Art Review: Modigliani, Tate Modern

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In only a short life, Modigliani established himself as a ground-breaking artist who pushed the boundaries of the art of his time. Though he was only thirty-five when he died, he had already developed a distinctive visual style, one that is so easily recognisable today in his portraits: the clean lines, oval faces and elongated bodies. The darkened eyes, simplified forms, and muted tones. A distinctly modern painter, yes, but one who was also able to, nonetheless, capture real emotion such as tenderness and sensuality.

And now Tate Modern has opened its doors on the most comprehensive Modigliani exhibition ever held in the UK, bringing together a dazzling range of his iconic portraits, sculptures and the largest ever group of nudes to be shown in this country.

The galleries are filled with these works yet there’s no doubting that what hits you as you pass through the rooms is how deeply entrenched Modigliani’s signature style became. The sitters may vary – from anonymous men and women to girlfriends, from art dealers to greats such as Riviera and Picasso – but the execution remains the same. Those familiar smooth lines, those familiar blanked out eyes…

There is little that is threatening or challenging about these paintings. They are beautiful. Perhaps this reveals the Italian in him – the veneration of Renaissance beauty – rather than the radicalism of artists such as Cezanne and Picasso who were working in Paris at the same time as him.

Prior to this show, I don’t remember seeing any of Modigliani’s sculptural works before, so this was my first opportunity to see a substantial group of his Heads made before the First World War. What I was expecting, I’m not sure but here again were those elongated features – the influence of African art as evident here as it was for his contemporaries.

The highlight of the exhibition though is the gallery dedicated to his nudes. This group of ten nudes is the largest group ever seen in the UK, with paintings including the wonderful Seated Nude, 1917, and Reclining Nude c.1919. Again, beauty here is everything – so much so that it’s hard to believe they were censored, as they were, back in 1917 when the French police were appalled at the sight of female pubic hair (heaven forbid!)

And yet I got more from these nudes revisiting them here than I had expected. The muted tones and simple backgrounds only accentuate the pinks and creams of the nudes, their tight waists revealing the effect of corsets on the female body. But it’s the engagement that surprises you. Eyes here are more defined, often staring out directly at the viewer. Only with no supporting smile on the face, these nudes seem almost defiant.

There’s no doubting that these nudes, much like all nudes prior to feminist art, were designed by and for the male gaze, yet these models (often sex workers) come across as women not to be messed with. Their confidence and sometimes confrontation is disarming. A very modern sexuality indeed.

Yes, the exhibition is popular but, please, don’t let that dissuade you. The galleries are large, and the crowds ease up once you’re inside. So much so that I was often standing alone in front of the glorious, sensual nudes.

It’s true that there’s probably nothing here that is revelatory about this great artist, but that doesn’t make this show any less enjoyable. A wonderful experience.

Tate Modern, London, to April 2, 2018
Admission £17.70 (without donation). Concessions available.

Image Credits:
1. Jeanne Hébuterne, 1919. Oil paint on canvas 914 x 730 mm The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
2. Woman’s Head (With Chignon) 1911-12Sandstone 572 x 219 x 235 mm Merzbacher Kunststiftung
3. Reclining Nude, 1919. Oil on canvas 724 x 1165 mm Museum of Modern Art, New York

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