Modigliani: portraits, statues, and nudes

The Modigliani exhibition at Tate Modern was extremely crowded, not crowded enough to make it impossible to enjoy the exhibition–but going that way. People love Modigliani. Posters of his pictures must be on more walls than almost any other painter.

The exhibition was surprisingly large and comprised portraits, statues, and nudes. Most of the exhibition was portraits–because they comprised most of Modigliani’s work. Almost all of them are stylised in the same way that is instantly recognisable as Modigliani: long necks, thin heads, stretched out bodies, closed eyes, running from head to waist with hands crossed on laps, and dark backgrounds. Often the whole picture was dark but for the face and neck, and, as in this portrait (one of my favourites), with the clothes and background almost the same colour.

Portrait of a Girl c.1917 by Amedeo Modigliani 1884-1920

Although highly stylised, the portraits did capture the personalities and moods of the sitters; and I had that strange experience when I left the exhibition of for a short while seeing many Modigliani heads walk past me. It’s a slightly unnerving experience, but a sure sign, I think, that the exhibition has “got to you.” I remember it most vividly some 40 years ago after visiting an exhibition of Diane Arbus photographs: I even felt that I knew why she killed herself–if she always saw the world as I saw it for 20 minutes after leaving the exhibition.

Modigliani wanted to be a sculptor and may have stuck mostly to painting because it was cheaper. But he did spend some years sculpting, and I liked greatly the heads in the exhibition, all of which had an ancient and primitive feel. Modigliani wanted to create a temple of his sculptures, and it’s a loss that he never had the resources to do so.

Head c.1911-2 by Amedeo Modigliani 1884-1920

The exhibition comes most alive when you enter the large room that includes some dozen nudes. The bodies seem to be so simply drawn and painted, sometimes with what looks like blocks of colour, and yet the women feel intensely alive. These all seemed be women comfortable with their bodies and their nudity, and the exhibition guide points out that women could earn twice as much per hour modelling as working in a factory. The exhibition is worth visiting for the nudes alone, and Lin and I both talked of going again on a Tuesday morning in a working week.

Reclining Nude
Oil on canvas
724 x 1165 mm
Museum of Modern Art, New York





(I have a conundrum here: Facebook stopped me posting for 24 hours because I posted a nude picture of my brother and has threatened to suspend me forever if I post another naked picture. So will including these pictures of Modigliani’s nudes lead to my suspension? Can the robot who surveys the pictures tell an artistic nude from a naked photograph? I’ll find out. Modigliani got into trouble with the one exhibition of his nudes in his lifetime: the Commissioner of Police objected that the nudes had pubic hair — “fine art” nudes did not.)

The exhibition ends with four portraits of Jeanne Hebuterne, Modigliani’s wife and mother of his one child. Unlike Cezanne’s portraits of his wife they do show love. Modigliani died of tuberculous meningitis when he was 35, having had little success in his lifetime; and two days later Jeanne, pregnant with their second child, killed herself. A sad end for a painter who has created so much joy with his work.


Jeanne Heburterne


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