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Modigliani and his Models – Royal Academy (Review)

Feature by James Haddrell

EVERYONE loves the idea of the tragic artist – blessed with a unique talent but unable to exorcise their own demons, forced into excesses of violence, sex or drugs by their unbridled creativity, and suffering an early death which, though tragic, seems somehow right, excusing them the mundane experience of old age.

From Christopher Marlowe to Kurt Cobain, Caravaggio to Jim Morrison, there’s something compelling about these self-destructive but gifted individuals.

It would be easy to celebrate Amedeo Modigliani in just these terms. In January 1920, the debauched philanderer and well-known abuser of both drink and drugs died after a long period of intermittent illness at the age of just 35.

What’s more, two of his previous lovers, one a British poet and one a tragically young French art student, subsequently took their own lives, the latter while still pregnant with Modigliani’s second child, adding to the drama of the artist’s brief but lurid biography.

However, remembering an artist because of their lifestyle makes it all too easy to ignore their art – like remembering James Dean’s obsession with motorcycles without ever watching one of his films, or debating whether Marlowe’s violent death was really the result of his undercover work as a spy without ever seeing Dr Faustus – and Modigliani is no different. His life is only half the story, and the other half, the art, is just too good to be overlooked.

The current exhibition at the Royal Academy opens with a small number of Cycladic-influenced pieces from early in his career alongside a single, striking example of his foray into sculpture.

The large Head of 1911-12 recalls Modigliani’s relationship with another Paris-based international artist, the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

An early but short-lived disciple of Rodin, Brancusi was striving to reject what he saw as the assembly line of modern sculpture, in which an artist would design a piece in clay before bringing out a range of mechanical devices and a workshop full of staff to scale the work up in bronze of marble.

Brancusi was one of a number of artists championing the art of direct carving, which saw the artist working a block of stone himself with little more than a hammer and chisel. In his search for examples of direct carving from which to learn, Brancusi had been forced to turn to the primitive artworks regularly seen in the ethnographic museums of Paris, works in which Modigliani was already showing an interest.

Modigliani’s sculpture clearly shows his adoption of this technique. The back of the head remains very roughly carved, the stone still bearing the marks of the chisel, while the face shows the sort of stylised Iberian representation which was so exciting Picasso.

Modigliani’s painting, to which he returned soon after Head, may not have quite the abstract, anonymous quality of this sculpture, but the elongated face was to become a characteristic feature of his work until the end of his life.

The paintings on show fall into three loose categories – the portraits from his time in Paris, the series of female nudes, and the paintings made during a period of convalescence in Southern France.

The former are dominated by portraits of dealers, of fellow artists and of the two primary women in the artist’s life, and it was with the second of these, the young Jeanne Hébuterne, that Modigliani came closest to a traditional, emotional representation of his subject.

While his dealers and colleagues are painted almost entirely with the blank eyes of African art, Jeanne’s blue-green eyes are present and alive, to the extent that one work, Head of Jeanne Hébuterne, almost seems to lose its characteristic Modigliani reserve, with the head tilted forward and the interrogative eyes picking you out from across the room.

The nudes are the works for which Modigliani gained the greatest public renown during his own lifetime. While contemporaries like Picasso and Mondrian were aggressively breaking down the subject in their quest for a truly modern style of art, Modigliani clung onto the wholly present physicality of the female body – so much so that the only solo exhibition of his work mounted within his lifetime was closed down by the police because a nude hanging in the window caused such a public outrage.

Obviously, female nudes have occupied a place in the history of art for many centuries, but Modigliani followed Manet, painter of the controversial Olympia, in refusing to locate his figures in classical contexts.

The figures are given a lush, red surrounding, although little of this is visible beyond the bodies of the women which dominate the foreground and are often cropped at the knees or the arms. Like Degas, catching a glimpse of a dance class from an odd perspective, Modigliani shows us the female body without the unnatural conceits of composition or framing common to traditional figurative art.

The works painted in the South of France show something of a departure from either the urban portraits or the disreputable nudes.

Taken to the Côte d’Azur by his agent, Zborowski, in an attempt to improve his health, Modigliani painted a series of portraits of the locals, a million miles from the cultured upper-class celebrities that he was used to.

The result is a perceptibly lightened palette, the reds and browns of the city replaced with pale blues and greens, and a more artificial brushwork reminiscent of Cezanne. It is easy to read too much into a change in palette – which can depend as much on the availability of supplies as it can on an artist’s emotional state – but there is a lighter sense to the works from this period, as if the violence and pace of city-life is draining away.

However, Modigliani never fully recovered from his illness. The following year he painted his last work – his only recorded self-portrait – and he died shortly afterwards.

As if there was not already enough to make him into a tragic bohemian hero, his final painting seems to anticipate his own imminent death. Depicting his face with a deathly, mask-like sheen, Modigliani appears trapped inside the prison of his own failing body, pleading to be remembered after his death not as a controversial celebrity but as an artist, palette in hand and painting to the end.

Picture Caption: Amedeo Modigliani, Self Portrait, 1919
Museu de Arte Contemporanea da Universidade de Sao Paulo

Modigliani and his Models
Until October 15, 2006
Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD
020 7300 8000; www.royalacademy.org.uk
Open daily 10am-6pm; Friday 10am-10pm
Admission: £8.00; various concessions from £3