Jean Cocteau had his portrait painted by Modigliani in 1916, and later wrote: “It does not look like me, but it does look like Modigliani, which is better.” There is no mistaking his meaning: characteristically simplified forms, long, elegant necks and almond eyes have made Modigliani one of the most instantly recognisable artists of the 20th century. His idiosyncratic style and commitment to portraiture set him apart from the experiments with abstraction of colour and form that characterised the Parisian avant garde before the first world war. This, combined with the mystique afforded by his early death in penury at just 35 from tuberculosis, has enhanced the myth of Modigliani as an isolated genius, both in his personal life and in his art.
The portraits themselves say otherwise. Presenting the widest selection of his work ever seen in the UK, Tate Modern’s new exhibition places Modigliani firmly within the creative milieu of bohemian Paris, where he arrived in 1906. Settling first in the traditional artists’ quarter of Montmartre, in 1909 he moved to Montparnasse, which was fast becoming the city’s new artistic centre. Many of his portraits depict members of his wide circle of friends and colleagues, and they achieve a remarkable sense of individual character. His style and subjects attest to time spent in cinemas and nightclubs and the influence of his contemporaries, including Constantin Brancusi and Toulouse-Lautrec. He also spent time in museums, adapting the restrained character of the African and ancient Egyptian sculpture he encountered to the contemporary interest in simplified form.
Nowhere was Modigliani more modern than in his depiction of the naked female body. His images of confident female sexuality rejected the coyly lascivious treatments ubiquitous in paintings by an older generation of academic artists, instead looking back to characterful examples from the past by Titian, Velásquez and Manet. Modigliani’s women are powerful and uncompromising: viewed up close, with no props or embellishments to distract the viewer, they are the subject of intense focus; the inclusion of pubic hair introduces an untamed eroticism; their forthright poses and frank gaze make them active participants in the encounter. Modigliani was often drunk and could be violent. His models and lovers are typically classed as victims. But for all that his nudes are principally objects of male desire, they evoke the new freedom enjoyed by many urban young women in the years before the first world war; far from pursuing a timeless ideal, the artist was firmly engaged with the spirit of his time.
“The Beggar of Livorno” (1909)
Modigliani came to Paris from Livorno, in Tuscany, where he had been brought up in an educated, cultured family immersed in the glories of the Renaissance. His portraits of this period respond to this new environment, from the nightlife of Montmartre and its representation by artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, to the shimmering colours and dabbing brushwork of Cézanne. This portrait was made on a trip home to Italy, and its distinctive palette – the face modelled in planes of vivid colour – shows the impact of Cézanne, whose work Modigliani had seen in an exhibition in 1907.
“Woman's Head (With Chignon)” (1911-12)
Modigliani’s short career as a sculptor – between 1911 and 1913 he almost entirely abandoned painting – is one of the most heavily mythologised aspects of his life. This head is one of seven included at the Salon d’Automne in 1912, in Modigliani’s only major exhibition of sculpture. Its striking features recall the examples of Egyptian and African art on display in Parisian museums. Modigliani would produce no more sculptures after 1913; speculation about his reasons ranges from the prohibitive cost of materials to the ill effects of dust on his already weak chest. Equally, he may simply have concluded that working in two dimensions was better suited to his purposes.
In a series of drawings made around the same time as his sculptures, Modigliani draws the female nude as an architectural feature: the load-bearing figure of the caryatid. In reducing the body to a series of curves, he focuses on it purely as an object in space. The minimalist treatment and pointed breasts also show the influence of African sculpture.
“Juan Gris” (1915)
In his stylised treatments of men, Modigliani conveys his sitters’ personalities by emphasising aspects of their physiognomy. This portrait of Juan Gris, a Spanish painter and sculptor, suggests a self-assured but sensitive character, the full lips and large eyes contrasting with a strong neck and pronounced cheekbones. Instead of the attributes traditionally used to indicate a subject’s position in the world, Modigliani habitually took a more subtle approach. Here he introduces suggestions of Gris’s cubist painting style; the flattened, angular features exaggerating his striking, thickset appearance and the characteristic tilt of his head.
“Jeanne Hébuterne Seated” (1918)
Modigliani’s portraits of his most significant muses – Beatrice Hastings, an English writer, and Jeanne Hébuterne, a painter herself and the mother of his child – are typically interpreted as reflecting the artist’s evolving relationships with these women. In more than 20 portraits painted over just two and half years, Hébuterne’s changing appearance, from solemn girl to adored goddess, attests to his affection for her. And yet as much as they might reflect some biographical reality, Modigliani’s portraits of Hébuterne explore the central themes of his career. If elsewhere she acquires the exaggerated femininity of an African fertility goddess, or the simplified features of a tribal mask, here she is afforded the dignity and intense scrutiny of a Renaissance portrait. Two days after Modigliani’s death from tubercular meningitis, Hébuterne threw herself from a window, killing herself and their unborn child.
“Reclining Nude” (1919)
Paintings like this one typify the perplexing nature of Modigliani’s nudes. Their frank sexuality has seen them dismissed as pornography; the depiction of pubic hair caused such outrage at Modigliani’s only ever solo show, in 1917, that all nudes were removed by order of the police. The artist is known to have been abusive, and the studio where he painted was squalid. And yet for all the obvious enjoyment of female beauty in these paintings, their subjects exert a degree of control, sometimes meeting the viewer’s gaze directly, and at other times, as here, refusing it altogether. If Modigliani enjoyed painting them, the paintings in turn suggest that his models enjoyed being looked at by him. Paid better than factory workers, on a level with the daily stipend Modigliani himself received from his dealer, these women could be seen as emancipated rather than exploited. Modigliani’s art has always been conflated with his life, his sensual and provocative nudes inseparable from the knowledge of an addiction to women comparable to his drug and alcohol dependence. This exhibition rehabilitates the art, if not the man, by considering his short career, not through the prism of his flawed personality, but as a product of Paris at its most exciting and innovative.
Modigliani Tate Modern, until April 2nd 2018