23rd November 2017 – 2nd April 2018
Modigliani. Say it out loud: “Mo-di-glia-ni”. The name rolls off your tongue like a dark ribbon - sensual, delicate, disarming. This is exactly what Amadeo Modigliani’s (1884-1920) paintings are like: his portraits beautiful and haunting, his nudes less scandalous, yet as provocative as when first exhibited, each sharp angle and each daring curve carrying his distinctive signature. Come meet them in the eye at the Tate Modern.
Born in Italy, at 21 Modigliani enrolled in the unofficial, yet highly acclaimed School of Paris to learn how to paint, live and think from an all-star line-up of teachers-turned-friends: Brâncuși for Geometry, Picasso for Anatomy, and Cézanne for Poetry, just to name drop a few. He mixed their canons in his palette with those of his ancestors, either inherited by blood – Botticelli and Titian, and deliberately chosen – ancient Egyptian painters and sculptors: borrowing and returning, stealing and keeping, living and loving, Amadeo went from Pierrot the clown, as the first self-portrait of the exhibition depicts him, to part “enfant terrible”, part dutiful pupil, to then emerge as a full demi-Deo of the 20th century art scene and beyond.
Modigliani’s story is told in 10 rooms at the Tate Modern, where the long, winding queue for the exhibition seems to have been drawn by the artist himself.
However, it is not a bildungsroman: it is a mystery story and it seems like each room of the exhibition carries certain clues. We meet Amadeo before becoming Modigliani, we see him experimenting and trying out different styles; we then question his mentors, friends and lovers, each a visual testimony of the artist’s fascinating vision of the world, of their own personality, and of the epoch itself. Some of their eyes seem empty and made of stone, others’ are filled with enigmas, resembling two of the three points of an ellipsis, the third forever omitted. We question his nameless nudes, their clay-like bodies not caressed, but modelled by Modigliani’s hand; once so controversial – when first shown, they were considered so scandalous they were taken down in less than a day, they now raise more questions than brows, unapologetic and enigmatic like female Sphinxes. The final clue is a VR experience of the artist’s studio: you close your eyes and wake up in Modigliani’s “very modest kingdom”, as his friend Lunia Czechowska remembers it. You get to sit on his chair, look at the sleepy Parisian roofs and peek into his soul. In the ends, the hidden canvas seems to reveal itself.
Nevertheless, Modigliani remains a mystery. The only difference is that now, when you encounter his art in encyclopaedias, museums or pretentious Instagram feeds, his characters might wink back at you - this time with the third point of the ellipsis…