemian surroundings. The lifestyle of the bohemian Parisian artist took its toll on Modigliani. He managed only one solo exhibition in his life and gave most of his work away in exchange for meals in restaurants, Modigliani died destitute at the age of thirty-five due to a combination alcoholism and tuberculosis. Sadly, his fiancé, a beautiful twenty-one-year-old artist named Jeanne Hébuterne took her own life two days later, she was eight months pregnant with their second child.
The exhibition shows that he was very prolific during his short life, he painted very quickly and confidently. there are more than 100 objects in this exhibition alone. It seems he was interested mainly with a process of simplification, no doubt influenced by his interest in African and Egyptian art and his dabble with sculpture. He honed a very distinct set of stylistic elements; the elongated body, neck and nose, the blank eyes, the position of the hands and the flat colours in a warm Mediterranean palate. Once he had developed that vocabulary he just stuck to it.
The little peasant 1918 © Tate
The collection of 12 nudes were wonderful to see. Although they were painted as commissions for male clients, the women were not exploited and paid almost as much as the artist. Modigliani’s confident style, bold composition and stripped back style really suits these paintings. They were perhaps Modigliani’s most daring contribution to the movement and caused quite an outrage at the time due to displaying the women’s body hair.
Seated nude 1917 1918 © Tate
I do wonder if Modigliani’s fame is more to do with the times he lived in and for being the romantic embodiment of the tragic tortured impoverished artist? I am not saying there are not things to admire about Modigliani’s work because there are, predominantly his ability to find and refine his own style and his confident drawing skills, I just think in comparison to his contemporaries his work is a bit monotonous and I feel like there was a lot more in him. Maybe this was due to his declining health and the necessity to sell his paintings for food and lodgings, if he was always painting to satisfy a patron it was bound to restrict his artistic ambitions. I wish he could have had a few prosperous years to really show us what he could do.
It was a very thorough retrospective and a good insight to this exciting time in art – well worth a visit.