Magazine article The Spectator

Easy on the Eye

Magazine article The Spectator

Easy on the Eye

Article excerpt

Modigliani and his Models Royal Academy, until 15 October Hard on the heels of the National Gallery's show Rebels and Martyrs, about the changing perception of the artist, comes this exhibition of Modigliani's paintings. The title makes a shameless and immediate reference to the myth of the decadent bohemian surrounded by lovers.

This may serve to attract the punters, but it doesn't help us take the art more seriously.

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) was a middle-class Italian Sephardic Jew, born in Livorno, who left home for the bright artistic lights of Paris in 1906, and tragically never found success there. As an artist he has been ill served by the legend that grew up around him, the misplaced glamour of self-destructiveness and early death. He was hard-working but subject to abrupt mood changes, a man of great charisma and personal beauty who strove to make art which would matter. Influenced towards extreme formal simplification by a study of archaic sculpture and the example of Brancusi, Modigliani carved extensively in limestone before returning to paint in 1914.

Modigliani suffered poverty, addiction to drink and drugs, illness and despair. His life was chaos, but his work suggests harmony, despite its fatal leaning towards the tasteful. Unfortunately, his abbreviations or attenuations of form quickly became mannerisms. Famous for his swan necks, he didn't bother much with hands or feet either, aiming instead for a general impression of elongated (and essentially boneless) elegance. In the striking but ridiculously schematised portrait of Juan Gris in this show, he presents the head and neck as if carved, unsubtly plonked down on a pair of cardboard cut-out shoulders.

As to the legend, Douglas Goldring, who actually knew the artist, has this to say: 'The neuroses of a Modigliani, which led to exhibitions of intoxication in crowded cafés, were taken at their surface value and romanticised for purposes of fiction. Few realised that, apart from these ebullitions, Modigliani was just a diffident, rather shy, sensitive and welleducated "bourgeois" Jew. It became the fashion to represent painters as oversexed alcoholics, brilliant, immoral and full of a dangerous fascination. To anyone whose circumstances had brought him into close contact with painters throughout a lifetime, these fancy pictures were ludicrous in the extreme.' Modigliani's friend Epstein said the legend was just a legend, nothing more, and we should look to the art. A pity, then, that the art is so unrewarding of close scrutiny.

The more time you spend in this exhibition, the stronger the first impression of lack of range and variety becomes. The portraits are distressingly similar and formulaic, the nudes even more so. Yet the exhibition opens with a couple of less stereotypical images: expressive paintings of Picasso and the noted collector of African sculpture, Frank Burty Haviland.

There's also a token sculpture in this room, a tall, narrow limestone head with a long blade of a nose. Nearby are immensely simplified paintings of a caryatid and a large red bust, not without a primitive charm and effectiveness. As you move into the main room of the display, you are greeted by a reclining nude from 1917, from the Guggenheim Museum, and the admirable seated nude familiar from the Courtauld. (It's a breath of fresh air among so many reclining beauties with full breasts and canted hips. The atmosphere of erotic languor is almost stifling. ) A bit further down is 'Reclining Nude with Outstretched Arms' (1917), a most bizarre and unreal image, like a pneumatic rubber doll, or a mannequin illustrating the position of the body in a murder investigation. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.