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September 14, 2006

Christie Davies contemplates shocking nudes and finds the first post-modernist: Modigliani and His Models at the Royal Academy

Posted by Christie Davies

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

The Modigliani exhibition reveals three important aspects of his work: how shocking his nudes are; the skill with which he produced portraits that were both generic Modigliani and portrayals of real people; and Modigliani's position as the first post-modernist.

Modigliani's naked women are erotic, designedly so, and have to be judged as such. No doubt sour feminists who prefer male gays to the male gaze will see them as pornographic precursors of Playboy centrefolds but quite frankly, who cares?

Actual individual women are not objects because they have free-will. Paintings and photographs of naked women are objects and they might as well be sex objects as any other kind. Most gifted painters are male and heterosexual and so, unless constrained by social convention, that is what they will tend to paint. Men and butch lesbians will see them as being simultaneously aesthetically and erotically inspiring but there is no reason to suppose that these are incompatible.

The most erotic Modigliani on show, Draped Nude, 1917, is not in fact completely naked. She is far more enticing than Nude, 1917 who thrusts her pubic hair "in yer fyce" in the French manner.

Draped Nude, 1917 has a narrow towel draped over her groin but, thighs and knees bent under her, she is a masterpiece of line, curve and soft colours. She kneels on a speckled fabric like one of Matisse's favourite schmutters. She is active, unlike the sprawled naked female tubes for which Modigliani is better known. She has a proper face with dark eyes and black hair that falls over her shoulders in front in a single thick strand pointing down her hefty breasts. It may be fanciful but I was reminded of Britain's own Helen of Troy, Edwina Currie née Cohen, who brought down a government and an era, as the wretched, John Major lost all his political judgement and gave way to Paris. The topless towers fell and we survivors live in the Blairist-Cameron ruins listening to the mocking night-sounds of owls and hyenas.

Draped Nude is far more than an object as is Female Nude, 1917, a reclining nude with outstretched arms, another vivid-faced, active woman who is doing something. Who could possibly not fail to find these women more attractive than the ones who merely recline? The latter can not speak.

Modigliani's female flesh-coloured tubes with pubic hair caused great scandal at the time when they were first well hung. The public looking through the window of Bertha Weill's gallery, where Modigliani had his first solo exhibition, could see them hanging on the walls. The police were called and - at a time when you'd think they would be far too busy rounding up German spies, French army deserters and groups of carousing British officers from Armentières singing "parlez-vous" and smashing estaminet windows - they actually came. Perhaps as today in Britain they got extra points for giving priority to the indignation-arousing over the dangerous. According to Bertha Weill:

Sunday we hung and Monday 3rd October was the opening. Sumptuous nudes, angular faces. Tasty portraits….A passer-by, curious at how many people were in the gallery, stopped in his tracks. Two passers-by….three passers-by….a crowd together. My neighbour, the police chief, exclaimed "What's this? A nude!...I order you to take all this filth down!"

"What's wrong with these nudes?", I asked

"These nudes….these nudes have p-p-p – pubic hair!....And if my orders are not followed immediately I will have them all seized by my agents".

I cleared the gallery soon after and the guests who were thus imprisoned helped me in taking down the paintings.
[Translated by Kenneth E. Silver, Catalogue]

What is curious is the absence of pubic hair in nudes before Modigliani except in Port Said postcards. One can understand why it might be a requirement to cover the vital spot with artful diaphanous drapery but why airbrush it out on someone who is naked? It had a dreadful effect on the art critic John Ruskin, who was so alarmed to discover on his wedding night that his bride, Euphemia, had pubic hair, something he had never seen before, that he left the room in consternation. He had no previous experience of naked women and his extensive knowledge of the nude in art had convinced him that they did not have any. Ruskin deposed:
It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it.
No wonder Proust and Gandhi admired Ruskin.

His wife got an annulment and went off with Ruskin's protégé the pre-Raphaelite painter John Millais who knew from his live models, if nowhere else, that it is not just armpits that are thus decorated. Once it was known from the depositions in the annulment case that Euphemia Millais was publicly known to possess pubic hair she was not allowed to attend social events at which Queen Victoria was present. Standards had to be maintained. But today we are multi-cultural. We know that the Japanese with their tradition of public bathing and scrubbing in hot springs were not only unfazed by pubic hair but invented the moa moa, an artificial genital hairpiece. Hideo Tsuda still keeps this fine old tradition alive at his Poweru factory in Matsuyamachi, Osaka.

The prudish conventions of Western art by contrast maddened one of our leading critics and deprived the world of little Ruskins. Instead Ruskin gave his name to Plebs' College Oxford where, according to H. G. Wells, Socrates rhymes with Bates and Greats. After the Second World War, Danish politicians were so upset at hearing Ruskin's sad story that they passed a law prohibiting pornographers from air-brushing out the pubic hair in photographs - so that no more unfortunates should be traumatised in this way.

One wonders too how much damage has been done throughout history by the total banishing of the real and "grotesque" from the wretched classical sculptures of women handed down from Greece. Poor Leopold Virag was driven crazy by it in Catholic Dublin in 1905.

