Tate Modern, London

€11.00 – €25.00

 23/11/17 – 2/4/18

 London, UK

 8.5 / 10

“Modigliani is an introspective artist, open to change, and ready to discover himself”

Now, I must admit I’m a bit behind with this review – I went to the exhibition in March and have only just got around to typing it up! The Tate put on some great exhibitions, and I had to choose between Modigliani and Picasso – a touch choice. But at the time, I was considering doing my Uni dissertation on a modern Italian artist, and so Modigliani seemed like the logical choice (and I didn’t think the Picasso exhibition could live up to the Picasso Museums in Malaga and Paris, which are amazing!).

Modigliani is an introspective artist, open to change, and ready to discover himself. Like his near contemporaries such as Kees and Van Dongen, he embraced the modernity of early twentieth century Paris, and has provided us with an insightful view into the life of an Italian in France. The exhibition is curatorially intriguing, ranging from wildly successful to “could have tried harder”.

After paying the student entry price (which was a pricey but not disagreeable £18), you enter the first room. The walls are a striking turquoise, which picks out some of the main colours in the paintings and highlights the sombre, yet energetic atmosphere. The exhibition is chronological, and this helps the viewer to understand the development of the artist’s style and interests. This first room, with its bright and youthful colour scheme, shows a clear influence of Cézanne, with a pensive and considered use of colour. A striking work from this room is ‘The Cellist’, 1909. This is where we first notice one of Modigliani’s most distinctive features: the soulless, vacant, almond-shaped eyes. Despite the flat form and almost child-like application of colour, the portrait embodies the individuality of the sitter.

“…unfortunately, the reflection of the lights can obstruct the full view of the work, and this detracts from the experience”

In room 2, we are invited into Modigliani’s sculptural period, from 1911-13. He implements many Caryatids, which is use of the female nude form as an architectural support. There is a strong influence of Primitivism, particularly in the work ‘Paul Guillame, Seated’, 1916.

In my opinion, some of the paintings in this room were not framed to the highest quality. The gallery glass (which is used on the frames) is very reflective, where as expensive glass, like TruVue for example, should be barely visible. Galleries often try to cut cost on pricey exhibitions by opting for a cheaper glass, but unfortunately, the reflection of the lights can obstruct the full view of the work, and this detracts from the experience. This exhibition would have benefitted from higher quality framing to ensure that the paintings were seen in the best possible light.  

By the time we reach the third room, the exhibition has not yet explained Modigliani’s unique style – as a viewer, I want to know his influences, his impact, the reasons on behind the elongation and absurd abstraction. I think there could have been more explanation of the techniques that make him truly distinctive, such as the almond shaped eyes and enigmatic use of colour. The rooms then move into a grey colour scheme to compliment the stone sculpture, but I felt that this colour dampened the excitement and anticipation of his work.

The exhibition assures that the viewer is aware of his chronological development as an artist. There is a plethora of interesting biographical information which helps us to understand his work, but it was still lacking in information about his style. It definitely helped that I knew a little bit about the artist before I went in, as the wall text was often quite high-brow and required some background knowledge to fully appreciate his story. You can learn more about Modigliani and his story here!

“The nude figures are always bright, strong, and outstanding form the muted, autumnal backgrounds”

By room 7, the curator seems to have been inspired by the thought of being uninspiring. The walls are an unpleasant beige, which almost undermines the artworks and is in no way complimentary.

Modigliani had a volatile relationship with his muse, Beatrice Hastings, and his work emanates a creative energy. She features in many of his nudes from 1916 and after; the paintings are aimed at the male buyer but at the same time reflects the growing independence of women. The nudes were controversial at the time – the police removed some of the works for “indecency” … this meant pubic hair. ‘Reclining Nude on a White Cushion’, c.1917, has a strong outline and a very strong presence. Her tiny waist is contrasted by her large hips which take up most of the composition and could be a dated hint towards the link between fertility and beauty.

‘Seated Nude’, 1917, is particularly flat, with no grounding and a shallow pictorial space. This technique was not unheard of, but Modigliani certainly put a twist on flat compositions which was loved by artists like Manet and Gauguin. The nude figures are always bright, strong, and outstanding form the muted, autumnal backgrounds.

“A stand out part of this Modigliani exhibition was the virtual reality room of his Paris studio”

The exhibition progresses to follow Modigliani’s move south, with his pregnant lover Jeanne Hebuterne. The work from this period takes on a more pastel colour pallet, which comes across as almost a loss in confidence. The compositions are also less bold and defined, which was perhaps linked to his deteriorating health. In 1919 the artist returned to the hub of Paris, where his work returned to confident compositions and contrasting colour. For example, the muted, pastel tones of ‘The Little Peasant’, c.1918, is a world away from the strong colours of ‘Jeanne Hebuterne’, 1920. A stand out part of the exhibition was the virtual reality room of his Paris studio. This added another dimension to the exhibition, despite the long queue.

“The Modigliani exhibition was overall an insightful and logical exhibition… I admire the Tate’s thoughtful exhibition on this unique artist”

His 1919 self-portrait shows a self-assured artist, placed firmly in the centre of the canvas. This is conflicted by his dark and vacant eyes, windows into a melancholy soul. They look beyond the viewer and show disdain, which is a striking contrast to the seemingly confident sitter. Modigliani sadly died aged 35 from “addiction” and had a short and predominantly tragic life, but he left a legacy for modern art. Upon hearing the news of his death, his pregnant wife Jeanne commit suicide a few days later, leaving their eldest child alone.

The last rooms return to a dull green-grey scheme, which compliments his style and atmosphere towards the end of a life cut too short. The Modigliani exhibition was overall an insightful and logical exhibition. The chronological theme was executed very well, and despite some of my issues with the colour schemes, it was a beautifully curated exhibition. The nature of Modigliani’s work means that from the first to the last room, it is hard to map a distinctive development in style (his lapse in style was easier to see and made an interesting contribution to the artist’s story). One might argue that his works are “samey”, but they are nonetheless thought-provoking, pensive, and intriguing. Sadly, and like many other renowned artists, the draw to Modigliani is more powerful because of his tragic life. However, the artist made an important contribution to Expressionist art, and went on to influence modern masters such as Pablo Picasso.

His artistic legacy is certainly alive to this day, and I admire the Tate’s thoughtful exhibition on this unique artist. Although this exhibition ended on 2nd April 2018, some of his most renowned artworks are permanently available to see in The Estorick Collection, London, The National Galleries of Scotland, and Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris.

Thanks for reading!

The Art Wanderer

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