Tate Modern has opened its 2017-18 winter blockbuster show and this is one that is worth going to visit. Modigliani includes over a hundred works, a third of which have not been seen in the UK before. The show fills eleven rooms of the Bankside Tate, although to be honest, the first main room could be a successful show on its own. It is full of paintings that show off Modigliani’s languid skills and if that was the entire exhibition you would come out impressed and thinking you had seen one of the shows of the year.
With such a surname Modigliani could hardly be mistaken for any nationality but Italian, but his story is one that is based in France. At the age of 21 he moved to Paris. This was 1905, when Paris was the world centre of contemporary art. Modigliani made sure he quickly imbibed the local styles and ideas. One portrait in particular shows him imitating the lively strokes and palette of Cezanne, elsewhere he seems to be learning from Toulouse-Lautrec and Matisse. To begin with he lived in Montmartre before moving to Montparnasse, both artistic neighbourhoods, and the show includes a few portraits that he made of his bohemian neighbours including Picasso. Later during WWI he moved to the Riviera, where his palette lightened and his models were more likely to retain their clothes.
The show includes several (12 is the official count) of his nudes, often lounging on divans and demonstrating Modigliani’s seductive style and cropped compositions. A hand lost here, feet missing there, Modigliani’s viewpoint and unorthodox framing focuses on the models’ bodies, which zing brightly against his dark backgrounds. The wall texts try to empower the models, mentioning their pay levels, bobbed hair and use of make-up, and names them where possible, but it is hard to lessen the unapologetic sensuality of Modigliani’s images.
Of course Modigliani wasn’t an artist that the police would call on to create photo-fit images, although an early drawing of The Amazon shows he had a firm grasp of draughtsmanship. The photos of some of his friends and models displayed here along with their paintings show that mere physical verisimilitude was not on the cards. Jean Cocteau is quoted in a wall text about his portrait as saying ‘it does not look like me, but it does look like Modigliani which is better.’ The audio guide adds an ‘a’ to that sentence, giving, but it does look like a Modigliani which is better, which gives a more mercenary meaning. But though the faces all fit a certain mask-like template, the paintings have (or at least appear to have, I admit never having met Jacques Lipchitz, Paul Guillaume or any of Modigliani’s other subjects) something of the sitter’s essence, whether Guillaume’s insouciance or Lipchitz’s tenderness.
Though the exhibition is mainly well laid out, Room 3 is of a design that is asking for trouble if the show is even remotely successful. A large video screen on one wall shows black and white images that describe Modigliani’s life and Paris of the time. The seating is of the sort to be expected in a gallery – one long bench that seats about eight people. Given that the Tate’s Henri Matisse show in 2014 had over 500,000 visitors that’s not really enough seating. However the layout is such that the walkway through the room to the rest of the show is exactly where people will have to stand to view the film. The room will quickly become a bottleneck, with those who are watching only doing so through a stream of bodies. Some visitors may never make it past room 3 owing to sheer weight of numbers. Questions may be asked in Parliament. Lucky then that Room 2 is so fascinating.
Though it is hi-tech hocus pocus and gives very little in information that couldn’t just have been printed on a sheet and handed out, do try the virtual reality room. No doubt in ten years we’ll look back on such digital simplicity and laugh, rather as we now sigh in wonder about dial-up internet, but at the moment it is an intriguing way of appearing suddenly in Modi’s atelier on Rue de la Grand Chaumière. Sitting on a chair you are immersed in the virtual studio, able to peer around amongst the bottles and cigarettes and look at the white-washed windows (he had no money for curtains). It’s all slightly unnecessary, time-consuming and unnerving when you look down and your legs have disappeared. You also won’t learn much about Modigliani – there are a few dots that expand into a short audio recording if you stare at them – but it will give you an idea of how virtual reality is developing, and it bodes well for the future.
Two facets of the artist’s life story make for harrowing reading and are worth remembering amongst the luscious paintwork. Modigliani died when he was only 35. And two days later his fiancée Jeanne Hébuterne killed herself. Several portraits of her appear in the final room, along with a photograph that gives a face to the suffering. His life was tortured and caused great suffering to himself and Hébuterne. His work is now lovingly admired, but the path to its achievement was horrendous.
With Modigliani the curators have a winner on their hands. They have sourced works from over 70 lenders and successfully bringing together such a large, fresh selection of images has made a worthy exhibition that would still have been successful if had been smaller.