= The Crawford Arts Review: Paintings by page numbers

Friday, 16 March 2018

Paintings by page numbers

I praised Modigliani's sculptured 'Heads' (some 12 are shown in this exhibition) in a previous post, so what do I think of his paintings? A wide variety of opinions circulate about them, at least in London  My advice is to make plans to visit this exhibition immediately before it closes in just over a fortnight. Otherwise, again in my opinion, you will miss something strikingly beautiful and, in terms of nudes, strikingly unusual. This is a man who paints a seemly nude. In a pure sense, they are academic nudes, the model's integrity intact. Modigliani was a great deal ahead of his time. And still is.

Let's remind ourselves of some of the pressures Modigliani found himself under when he arrived in Paris in 1906 to paint. He was academically qualified to do so having studied under a painting master in his native Livorno as well as attending fine art institutes in Florence and Venice. He was also tubercular. He contracted the disease at the age of 16. There was no cure.

He worked prodigiously. By 1914, aged 29, he had a Paris dealer, Paul Guillaume, already a noted specialist in African art, and himself only 23. All dealers try to second guess the market. Most artists, when faced with the choice of eating or buying canvases, take heed of their advice. 

Nudes, whether erotic or arousing, were what men bought even though out of deference to their wives and children they might keep them in their dressing rooms. Modigliani painted them but he certainly painted them his way. A note here. I have not here used the paintings downloadable from Tate Modern's website. There's too much code inserted for what I find to be the main gain of my platform, Blogger: its relative simplicity. And in any case, since there can be restrictions on the art that galleries can use in their publicity material, the paintings offered are not always those I wish to discuss. Instead I will cover work reproduced in the exhibition catalogue, a 224-page work written by the curators and which I recommend to you. It's available in the Tate shops or online.

Let me begin by pointing you to catalogue page 29 (hereafter cat p. 00). Nude Study, 1908, is one of Modigliani's caryatid drawings. It's unfinished. As a study, it doesn't need to be finished. But Modigliani learned a great deal from it. He has set the caryatid sideways on. Her right breast, a perky one, is triangular rather than globular in shape. The artist immediately amplifies this by shading in the triangular shape made by her arm, bent at the  elbow and braced against her head and neck. Modigliani's line is essentially a graphic one: he thins his paint and then actually 'draws' with his brush. 

He uses this form of patterning again and again. Look at Reclining Nude, c.1919 (cat p. 146). You can actually imagine his sketching hand skate rapidly over the surface of the canvas, using geometric shapes almost as push pins to anchor his figure whether placed on the vertical, horizontal or diagonal. In Nude, 1917, cat pp.136-7, one could almost lose count of the number of triangular shapes he uses. The result is slightly abstract, almost two-dimensional and, most strikingly of all, it confers self-possession on the part of the women portrayed.

It's not that Modigliani couldn't do three-dimensional modelling. Look at the way, in a double portrait, he paints Jacques Lipchitz 'leaning back' as if to foreground the figure of his wife Berthe (Jacques and Berthe Lipchitz, 1916, cat p. 114). In his portrait of Baranowski, a friend of his then dealer Leopold Zborowski, he tilts his young sitter's head (Portrait of Pierre-Edouard Baranowski, 1918, cat p. 119) in a way that makes the viewer feel they almost 'know' this sitter purely by his body language. Then there's the thoughtful, downward gaze of his older friend and mentor Brancusi (Constantin Brancusi, 1909, cat p. 35) and, triumphantly, the masterful use of foreshortening in his Portrait of Diego Rivera, 1914 (cat p. 104).

Just as Modigliani's Baranowski portrait epitomises the dreamy melancholy of the young painter or poet, his The Cellist, 1909 (cat p. 34) does the same for the young musician, eyes closed, totally enraptured by the sound of his instrument. We come now to the artist's Self-Portrait, 1919 (cat p. 194). Painted the year before his death, it shows the figure emaciated by illness, the eyes half closed to conceal his pain.

And finally, when the exhibition closes, if you want to study Modigliani's techniques further, it is to the academy you must go. As far as I know, the only public collection in London that includes one of his nudes is the Courtauld (see also cat p. 131).

Until Monday 02 April (Easter Monday)
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