Modigliani at the Royal Academy

Article excerpt

MODIGLIANI and his Models, an exhibition of over fifty of his works at the Royal Academy (8 July 2006-15 October 2006), is the first full register of his achievement to be displayed in Britain since the Edinburgh Modigliani of 1963. In most respects it enhances the painter's reputation.

When Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) arrived in Paris at the age of twenty-two, he trailed behind him, in lieu of luggage, memories of the great masters of his own recently united country. From the old duchy of Milan he recalled the elongated necks and torsoes of Parmigianino, who innovatively subordinated bodily proportions to the shapeliness of his pictures; from Tuscany, where Modigliani had been born in Leghorn (Livorno), the outstretched waists and pelvic slants of Botticelli; from the ancient republic of Siena, the narrow obliquity of eyes painted by Sassetta.

He came at a time when several painters, particularly Derain and Picasso, were infatuated with primitive African masks and frequented the Ethnographic Museum at the Palais du Trocadero more than the Louvre. Although the products of technical ineptitude and undeviating ritualistic tradition, the telling minimal delineation of these artefacts attracted Modigliani too. He practised the same frugality, not because it was forced upon him, but through choice. He aspired to a selective economy, a sparse singularity, a severe fixity on the essential point. In his Essay on Style (first printed in The Fortnightly Review in 1880 and reprinted in Appreciations a year later) Walter Pater suggested that 'the true artist may be best recognised by his tact of omission'. Few painters have been so sparing of detail and background as Modigliani.

Modigliani was an individualist. His work is not an amalgam of enterprising Renaissance pictures and carved Congolese sorcerers' masks, although he was inspired, at times, by both and was referred to by one critic as un Botticelli negre. There was a dominating tertium quid, or third party, who was Modigliani himself. Still less was he shaped by his own era. Although an explorer within the bounds of tradition, he shunned the extremes to which his contemporaries went, and remained outside such movements as Cubism in all its gradations, Fauvism and Surrealism. Exasperated about how hard it was to sell Modigliani's pictures, his earliest dealer Paul Guillaume remarked, 'His work is just not French'. The only Parisian influences one can discern in Modigliani's paintings are hints from Toulouse-Lautrec and Signac: Lautrec in his bold, shadowless posters with backgrounds of single colours; Signac in his use of divided colour. Modigliani indicates contour within a face not by shadow but by dabs and dots of contrasting colour, as in his portraits of Guillaume and his own fleeting bedmate Beatrice Hastings, and the 1918 portraits of Jeanne Hebuterne, the mother of his daughter.

His use of pointillism, or split colour, is rarer and fainter, suggesting the chalks of a pavement artist in the rain. The extreme example is Frank Burty Haviland of 1914 (on long-time loan to the Guggenheim Collection, Venice). Haviland was a wealthy but talentless amateur painter who collected African curiosities. The outline of his head is successfully audacious and the drawing of the face, already acute and well-calculated, is given substance by the patchwork of red, yellow and green. Haviland's lowered profile, emphasised by the massive droop over his forehead of his thick hair, suggests how saddened he is by the futility of his efforts on the canvas at which he is working. The check curtain behind him adds to the mosaic-like effect of the picture. The bizarre felicity of Modigliani's 1915 portrait of Picasso (Moscow private collection), once more in patchy colour on which the lines of the features are drawn, is again fruitfully bold. Modigliani has given him a faun-like face, which anticipates Picasso's own lithographs and etchings of woodland gods. …