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July 08, 2006

Modigliani shows why we should keep looking at and painting human faces and why the re-modernism of art would be so valuable, argues Jane Kelly - Modigliani and His Models at the Royal Academy

Posted by Jane Kelly

Modigliani and His Models
Royal Academy, London
8th July - 15th October 2006
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays until 10pm)

Most people have heard of Modigliani. His life is one of those much loved tales of the artist as a transgressive, behaving as many men would like to if they had the nerve; dreadful to women, getting into fights, sleeping all day and drinking all night, before the inevitable untimely death from drugs, drink and disease. His end was even more romantic as it was followed by the suicide of his heavily pregnant mistress who defenestrated herself from grief.

There was a BBC play about him in 1970 which set my school girl heart a flutter, and a more recent film about his life with Andy Garcia playing "Modi" as his friends called him. With the Jewish Italian good looks that made Picasso jealous, he would surely also be a good part for Johnny Depp.

"A great mythical character", Norman Rosenthal, the RA exhibitions secretary calls him.

The trouble is, apart from idle curiosity, none of that matters.

Amedeo Modigliani who died in 1920 aged thirty-five, might have had the most chaotic life of anyone in the cafes and studios of Montparnasse where he struggled to survive, but you wouldn't know it from looking at his work. There is no chaos there, quite the opposite.

The fifty-two pieces - including all his nudes and portraits and one sculpture - on show at the Royal Academy urge us to forget the girls and the drink and focus on what he managed to do in his spare time.

Because of the myth of the outsider, Modigliani has become rather discredited, male critics are also jealous of course, and he has usually been ranked as secondary to Picasso, Matisse, and Braque.

This show, the first solely dedicated to Modigliani for forty years, reveals that where the great triumphirate relied on intuition and would sacrifice stylistic purity to emotion or fantasy, he rejected expressionism in favour of something far more disciplined.

While others were going wild with paint and collage, his painting was never destructive or neurotic, and while the Cubists were breaking down forms in a way that now often seems rather frustrating, he retrieved form, producing portraits worthy of Renaissance masters.

This exhibition comes at the right time, as Modigliani as artist rather than sex icon, is being re-evaluated. Last month, his portrait of his lover, Jeanne Hebuterne, sold for 16.36 million at Sotheby's. (In the same auction a Picasso went for 7.4 million).

The exhibition starts with a whiff of what Modigliani was to become a unique synthesis of all the major influences in art immediately before the Great War.

When he first moved to Paris from Italy in 1906 he was influenced by Cubism, then in full swing, so he flattened and simplified his forms, gave them sharp contours and compressed them into a shallow pictorial space.

There is an amusing little portrait of Picasso on show, from a private collection in Moscow, a rare example of Modigliani painting a round rather than an oval head. It looks hastily done but shows a cunning, rather amused face of the older man, with the famous black olive eyes.

Just like Picasso's work at the time, these early paintings show Egyptian influences in the angular faces and almond eyes, but the main influence is from African masks. Picasso and Brancusi, the Paris based Romanian sculptor, were exploring primitivism at the time, but Modigliani was also friends with the young American amateur painter, Frank Burty Haviland, who owned a collection of African carvings.

Head, a limestone sculpture, from 1911, normally in the V & A, with its hieratic simplicity, elegant outlines and broken rhythms, combines influences from ancient Greece and Africa. Nearby, his portrait of Haviland, painted three years later, shows that the attenuated shape and stylised features have become the basis of his pictorial style.

This witty portrait, painted on cardboard, in square dabs of pure colour which reach back to the Fauves, shows the young toff smoking a pipe and sporting a very camp haircut. Like other great masters, Modigliani can brilliantly transpose ideas from one subject into quite another.

About half the exhibition is given to his most famous work eight sun-tanned centre-folds, shown together for the first time, the paintings which gave birth to the legend.

Seeing them together like this, you can see how shocking they must have seemed when they were first exhibited at Berthe Weill's gallery in Paris, in December 1917.

Here were classic grand nudes, deliberately posed like the sleeping Venuses of Titian and Giorgioni, but painted with the Cubist shallow pictorial space and absence of real light, and in a realistic way, even down to the fluffy pubic hair. These are modern women, nameless, impersonal, just passing through, their long, exposed tummies and pubic bones directed straight at the viewer.

