Modigliani’s women

    Modigliani’s reputation is in the grip of a powerful perceptual armlock. Everyone’s heard of him, but nobody rates him. He’s notorious, yet he’s unknown. Whenever anyone assembles a top 10 of the world’s most popular artists, he’s named. Films get made about him. Books get written. Andy Garcia gets to play him in a Hollywood biopic.

    But when the story of modern art flashes or trundles through our thoughts, Modigliani doesn’t figure tangibly at either speed. He’s in the story, yet out of it. Poor guy.

    A beautiful exhibition at the Royal Academy of Modigliani’s portraits of friends, lovers and strangers goes some way towards rectifying this situation. But not all the way. Beautiful though it is — achingly so in many of its stretches — Modigliani and His Models is itself a show with a curiously elusive outline and a seemingly soft centre. It’s nearly a retrospective, beginning with his arrival in Paris and ending with his final pictures. But significant chunks of his output are ignored entirely, such as his mystical early drawings inspired by the kabbalah; or looked at so cursorily that they hardly count, as with his sculptures and the matching paintings of temple statues and caryatids. This show has one sculpture and two caryatids to represent three years of his output.

    Since he had one of those absurdly short and steamy art careers that the makers of Hollywood biopics insist upon, dying at the age of 35 from tubercular meningitis topped with dissolution, the exclusion of his early work and the one-shot presentation of his sculpture leaves gaping holes in his reality. So it’s not a complete picture. And yet, perversely, the human figure really was the overwhelming subject of his art. So, by looking only at this aspect of him, you could argue that Modigliani and His Models is aiming at the centre of its target.

    But enough of this to-ing and fro-ing across the big picture. It’s taken too many paragraphs already to admit that there’s more to Modigliani than meets the eye. Inside the show, we’re greeted by a portrait of his friend Picasso. They hung around Montparnasse together, smoking and wenching. But whereas Picasso gave up opium and drink, Modigliani never gave up anything. The Picasso portrait, from 1915, is a rare treat, borrowed from a private collector in Moscow. I’ve never seen it before. Few have. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really look like Picasso. The head is too round. The eyes too oval.

    Not for the last time in his art, Modigliani has crossed the border into caricature. It’s his chief weakness. Too many of his faces feature too much repetitive simplification and end up as modernist manga. Are there really 30 different women in this show? Or is it one woman running around the back? If he’s such an inveterate originator, why does he always seem to be painting the same person in the same pose? Opposite Picasso, the sole sculpture in the show offers an excellent insight into what is really going on. It’s a carved stone head, thin as a wing, and it too boasts the long nose and the pinched mouth like a cat’s arse. But because it really is a sculpture, and not a painting trying to feel like one, it succeeds in finding the unwavering calm it’s after. Of course, everyone in Paris was investigating ancient and tribal art just then. It was the fashionable furia . But where most of the others — notably Picasso himself — were looking for disruption, disjunction, emotional fierceness, directness and fracturing, Modigliani was seeking composure and peace. Picasso’s tiny mouth and long nose have been deliberately borrowed from ancient sources — from Cycladic art and Cambodian sculpture — because Modigliani wants his portrait to feel as eternal as a statue. A particular sitter is being asked to play a timeless and generic role. Three dimensions are being crammed into two. It doesn’t work yet. But it will.

    Although it is dotted with fine portraits of his Montparnasse men friends, the show is dominated by the famous swan-necked Modigliani women. Most of them were lovers. Some were paid models. All of them are placed on a painterly plinth and gazed at adoringly, as if they were angels. There’s some serious worship of women going on here. And the clever choice of all-white walls exaggerates this ethereal effect.

    Modigliani was born in Livorno in 1884. His complete submission to the female goddess struck me as totally Italian. As a young art student, studying in Venice, he had a painterly education that was strikingly different from most of his Montparnasse buddies. The art of Botticelli, Correggio, Giorgione seeped into him and marinated him with its gentle flavours. No wonder he can seem so un-modern.

    The first great love of his life, the tempestuous British poet Beatrice Hastings, turns out to be the darkest of his muses. She was, by all accounts, a handful, and there’s something black and spiky about his portrayals of her. But by the time we reach his last love, the tragic Jeanne Hébuterne, who threw herself from a fifth-floor window the day after he died in 1920, nine months pregnant with their second baby, we are clearly in the presence of a secular madonna.

    The portraits of Hébuterne are magnificent. They range from a simple head and shoulders, from which she gazes up at us so flirtatiously, Lady Di style, to a tense full-length on a chair, in which she twists her long body into a snaky S, as if someone’s piped her out of a basket. It is usual to lump all of Modigliani’s swan-necks together, and to imagine they are essentially the same woman. But what strikes you here is how different they are. When you lean closer to any example of a pale and silent madonna, clothed or unclothed, you discover brushwork that is always restless and insouciant and brave. Here’s an artist with so much nerve that he always lets go of a picture just before it is safe to do so. What a fantastic colourist he is. What a madly inventive palette. The more carefully you examine Modigliani, the more exciting he becomes.

    That’s the thing about him. He looks simple. He looks sweet. He looks light. He looks repetitive. But he isn’t actually any of those things.

    The portraits of Jeanne Hébuterne seem to be stressing her angelic simplicity. But there’s nothing innocent at all about the show’s other knockout sequence of pictures: a wall full of displaying nudes. Every nude he painted is here. They’re very sexy. His dealer Zborowski, a shaggy beardy who pops up in several fine portraits on an adjacent wall, found the models for him and locked him up in his studio with them until they were finished — so we’re witnessing a purely professional relationship. But it doesn’t feel like one of those.

    While the seated women are clearly descended from Botticelli’s madonnas, the sprawling nudes can trace their heritage back to the Renaissance Venuses of Giorgione and Titian that he discovered in Venice. How subtly they’ve been brought up to date. All of Modigliani’s art seems to wobble between the second and third dimensions. But the tussle between flatness and protrusion is particularly flagrant in the nudes. Each of them boasts a tad more body than their playing-card outlines warrant. These are big girls. Busty. Solid. He gives them no-nonsense body hair as well. And although their poses are descended from the poetic reclining of the Renaissance Venus, these shameless Montparnasse women sprawl and flash their bits at you with an unmistakably modern directness.

    Thus, this squalid, unstable, turbulent, addicted woman-basher seeks on one wall to celebrate the eternal calm of womanhood, and on the other to reach out and grope them. The swan-necks fill the show with saintly moods, and the nudes with sinful ones. We’re tying ourselves into knots.

    But you have to with Modigliani. Nothing about him is as straightforward as it initially appears.