If all the stories about Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) are true, you wonder how he found time to produce any art. Certainly, booze, drugs and women played a big part in Modigliani’s life after his arrival in Paris in 1906, his increasingly erratic behaviour fuelled no doubt by his frustration at the almost complete lack of public recognition of his work (unless you count the time when a show of his was closed as an offence against decency). Modigliani’s lifestyle took its toll on his health, which was never that good, and he was only 35 when he died of tubercular meningitis. Two days later his heavily-pregnant lover Jeanne Hébuterne jumped out of a window, killing herself and their unborn child.
This new show at Tate Modern does an excellent job of illuminating the avant-garde milieu from which most of Modigliani’s sitters were drawn: people like Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, Anna Akhmatova, various dealers, and hangers-on like the actor Gaston Modot (who later starred in Buñuel’s film L’Age d’Or). Of Modigliani’s friends among artists there are portraits here of Brancusi, Miro, Picasso and a marvellously ebullient-looking Diego Rivera, although curiously there are no examples of the many likenesses that Modigliani made of Chiam Soutine. Towards the end of the exhibition you can immerse yourself still further in Bohemia with a VR recreation of Modigliani’s final studio at 8 rue de la Grande-Chaumière.
With over 100 objects, the show dwarfs the last major Modigliani survey in the UK at the Royal Academy, back in 2006. A room crammed with early works demonstrates Modigliani’s debt to Cezanne and his gradual move away from naturalism. His initial preoccupation with sculpture is highlighted by a fabulous display of nine of his primitive-looking Heads. There’s a whole room of his nudes here too, arranged literally wall-to-wall in one of the biggest displays of them ever mounted. There’s even a rare example of Modigliani’s landscapes; he’s only known to have done four. The bulk of the show, though, is devoted to his portraits, with their characteristic long necks, sinuous curves and heavily stylized features. Modigliani may not be for all tastes (I know people who can’t stand him) but if, like me, you’re a fan, you certainly won’t be disappointed by what you get here.
My only reservation about the show is that nowhere does it really delve into Modigliani’s creative process, despite the fact that he was seemingly an artist who struggled to find a personal style, and even after he had done so continued to oscillate between Fauvism, Cubism and Pointillism. The excellent catalogue supplies some of the answers but more studio material (drawings in particular) would have been helped; the Modigliani phenomenon as a whole is well handled but the show is rather light on art history.