Thursday, 29 March 2018

Modigliani – bohemianism's poster boy

Nude, 1917
Modigliani was just 35 when he died in Paris, in 1920, of tuberculosis exacerbated by alcohol and drugs. Just after his funeral, Jeanne Hébuterne, eight months pregnant with the couple’s second child, threw herself out of a fifth-floor window.

He’d had just one solo exhibition (closed by the Parisian police after a day because of its ‘shocking’ nudes), sold only a few works – for little money – and died destitute.

If the stereotype of the self-destructive bohemian artist needed a poster boy, Modigliani would be a prime contender.

Young Gypsy, 1909
It’s fitting too that, like van Gogh, his work would only become appreciated and valued in the years after his death.

Tate Modern in London has been hosting a major Modigliani exhibition since November – it closes on 2 April – and after various false starts, The Other Half and I finally caught it, just before seeing the new Picasso exhibition in the same gallery.

The two men knew each other – but what strikes one most when seeing these two exhibitions so close together is the ferocity of their working: Modigliani over the latter part of his short career (he destroyed most of his early work) and Picasso particularly in the single year that the new exhibition seeks to shine a light on.

Both exhibitions also include works that are not the artist’s best, but which provide a deeper context for visitors.

The earliest of Modigliani’s works shown here reveal the influence of Cézanne – not least in the palette – before we reach the elongated figures that are instantly recognisable.

But one of the first exhibits, The Young Gypsy from 1909 tells us straight away where were headed, with its accentuated cheekbones, puckered lips and almondised eyes.

Portrait of Léopold Survage, 1918
There are plenty of these here – both nudes and portraits. In some, the line is exquisite – in others, less so, while there can be an archness in some of the portraits that helps to embed them firmly in your mind – the 1915 portrait of art dealer Paul Guillaume is a perfect example.

On a personal level, I was delighted to see that the curators had included his portrait of Leopold Survage, a fascinating artist who studied briefly under Matisse in 1905 and later followed in his footsteps to Collioure.

It’s impossible to know whether – and how – Modigliani would have developed were it not for his early death. Some art historians believe he would have gone on to much greater things, but his creativity was such that his work stays long in the mind – perhaps not least because he is pretty much impossible to categorise in terms of labels of any school or style. There is simply Modigliani.

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