Tate Modern opened its doors on an exhibition of Amedeo Modigliani’s nudes on 23rd November, 2017.
Seeing a Modigliani portrait at the age of 9 opened my eyes to think of portraiture as something other than photographic realism. The way this artist elongated the neck of the woman and the simple way the curves of her body flowed made me think about what shape we make rather than the face we have.
Call me precocious – yes! I admit it. I realised I did not have to paint the way my teachers were telling me and continued to plough my own furrow. However, it was many years before I contemplated comparing the nudes of Modigliani with those painted by any other artist.
Back to Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920). born in Livorno to a Sephardic Jewish family, he is best known for his portraits and his nudes. Like most artists of the late 19th century he studied the classical art of the Renaissance. This would not have been too difficult living in Italy where you are surrounded by it. Modigliani’s mother enrolled him at the studio of Livorno’s only artist of note, Guglieglio Micheli, who taught him the technical aspects of painting. Unfortunately, it was during the early 20th century while he was studying that Modigliani contracted tuberculosis. But that did not stop him.
After gleaning all he could from his Livorno master, Modigliani spent time in Rome, Florence and Venice. During his time in Florence he enrolled at the Scuola Libera di Nudo. It was the portrayal of the nude that eventually became an obsession and his 1917 exhibition of these would cause a rumpus in Paris. While in Venice he developed a taste for what my grandfather called ‘a typical artist’s lifestyle’. To put not too finer a point on it, Modigliani discovered hashish and studied the fleshpots of Venice as opposed to concentrating on developing his artistic studies. Since I was a teenager in the Swinging Sixties when everyone seemed to be experimenting with some form of narcotic, I only now appreciate my grandfather’s concern, especially since then I was determined to go to art school and follow a ‘fine’ art career. (As an aside, unlike some, I can remember the Sixties and was shoved into secretarial college and not allowed to follow my second dream, but I digress).
In 1906 Modigliani moved to Paris and found many like-minded artists. The indigenous avant-garde flocked to Montmartre, and they in turn attracted many foreign artists such as Picasso, Jacob Epstein, Gino Severini, Juan Gris so it was in Montmartre that our hero settled. During his first year he appeared conventional in his dress, drank in moderation and wrote to his mother regularly. Having come from a middle class Italian Jewish family, this seems all very middle of the road. Unfortunately, within twelve months Modigliani had become both an alcoholic and a drug addict and the trappings of his bourgeois upbringing had vanished forever. All in all, the final result was what my grandfather had described as a ‘typical’ artist lifestyle. No wonder I was refused his sanction to attend art school!
Was Modigliani’s behaviour because he was suffering from TB? Were his addictions an attempt to hide his symptoms under a mask of booze and drugs? Perhaps. Tuberculosis was the scourge of the poor, not only in Paris but anywhere, before the discovery of antibiotics. The rich suffered ‘consumption’ and 19th century literature is full of vapid females languishing on an overstuffed couch as they gasped their last. Either way, the sufferer became a social pariah because the disease was incurable and easily transmitted. Montmartre, full of poor artists and musicians as well as those who were just poor, would have had its fair share of sufferers. Who can forget poor Mimi, tragic heroine of Puccini’s 1867 opera, La Bohème, gasping her last in the arms of her lover. (It has always amazed me how someone clearly in the last stages of a debilitating lung disease, manages to sing an operatic aria!)
Modigliani’s lifestyle could not last and in 1909 he returned to Livorno for a short time to recover, but then returned to Paris where he fell in love with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (she was married). In this sketch we see the beginnings of the elongation of the body and limbs that makes Modigliani’s work so recognisable.
Modigliani’s output was prodigious, but unfortunately not many of these early works survive. He either destroyed them or gave them away in exchange for whatever he required at the time. Although influenced by the writings of Nietzsche and Baudelaire, his main artistic influences at this time were Toulouse-Lautrec and Cezanne. Like his English contemporary, Sir Stanley Spencer, Modigliani’s work cannot be placed in any specific category. Both artists stand out from the Cubists, Futurists, Surrealists, Dadaists, and various other ‘ists’ because of their unique styles. Unlike Spencer, Modigliani appears to have lost his faith and lived a dissolute lifestyle of drink and drugs, whereas Spencer’s strong, if eccentric, personal faith informs his art throughout his life.
After his return to Paris, Modigliani concentrated on sculpture. No doubt he was of the same view as Michelangelo that sculpture was the most sophisticated and only art worthy of a great artist. (Please excuse the paraphrase). He followed the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brânçusi for a year and the influence of Brânçusi is very obvious. The Tate has one of Modigliani’s Female Heads (1911-12). Again we are seeing the elongation of the head and neck, but I find the greatest influence of the Romanian is seen in Modigliani’s drawings of caryatids. This white stone marble bust of Mlle Polagny carved by Brânçusi in 1912 has the flowing lines that appear in the Modigliani caryatids, which are echoed in his portraits and nudes that flowed from his brush from this time onwards.