Lovely forms of women sculpted Junonian. Immortal lovely. And we stuffing food in one hole and out behind: food, chyle, blood, dung, earth, food: have to feed it like stoking an engine. They have no. Never looked. I'll look today. Keeper won't see. Bend down, let something fall, see if she.
Virag can't even finish the sentence. He is the real, the grotesque confronted by a closed, isolated body, fenced off from all other bodies. Modigliani defied this convention and the police chief was reduced to stuttering. The revelation of an unsmooth boundary had rendered his speech jagged.

Modigliani's portraits like his nudes employ his distinctive reshaping and distorting of the world. Why not? Why should we leave it the shape it is? We can see it as it is anytime we want, but only Modigliani can make it look Modigliani.

Yet while sitters can not demand that a portrait reproduces them, they will not want to look just like all the others. They are willing to be Modiglianised but they still wish to retain something of themselves. And they do. Oscar Miestchaninoff, 1917 looks like a haughty, irritated Simon Schama, angry perhaps at an importunate television producer. Thora Klinckowström, 1919's bourgeois respectability shines at you. Young, innocent, she even kept her hat on to repel the sexually predatory Modigliani. The hat then renders her Modigliani - oval face different from all the others. An egg with a hat is no longer an egg.

But unoeuf. Let us turn to Jeanne Hébuterne, 1917-18; it is a long-faced, long-necked Modigliani but more natural than the others for her mouth is fuller, her eyes have expression, her hair encloses that Modigliani neck. After his fashion he loved Jeanne, his mistress and the mother of his daughter. She had that ideal feminine quality of "putting up with". She gave up her personal independence and accepted his violence even when he dragged her along the floor by her hair like a cartoon cave-man. Modigliani sneered at Renoir "Je n'aime pas les belles fesses", but Renoir could well have retorted "Moi, je n'aime pas les belles fessées". It is perhaps interesting to note that, in contrast to Renoir or Gauguin, we only ever see Modigliani's nudes from in front. Face je gagne, pile tu perds.

Jeanne never complained about Modigliani's boozing, drugs and wenching. Twenty four hours after his death, though heavily pregnant, she deliberately walked backwards out of a high window in an apartment block in Paris. Like Carrington with Lytton Strachey she had made him the only thing in her life. Jeanne Hébuterne was almost a sati, like the revered Roop Kanwar, that virtuous Rajput woman who chose to join her beloved deceased in the cleansing fire.

In her life with Modigliani, Hébuterne had been a true pativrata. The essence of the pativrata was explained to me in a tale told by that wise old Hindu patriarch Mani Krishan, who had access to eternal spiritual truths beyond our shallow Western knowledge. A pativrata (virtuous and loyal Hindu spouse) was ordered by her drunken husband late one evening to carry him on her back down to the house of the nautch girls (enticing dancers often of loose morals). On the way they passed a sage whose benign countenance irritated the husband. The husband kicked the sage and the enraged sage cursed him, saying, "You will die before the sun rises next morning".

The pativrata prayed that her husband be saved and the earth stopped turning as it had done in the time of Joshua, for nothing in the natural world could resist the prayer of a woman of such submissive piety. The gods had to intervene, placate the sage and get him to lift his curse in order to save the world from centrifugal chaos.

Unfortunately Western women have lost their spiritual qualities and poor Jeanne Hébuterne could not save the dissolute, whoring, hash-smoke-rotted Modigliani (who in fact dies of natural causes). On his death-bed he asked her "to follow him to the grave". She did. Eight years later she was buried next to him in Père Lachaise and a Mahasati stone was erected.

Modigliani was a post-modernist. He had absorbed what the modernists of his time had to offer but he combined it and mixed it with his love of past styles. They hide in the interstices of the modern and leap out joyfully at you. He knew cubism but he painted cubism-pubism-schmudism. Look hard at the head of Female Nude, 1916. Look at its angle to the torso. Where have you seen that before?

Who now thinks modernism is exciting or interesting? We no longer see Modigliani's nudes as passé. They live in a way abstractions do not. I saw them shortly after I had seen the Kandinsky exhibition at the Tate Modern and which I could not think how to review.

When Kandinsky spoke of an "intellectually controlled but universal language", I could only think of the years I spent studying geometry, a thing of more beauty, interest and abstraction than Kandinsky's squiggles. When he spoke of the "ability of forms to generate meaning independent of any conventionally descriptive reference to the natural world", I knew I preferred Modigliani. We can with benefit walk away from the conventionally descriptive as Modigliani does but not out of sight of it. You can lose the cat but not the grin. To lose the grin is to be by the test of human experience "not even wrong". Painters working in two dimensions can walk with profit down the path to abstraction but they should aim never to arrive. The only sounds that have colours are farts. Better to listen to the Whistler.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain and with Goh Abe of Esuniku Joku.

To read artist Jane Kelly's take on the Royal Academy's Modigliani exhibition, see: 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.

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Splendid pictures. Nevertheless, part of me wants to put a torch to the whole lot, not out of any Taliban-like ideology, but simply as a warning to male artists who treat their women like dirt. If my order of dervishes were to remain at the ready, then today's artists would have to behave better, for even during their life the market value of their pictures would be contingent on their good behaviour.

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