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Modigliani's retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern not to be missed

This stunning new exhibition is the most comprehensive re-evaluation of Modigliani’s work ever held in the UK. Including an impressive range of his canvases, drawings and sculpture, it examines the context in which he worked and lived after he came to Paris in 1906

Nude, 1917, Private Collection

Born in Livorno, Italy, in 1884, he began his artistic training in Florence and Venice. After his arrival in Paris, he settled in Montmartre, which – along with Montparnasse – was a vibrant and exciting Bohemian area popular with artists. Among many others, he met Picasso and came under the influence of the works of Gauguin, Toulouse Lautrec and, above all, Cézanne.

In 1907, Modigliani visited the influential Cézanne retrospective and in 1910 he saw the major Cézanne exhibition at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune. As a young man in his twenties, open to new influences, the work of Cézanne had a tremendous impact that remained with him throughout his career, emerging in different ways at different times. Thus, in his earlier works we can detect Cézanne’s influence in his brushstrokes and use of colour, while in later works it is evident in his compositions.

Above: Modigliani in his studio, photograph by Paul Guillaume, c.1915 ©RMN-Grand Palais (musée de l’Orangerie) I Archives Alain Bouret, image Dominique Couto

A few months after the Cézanne exhibition, in 1910, Modigliani exhibited six paintings, which included The Beggar of Livorno and The Cellist. The former, in particular, is indebted to Cézanne in terms of the lively brushstrokes, vibrant colours and thickly applied paint. It has strong lines and blocks of contrasting colours, predominantly blue and green.

Modigliani fans are fortunate that the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is showing an exhibition of Cézanne’s portraits and a visit will enrich your experience of the Modigliani exhibition. For instance, compare The Gardener Vallier (1902-06) with The Beggar of Livorno – a very similar palette and subject matter. The Cellist demonstrates very clever compositional use of colour, line and curve – the triangle formed by the edge of his jacket, the bow and the strong line of the neck and fingerboard of the cello, leading into his beard, serve to emphasise and frame the highlights on the top of the cello, shirt front and finally the face, forming a link to the apex of the triangle and the aesthetic profile of the cellist. Meanwhile the curve of the cello is echoed by the cellist’s arm and the curve of the chair back. The prominence of his right arm is reminiscent of the over-sized left arm of Cézanne’s Boy in a Red Waistcoat (1888-90), a copy of which Modigliani carried in his pocket; it can be seen at the NPG.

Other portraits show the development of Modigliani’s distinctive style. Thus the arresting Portrait of Pedro (1909) is dark, brooding and slightly malevolent with its limited palette of blues – apart from his face, which looms out of the moody background. While nearby the Young Gypsy (1909) shows the beginning of the distortion of the face that Modigliani uses to reveal the personality and character of the sitter. The rather elvish (Tolkeinish) face is imbued with sulky arrogance – the viewer is being observed and judged. The same is also true of the sketch The Amazon, Half Length, Three-Quarter View (1909) a portrait of Baroness Marguerite de Hasse de Villers, the mistress of Jean Alexandre who was an important patron of Modigliani. This is arrogance of a different order – based on class and privilege it is appraising, dismissive. There is also the finished painting but the sketch is more powerful – the face is stronger, more chiselled with angular planes.

The remaining wide range of portraits show the continuing development of his particular style with distorted, elongated faces, swan-like necks and almond-shaped eyes – often disturbingly blank. Yet, despite the dominance of his style, he nevertheless managed to express specific characteristics of the sitter. Amusingly, Cocteau remarked that his portrait didn’t look much like him but it did look like a Modigliani and that’s what mattered. A little disingenuous – looking at the portrait one certainly gains a strong impression of personality.

Sculpture of female head
Above: Woman's Head (With Chignon), 1911-12, Sandstone, Merzbacher Kunststiftung

His portrait style was undoubtedly informed by his experimentation with sculpture and the exhibition has nine of his twenty-eight known sculptures. Many of his sketches for sculpture are also on display and demonstrate the influence of Oriental and African art – Egyptian styles were particularly fashionable at this time. His Standing Nude in Profile (1910-11) is clearly based on Amarna art.

In Room 8, the group of nudes is intended as a major highlight of the exhibition. The curators are keen to promote the idea that these models were not merely passive recipients of male gaze but represent the beginnings of the emancipation of women – independent ‘free-spirits’ breaking established conventions by cutting their hair, wearing make-up and working for a living. Certainly they evoke a strong sense of personality – they challenge the viewer and dominate the compositions.

Towards the end of WWI with his health failing, Modigliani and Jeanne moved to the South of France, where he adopted a change in style – reconnecting with Cézanne. He adopted a warmer, Mediterranean palette, using thinner paint and his sitters were ordinary, local people, including children. As with Cézanne’s images of children, Modigliani’s are emotionally restrained, often seated with hands clasped in their laps or leaning head in hand. For example, in The Little Peasant (1918) he used thin, graphite lines to map out the composition and then filled in the colour in blocks – compare with Cézanne’s Child in a Straw Hat (1896) at the NPG. Significantly, Modigliani’s first patron Paul Alexandre described how once Modigliani drew from memory, and in a single attempt, Cézanne’s Boy in a Red waistcoat (1888-90).

The Little Peasant, c.1918, Tate, presented by Miss Jenny Blaker in memory of Hugh Blaker 1941

The final room includes a number of portraits of his mistress Jeanne Hébuterne who was the mother of his child. She was an artist in her own right and met him when she was only nineteen. Two days after his death, and nine months pregnant, she committed suicide by throwing herself out of a window. Apparently she had blue eyes and in many of the portraits Modigliani had painted her entire eye socket blue – most particularly in Blue Eyes (1917). The effect is a little disturbing. Yet even more so in Jeanne Hébuterne Seated (1918) where her pupils and irises are outlined. She is staring fixedly (adoringly?) at the viewer or, rather, the painter – Modigliani. Oddly in his earlier portraits of her she is shown with brown eyes and, personally, I find her expression in Head of Jeanne Hébuterne (1918) scarily obsessive – if you doubt me, see the detail of this portrait in the catalogue.

Jeanne Hébuterne, 1919. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

There is far more to this wonderful exhibition than I can cover here – I would thoroughly recommend it and suggest that you first visit the Cézanne portraits at the NPG. This will, undoubtedly, inform and deepen your viewing experience of this brilliant Modigliani retrospective.

I would also recommend the catalogue – not only is it extremely informative but it’s worth it just for the reproductions alone. Well done Tate Modern.



Tate Modern, Bankside, London

Showing until: 2 April 2018

For more information CLICK HERE

Cézanne Portraits

National Portrait Gallery, St Martins Place, London

Showing until: 11 February 2018

For more information CLICK HERE


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