At the outbreak of war in 1914, Modigliani volunteered, but the army did not want someone with his health record. Because of the difficulty of obtaining materials for sculpting, he returned to painting. Despite the war, artistic life in Paris seemed relatively unaffected. He had a succession of lovers including the Welsh artist, Nina Hamnett and the English writer Beatrice Hastings (her real name was Emily Alice Haigh), but the final and devoted lover was Jeanne Hébuterne.
Hébuterne was only 19 when they met in 1917. She was an art student from a middle class Catholic family. Needless to say, the family were not impressed with her dissolute Jewish lover, and even more outraged when Hébuterne renounced her faith and went to live with him.
Even though in 1917 the end of World War I was not in sight, Modigliani’s nudes were exhibited in the Berthe Weill gallery in 1917 situated in Montmartre – the one and only exhibition held during his lifetime. Weill was a champion of the avant-garde and perhaps it is because she was a woman that her name as an art dealer is less well-known as those of her male counterparts. Among those artists she championed when they were unknown were Picasso and Matisse! Other names included Dufy, Derain, Utrillo, Valadon, Vlaminck, Riviera, Braque as well as Modigliani. This was to be his only exhibition and was scheduled to run from 3rd to 30th December. Within hours the Paris chief of police had shut it down on grounds of nudity.
You may well raise your eyebrows! The Male Gaze has required female nudes almost from the dawn of time. With the discovery of items such as the Willendorf Venus dating from between 28,000 and 25,000 years BCE, found in 1908 (a mere nine years before Modigliani’s exhibition) it is apparent that the female form has been the subject of art for millenia. However, in 1917 the Parisian policeman was suitably horrified and decided to close the exhibition. What was it that was so shocking? Surely not the female form? Perhaps it was because a woman gallery owner had hosted such an exhibition? Weill was also Jewish, so anti-Semitism may had something to do with it, but the charge was nudity. So what was it about Modigliani’s nudes that gave the policeman a fit of the vapours?
For one thing, despite the elongation of the limbs, Modigliani’s paintings are of real women. There is nothing sanitised as in the classical statues of women so beloved by the English art critic, John Ruskin and as portrayed by 19th century artists such as Alexandre Cabenal in his Birth of Venus exhibited at the Salon in 1863 and purchased immediately by Napoleon III.
And as Manet’s Olympia had shocked the viewing public at the Salon of 1865 with her direct gaze as if challenging the audience to snub her. Perhaps some of the elite audience felt uncomfortable having met the model under other circumstances?
Who can tell! One thing was for sure, Modigliani’s paintings had taken another step forward in the development of the portrayal of the female nude.
The reality of these nudes is palpable. Gone is what might be described as the hypocrisy of previous generations. These woman are sensual, erotic and more to the point, unlike either Cabenal’s Venus, or Manet’s Olympia, they have pubic hair. Many of them have also cropped or bobbed their long locks. They are modern women.
Perhaps it is just this that caused the officer of the law to blow a gasket? Only when the paintings that had been displayed in the window were removed, were the doors of Berthe Weill’s gallery allowed to be re-opened to the public.
Hébuterne is the subject of many of Modigliani’s last works. She bore him a daughter in 1918 when they were in Nice as were many of their avant-garde friends – Picasson, André Derain, Renoir, de Chirico and Leopold Zborowski. The couple returned to Paris in 1919 and planned to marry. Hébuterne’s parents refused to give their permission for her to marry the dissolute artist. Despite this, they continued to live together and Hérbuterne fell pregnant for a second time.
Modigliani was now drowning in alcohol and drugs. His tuberculosis had advanced and developed into tuberculosis meningitis. He died in hospital on 24th January 1920. The day after the funeral Hébuterne returned to her family home. She was eight months pregnant. Distraught she threw herself out of a fifth floor window, killing both herself and her unborn child. It was not until 1930 were her family persuaded to have her body moved to lie beside her lover in Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Because Modigliani gave away so many of his paintings and drawings in exchange for meals and who knows what else, it has been difficult for the Modigliani Estate to create a catalogue raisonné of his work. Perhaps it would be worthwhile investigating any Modigliani image you may have been given or inherited, or even discovered in a car boot sale or attic. You never know – your esteemed forebears may have been given one of his paintings in exchange for a meal.
The Modigliani exhibition at Tate Modern runs from 23rd November 2017 until 2nd April 2018.
If you have already seen the exhibition of the works of the Russian artist, Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) currently being exhibited at the Courtauld Institute, you will not be surprised to know that he too was a friend of Modigliani.
This portrait of Soutine was painted on the door of an apartment belonging to their mutual art dealer, Léopold Zborowoski. It is now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. The two artists shared a religion and a passion – art. Soutine was to outlive Modigliani by some twenty years. As a Jew he had spent the years of the second world war hiding in different places and suffering from a stomach ulcer. He had emergency surgery in 1943, but this was unsuccessful and he died. The only comfort might be was that he avoided the Gestapo and thus died a free man.
This exhibition runs at The Courtauld until 21st January 2018.