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. The thing that struck me the most from this exhibition was that his art never really changed very much. I get the impression that although he was among these ground-breaking artists such as Picasso and Cezanne, experimenting with cubism and new ways with colour and form, his heart wasn’t really in it. 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. I found that they all looked so similar without a sense of the sitter and perhaps because of the blank eyes and the flat colours, I just felt there was no life in them, they are more a pleasant arrangement of shape and colour which although I could appreciate it just didn’t connect with me emotionally.
The little peasant 1918 © Tate
The collection of 12 nudes appealed to me the most. 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
When it comes to Modigliani, I think there is an elephant in the room, and the elephant is this question – is Modigliani a famous artist due to the quality of his work or is it 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 he played it a bit safe and his work is a bit monotonous. 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.
It was a very thorough retrospective and a good insight to this exciting time in art – well worth a visit.