The myths that masked Modigliani: A ravishing new show demonstrates why the Italian romantic deserves to be plucked from his bohemian backwater.

Sarah Crompton – The Telegraph

Copyright The Telegraph
In pictures: Modigliani and His Models
Amedeo Modigliani doesn’t get a mention in the National Gallery’s recently opened Rebels and Martyrs show – but, in terms of proving a point, he could have had a whole room to himself. For the Italian-born artist was the paradigm of the romantic bohemian, the outsider painter who pursued his own vision amid a swirl of drugs, alcohol and dissolution in the Paris of the early 20th century.
‘Extraordinarily dramatic’: Portrait of Jeanne
HÈbuterne, 1919
He died in penury and squalor in January 1920 at the age of 35, discovered by a neighbour in the final throes of tubercular meningitis, his bed strewn with bottles of alcohol and cans of sardines, his mistress Jeanne HÈbuterne nursing him. She hadn’t thought to call a doctor, but her devotion to her lover was so great that, two days after his death, she threw herself backwards from a fifth-floor window. She was nine months pregnant with their second child.
Yet compare that sordid story with Jeanne HÈbuterne, A Door in the Background (1919), on display in Modigliani and his Models at the Royal Academy. In this radiant portrait, Jeanne sits slightly off-centre, her head to one side, her falsely elongated, white-sleeved arms to the other. The painting is full of warmth and richness, the red of Jeanne’s shawl in subtle contrast to the red of the door and the lower wall behind her. Her blue eyes stare blankly, lost in inner contemplation, like some latterday Madonna, bringing serenity and warmth to the troubles of the world.
It is recognisably a portrait of Jeanne, suffused with a kind of tenderness and intimacy. But it is also a painting that pulls Modigliani away from biographical messiness and into a sphere where you see absolutely the seriousness and assurance of his work.
It’s one of the achievements of this lovely show of 52 paintings – the first major Modigliani exhibition in Britain for 40 years – that it reveals so clearly what his intentions were in what was effectively a seven-year career.
He started out as a sculptor and devoted four years to that, before picking up his paintbrush in 1913. The years remaining to him were interrupted by war and ill-health but produced more than 250 oils, the majority of his extant paintings.
Early sub-Fauvian daubs are soon replaced by what is recognisably his own style of portrait painting, in which African-influenced, heavily outlined forms take their place against thinly sketched backgrounds. Each portrait seems to be an experiment in providing the minimum of information that will allow an individual to emerge from this dominant style.
As Simonetta Fraquelli points out in her catalogue essay, “Modigliani’s purpose is neither to aggrandise the sitter nor to record him or her for posterity, but rather to capture the image of an individual at a specific moment in the artist’s life”.
Nude, 1917: Modigliani’s sprawled figures caused a scandal when first exhibited
Within this context, they are surprisingly recognisable – intelligent Beatrice Hastings, with her feather in her hat, the bow-lipped Elena Povolozky, the portly Oscar Miestchaninoff, the arrogant dealer Paul Guillaume – but they are all bound within the same vocabulary.
The other myth this exhibition lays to rest, however, is that Modigliani’s style did not develop. You can see this in the wall of nudes that dominates the second room of the Sackler Galleries. These sprawled figures caused a scandal when they were exhibited in 1917, and they still have the power to shock, not because of the presence of pubic hair (which was the problem then) but because of the aggressive way the lushly painted torsos are thrust compositionally to the front of the canvas.
Without feet, or hands, lying on a flatly painted red bedcover, her head supported on a turquoise cushion, Reclining Nude with Outstretched Arms (1917) turns her frank, kohl-eyed gaze on the viewer. Unlike the portraits, these nudes were painted using models, not friends, and they have no personality. They are sculptures made on canvas, images of erotic beauty, not real women.
But by Reclining Nude (c. 1919), Modigliani’s approach has changed. He no longer outlines his figures in thick black lines, and the ground on which she lies is even more freely painted and abstract, her body more fiercely elongated. She is at one and the same time more and less real.
The same progression is also apparent in the portraits. In 1918, to escape the German shelling of Paris and for the sake of his failing health, Modigliani and Jeanne moved to the South of France. Blues and greys replace the muted browns and blacks of his palette; instead of friends, he paints peasants and servants; the influence of CÈzanne becomes ever more apparent.
His debt is clear in The Boy (Youth in Blue Jacket) (1919). But this painting makes something else blazingly obvious: what Modigliani finds of interest is not only the portrait itself, but the shapes made within the shallow frame of his composition. Here the strong right-angle of the table on which the boy rests his arm is counterbalanced by the strongly sloping shoulder and over-stretched arm on the other side. The background may be thinly painted, but it is rich in colour and tone, and its perspectives serve to push the sitter forward, claiming the viewer’s attention.
It appears effortless, but it is not, and this is the great, confident style of the mature Modigliani. Time again in these last portraits, the sheer verve of the way he blocks colour and shape takes the breath away.
Jeanne HÈbuterne, a Door in the Background, 1919
In the magnificent Anna Zborowska (1917), he places her figure in black against a dappled brown background in a pose reminiscent of a formal 18th-century portrait. But the power of the painting springs from the way her elongated body and neck create a diagonal that is balanced by her folded hands. The canvas itself becomes a pattern, dominated by her superior, mask-like face.
In Portrait of Jeanne HÈbuterne (1919), this formal dynamism is even more evident. Modigliani paints his pregnant lover in flat black, her body defined by her white collar and white sleeves. The circle made by her characteristically folded hands is mimicked by the shape of the chair she sits on, and these curved shapes are in turn challenged by the sharp verticals in grey, black, white and beige that form the background. It is extraordinarily dramatic.
Paintings such as these have made Modigliani hugely collectable. He seems modern without being too challenging, protecting an old idea of beauty even as he distorts it.
But these works also show that his aim is nothing less than a concerted and serious attempt to reinvent classical portraiture for the modern age. Where his friends Picasso and Juan Gris shattered form, he kept it unified, while holding it up for scrutiny.
This, to some extent, explains why he chose to depict most of his subjects as half-figures or busts: the poses with their folded hands instantly recall the grand masters of portraiture such as Titian and Ingres, whose work he sought to redefine.
The value of this show is that it helps us see that. This is a show that takes Modigliani out of the attractive bohemian backwater in which he is always in danger of languishing and asserts his right to be considered as a thoughtful and important artist.
‘Modigliani and his Models’ is at the Royal Academy, London W1 (0870 8488484), from Sat until Oct 15.
Richard Dorment is away
27 June 2006: The naked and the dead [Richard Dorment reviews Rebels and Martyrs]

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