I have always thought of Modigliani as the sort of artist that can get you into trouble. Remembering the raised eyebrows with which my tutors greeted my proposal that I write my first long essay as a student about the relationship between his sculptures and his nudes, I was half-expecting there to be a warning sign at the entrance of his exhibition at Tate Modern. Instead the visitor is met by four galleries of sensational portraits – not to mention a film about his life in Paris and a queue for a virtual tour of his studio – before being treated to even a glimpse of an ankle.
When the nudes do come, however, they appear in all their voyeuristic glory: the ravishing odalisques of Titian, Goya and Velasquez and yet so close to the warm flesh tones of a centrefold that it is hard to imagine them without a staple down the middle. Perhaps anticipating a negative response, the curators have emphasised the active part that his models played in their creation, pointing out that these ‘modern nudes’ who were paid up to a third of what the artist earned and suggesting that hence their self-confident stares are unburdened by the dominance of the male gaze. Even more tenuously, they imply that by letting them retain their own lipstick, hairstyles and accessories, Modigliani allows his subjects to determine how they are presented. This argument seems nonsense to me: a bit like suggesting that a lap-dancing club encourages women to express themselves because it allows them to perform in their own shoes. After all, there is no doubt who is in charge here. It is Modigliani not the sitter who has determined how their arms and legs are draped so seductively across the canvas.
A more persuasive argument is that the same characteristics are clearly visible in his portraits. For what Modigliani learned from Cezanne – from whom he also borrowed his tentative brushwork and his lovely blue and ochre palette – was to treat his sitters as a formal exercise. Madame Pompadour, for example, looks nothing like Beatrice Hastings while a fully-clothed portrait of another mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne, is an exaggerated S-shape: half toilet-duck and half Parmigianino. The same is true of the men. In his Portrait of Joan Gris, he pushes the painter’s head so far back he almost dislocates it while in his study of Paul Guillaume, he makes the dealer’s nose and cheeks almost as sharp as the stiff edges of the collar beneath them.
Modigliani was so impressed by an exhibition of Cézanne’s work in 1907 that he kept an image of one of his paintings in his pocket. In The Cellist of 1909 he straightens out the spine of the figure to align it with the back of a chair in a way that directly imitates Cézanne’s card-players. Likewise, in his nudes he picks out the patterns of his sitters: echoing the correspondence between the triangle of a cushion and a woman’s pubic hair or continuing the line of her leg in the crease of her stomach. True, Modigliani’s work is often sweeter and more decorative than Cézanne’s, which may have been the real reason for my tutors’ raised eyebrows. You only have to compare the bow-like lips and almond eyes of his Little Peasant to the deadpan stare of Cézanne’s gardeners. Yet what the artists share is an interest in making paintings not portraits. However Modigliani treated women in real life, which unfortunately was probably no better or worse than his contemporaries, it has no bearing on whether the sitters in his portraits are active participants and hence ‘agents’ in their portrayal. Their symmetrical features and elongated heads may be a bit like peas in a pod but then you would not expect Andy Warhol to give a bit more character to his soup cans or Utamaro to individualise the identical faces of his Seven Lucky Beauties.
Modigliani’s attention to contours and his juxtaposition of flat and volumetric surfaces are clearly related to his sculpture. So too is the way in which he alternates the shallowness of a forearm with the deep curve of a thigh in order to speed up or slow down our apprehension of a figure: a device, which, indeed, his detractors might argue makes his nudes more voyeuristic. Many of his friends were sculptors and there are parallels to Lipchitz in the way in which he crams his sitters’ chiselled, angular features into the centre of his portraits and to Brancusi in the economy with which he reduces them to simple, geometric forms. Despite his eagerness to work in stone, limestone dust aggravated the tuberculosis which he had contracted as a child and which eventually killed him. What I remember from my ill-fated student essay is that before abandoning direct carving, he trundled a lot of his sculpture away in a wheelbarrow and dumped it in a canal.
Unlike his friend Soutine, whose exhibition Cooks, Waiters and Bell-Boys is showing at the Courtauld Gallery, Modigliani never gained the recognition he deserved. What their canvases have in common is a schematised stripped-down quality, an expressionist interest in distortion and, let’s face it, a tendency to spread their figures out like spatchcock chickens. Yet, they also share an emotional intensity that some critics of their generation saw as decadent and unmanly. In this context it is worth noting how criticisms of the Secessionist artists Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele with whom Soutine has much in common, often focussed on their representation of the ‘sickly sweetness of the Viennese Orient’. Such attacks were often code for anti-Semitic jibes at the artists’ association with the Jewish community, of whom both Soutine and Modigliani were a part. This is ironic since the agitated postures and bright red uniforms of Soutine’s bellboys remind me of the portraits of Renaissance popes whose lives I have been studying in anticipation of a Christmas tour in Rome. Their identical representation, like that of Roman emperors on busts and coins, was intended to suggest the validity of their ecclesiastical succession – just the impression that Soutine might have wanted to convey in fact about a powerful maître d.
George Orwell in his autobiographical account of hotel–life in Paris describes the generous tips and twenty-one hour days that were the everyday lot of Soutine’s sitters. Unlike his friend, who lived and painted at breakneck speed, Soutine was a slow worker. One can almost sense their impatience at the little no-hoper who seems to be taking up their time. This impression of resistance is something that one finds more often in photography and hence it is no coincidence that the series which Soutine’s paintings most evokes are the Portraits in a Uniform Style that Hockney made of attendants at the National Gallery.
For Soutine there was a fairy-tale ending. Shortly after Modigliani’s death, the American collector, Alfred C. Barnes, bought fifty of his canvases, which enabled him to order the kind of expensive meals that his disdainful sitters spent their lives preparing. For Modigliani there was no such magic spell. Yet with his friend’s portraits at the Courtauld and his hero’s at NPG, this is as good a moment as any to reassess his reputation. If so, then the best place to start might be dredging that canal.
Join Gerald on the 3 February at Tate Modern to explore and discuss the show.
For study events that require a ticket, there is a non refundable fee of £10 to pay and your confirmation email will instruct you on how to do this.