They live badly, they die young, they’re ill, but every now and then they produce extraordinary things.
In the rankings of this type of artist the gold medal goes to Vincent Van Gogh, but just behind him there is the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) who also had his demons.
Now showing at the Tate Modern in London, his retrospective displays many virtues.
The first is that it exhibits the biographical elements of this painter of Parisian bohemia with great clarity.
The second, and far from least, is that the show is exceptional for the quality and quantity of its artworks.
The 100 artworks on display come from 70 different sources, 37 of which are private collectors.
In the wake of the controversy that arose a few months ago in Italy following an exhibition which displayed fakes, the curators of this exhibition in London decided to only exhibit paintings that feature in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, published in the 1980s.
The exhibition’s head curator, Nancy Ireson, explains:
She also outlines the aim of this exhibition:
Modigliani was born in Livorno, a setting far removed from the avant garde, and the Tate spotlights his years of research and therefore of roaming in search of an aesthetic.
He arrived in Paris in 1906 and was soon lucky enough to mix with prominent artists (Picasso, Brancusi…) and able to observe exceptional artworks (Gauguin, Cézanne).
Incidentally, we can see how much he borrows from Cézanne’s style, using flat tints in different colours which seem to represent shadows.
There is even a hint of Schiele in one of his female portraits. XXX.
He lived surrounded by cubists, and despite resisting the movement he would occasionally allow himself, like them, to include inscriptions in his paintings -cf. The not so successful portrait of Picasso-.
The company of Brancusi had a major influence on Modigliani, who wanted above all to be a sculptor and who was inspired in a scholarly jumble by forms from Cambodia, Egypt, Africa…
The high point of the exhibition is the presence of nine stone sculptures all in one room, which represents roughly a quarter of this total production, between 1910 and 1912.
His fragile health, added perhaps to the fact that his three-dimensional works didn’t sell as well as his paintings, led him to abandon stone sculpture.
For Nancy Ireson, 1912 is precisely the year when he began to assert his own style.
From that point on, Modigliani began to paint the sculptures of faces.
The series of twelve mainly large format nudes, depicting liberated women with body hair who offer up their voluptuous forms while meeting the viewer’s gaze, is a hymn to carnal pleasure.
Lastly the six portraits of Jeanne Hébuterne whom he met two years before he died, and who has gone down in history as his soulmate, constitute the painter’s final farewell in the London exhibition.
No doubt the legend surrounding Modigliani also comes from the fact that the beautiful Jeanne committed suicide by throwing herself out of a window when she was nine months pregnant, and already mother to their little girl, two days after the painter’s death following a bout of meningitis.
It isn’t easy to escape the dramatic biography of this artistic genius.
Until 2 April: www.tate.org.uk
Until 4 February, in New York, a remarkable exhibition dedicated to Modigliani’s sculptures and drawings takes place at The Jewish Museum: thejewishmuseum.org
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