Modigliani at Tate Modern: Exhibition Review

Giraffe-like necks, almond eyes and blank stares. The works of Amedeo Modigliani are easy to recognize. Born in Livorno, Italy, he arrived in Paris in 1906 with a burning desire to become an artist. Even though he was best known as a painter, as Tate Modern’s retrospective exhibition reveals, he created impressive sculptures and drawings as well.

Tate Modern delivers a balanced and fluidly laid-out exhibition: unlike many exhibitions that overwhelm visitors with information, this one is just right. With enough works carefully distributed throughout ten galleries, one has enough time to take in Modigliani’s work without being overpowered by information.

The highlight of the exhibition is his nudes. Interestingly enough, during his first – and only – solo exhibition in Paris, police demanded the nude paintings to be taken down. It wasn’t nudity that offended them, though, but publicly displayed pubic hair! Truth or legend, this rumour added his reputation as a playboy. However, when contemporary impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir suggested to him that he did not consider a nude finished until he felt like slapping her butt, Modigliani soberly replied ‘I don’t like buttocks’. Modigliani was painting women – both nude and dressed, like he was trying to capture their true essence; their soul and passions. At a time and place that  as felt as sexually liberated as ours, his paintings celebrate women being sexual, unapologetic and independent.

Tate Modern succeeds in bringing his sculptures in the spotlight. Despite being lesser-known as a sculptor, Modigliani was chosen to exhibit at the Salon d’Automne in 1912, a great honour for a young artist at the time. He used to ‘source’ his materials from nearby building sites in the area of Montparnasse, where he kept his studio, as he couldn’t afford to buy the materials.

A room dedicated to ‘Modigliani’s Paris’ takes the visitor back in time, helping them understand better the time and place where he worked and lived. At the beginning of the 20th century, Paris was attracting artists and intellectuals from all over the world. It was paving the way for modern art and the term ‘School of Paris’ came to existence to describe this phenomenon. Modigliani was friends with Pablo Picasso, one of the two chefs d’école (the other one being Henri Matisse), as well as the patriarch of modern sculpture, Constantin Brâncuși. Both artists had great respect of Modigliani’s work, and the feelings were definitely mutual, especially considering that they had their portraits done by him. [Rumour has it that Modigliani considered Picasso a genius, but couldn’t fathom his unkempt and shabby appearance, being the elegant and meticulous Italian that he was!]

Modigliani died young, at the age of thirty-five, after having leaded a troubled life; the drama sometimes overshadowing his artistic potential. Jeanne Hébuterne, his fiancée and also sitter for several of his portraits, took her own life shortly after his death. Despite his short life, he worked with enthusiasm and dedication, drawing and sketching constantly and leaving an impressive body of work behind.

Tate’s retrospective exhibition is well-rounded and balanced: it manages to appeal to visitors with varying degrees of familiarity with Modigliani’s work since it both introduces the artist and, at the same time, delves a bit deeper into his personal life and his surroundings.

Modigliani at Tate Modern, until 2 April 2018. Images via Tate Modern website.

Moved (as always),

F.

PS: After visiting the exhibition, do not forget to take the quiz Which Modigliani Model Are You? Apparently I’m… Diego Rivera.

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