Sunday, November 05, 2006

Art Review : Modigliani and his Models (Royal Academy 30/08/06)

It is difficult to separate Modigliani the Artist from the Modigliani the Man and the myths surrounding him - the drink, the drugs and the womanising, the early death and the tragic suicide of his mistress - although in this exhibition there is no attempt to rebut the myths, as apparently it all was true.

In bringing together this collection of portraits and nudes from across Modigliani's career, one can see both his greatness and his limitations as an artist. The first work exhibited, a Brancusiesque sculpted head, redolent in overtones of African tribal art with its elongated form, pursed mouth and blank eyes, is key to understanding Modigliani's creation. To a certain extent, all his portraits were based on this archetype.

Yet on top of this mask, Modigliani overlays a personality. The portrait of Paul Guillaume reeks of an arrogant, difficult personality, whereas those of Jeanne Hebuterne, his lover, are soft and tender. A Modigliani portrait brings one closer to the subject, despite the flatness and stylisation of form.

One cannot deny the power of Modigliani's nudes. "Declining Nude on Red Couch", with the hooded eyes, her arms thrust back, her heavy breasts and her thighs twisted towards the viewer, all mean one thing - sex. These are provocative works where one cannot simply objectify the model as an art form, but must address a living, breathing, sexually-desirous being. Yet despite these works being banned as pornography in 1917, they reference earlier nudes of Titian, Corregio and Botticelli, whilst redefining the relationship between the viewer and the picture and connoisseur / voyeur, a relationship explored throughout the 20th Century by successive artists.

Modigliani's life was famously turbulent, his genius fuelled by drink and drugs, his charm and impossible good looks leading to numerous romantic entanglements. One cannot appreciate his portraits of Beatrice Hastings or Jeanne Hebuterne without realising that they were lovers - it is noteworthy that his nudes were not lovers, although whether he slept with them is a different matter. Overall this exhibition provides an excellent overview of the work of an underappreciated and much-misunderstood artist.

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