Modigliani is reported to have said that "to paint a woman is to possess her", but none of these woman look as if they are owned, or even touched by the artist. They are sensuous but serene, some like Nude on a Red Couch have lazy post-coital eyes, but you don't get the impression it is the artist she is thinking of. She has her own private sexual world.

In 1917 all this caused a riot, the police commissioner arrived and closed down the gallery and the only one man show Modigliani ever had.

The nudes are chiefly interesting now in their glorious use of oil paint, scored through by Modigliani's wonderful use of line. If you trace it around the luminous flesh of the ladies, you will see how it changes in thickness and intensity all the time with immense sensitivity.

Living in poverty, increasingly ill with TB, a patron sent him to live in the south of France for awhile and the paintings from this period offer a sudden brief change of mood and style.

These images of peasants and serving girls are visceral yet sweet. His one full-length painting, The Young Chambermaid, the only painting showing any feet, is very moving. Imbued with love and tenderness she shimmers at us from across the 20th century and we wonder about her life. The most famous of this group is the Little Peasant, its volume and colour suggesting Cezanne.

After this sun-lit holiday we are back with the urban intensity of the mighty portraits, the lovers, friends, buyers, and men who look like the actor Peter Bowles. Rosenthal says:

These are the people Modigliani lived with, drank with and probably slept with.
The women in his life stare back at us in various degrees of adoration and disaffection.

The women are a very mixed bunch, he was interested in every type. He painted English journalist Beatrice Hastings forteen times. She was bi-sexual and enjoyed affairs with Ezra Pound, Katherine Mansfield, Andre Breton, Picasso and Wyndham Lewis. She was "liberated" enough to carve notches on her headboard to keep a tally of conquests. Naturally she and "Modi" fell out many times and from 1914 to 1916 they had a tempestuous affair. She eventually gassed herself in 1943, sadly taking her pet mouse with her.

His more enduring love, from 1917 until his death was of course Jeanne Hebuterne, a teenage violinist when he met her, whom he painted twenty-five times. Unlike Beatrice, Jeanne looks gentle, doormat-eyed, passive, even broken. She gave up her respectable family to be with him, endured his rages, his drinking and his other women, until she committed suicide whilst nine months pregnant with their second child.

But perhaps more interesting are the other women, older, independent, worldly wise - not the type of women Picasso ever painted - such as Hanka Zborowska, the haughty wife of his dealer whose elegantly composed portrait shows a rather scary woman, confident, superior and intellectual. Then there is the plain faced Lunia Czechowska, who was jealous of the attention he gave to Jeanne. Despite their abstract features and stylised curving forms, these women impose on us as vivid human beings.

Towards the end of the exhibition there is the last portrait he completed, of Paulette Jourdin, who had to sit while he was drinking heavily and spitting blood. It is formal, well composed, the door slides off down to the right but is perfectly balanced by the black bow on her head. And his very last work, a rare self-portrait, shows the pale mask of a face, clearly someone who is facing death head-on, very strong, holding on to his palette and fighting every inch of the way.

The work of this great modernist shows why we should with humility keep looking at and painting human faces, and why the re-modernism of art would be so valuable.

Jane Kelly worked as a full time staff feature writer for the Daily Mail for 15 years, but she now lives as a freelance journalist and painter in west London.


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What does the author mean by the "re-modernism of art", and could she explain what this has to do with the Modernism excoriated on this blog by recent authors? Does she disagree with them?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at July 10, 2006 04:03 PM
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hi,
im trying to identify a modigliani. i believe its a print. purchased it framed in 1968. think its a portrail of lunia Czechowaska. only red, black and white. its an uneven application of red on almost the full white canvas/paper, and the portrait is painted with black lines. havent seen any of his works with this application. its a drawing with ink. dont think its an original. always thought it was a framed poster but im not sure. do you know someone in nyc who could identify it for me. ?? i thought if a poster was made of his work it would be a piece from a p ermannent collection at a museum and not a piece from a private collection. when i didnt see the piece at the modigiani collection at the jewish musuem in nyc city ive been curious about it. can you help?? barbara

Posted by: barbara mitchell at October 29, 2007 01:20 AM
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