To my mind, the very best exhibitions are those where one leaves with a much enhanced conception of the broad artistic terrain that a great painter or sculptor may have crossed. The exhibition reveals unexpected cross-currents, unknown themes, and a sense of self-questioning, experimentation and progression. The exhibition demonstrates how the artist tackled with and largely came to terms with a whole range of formal and narrative issues, synthesising or rejecting as needs dictated. The lack of these elements, therefore, is the big problem with the Modigliani and His Models exhibition at the Royal Academy.
Individually, Modigliani’s portraits are well executed, and they would grace any museum wall. He has an excellent eye for colour (the scarlet red of a late portrait of Anna Zborowski is particularly striking) and the paint is applied with a texture that gives the surface life without overshadowing the content (for example see the Little Peasant of 1918). Modigliani is good at form too; despite the simplistic way in which he depicts features and bodily dimensions (there is a superficial similarity to naive art), there is a convincing sense of presence, something that is most noticeable in the nudes.
For these reasons, I have no doubt too that the exhibition will be a popular one. The colours are vibrant, the content interesting (without being visually challenging) and the paintings have enough of the whiff of the outsider about them to make sure the legend of the bohemian Modigliani stays intact.
But taken as a whole, Modigliani’s oeuvre is limited.
The exhibition is at pains to distinguish his early, a mature and maybe even a late style.1 And well, yes, there are different elements within his oeuvre – there is growing detachment in how the painter approaches his models as time passes. But surely the more noticeable thing about this exhibition is the extremely restricted nature of Modigliani’s work. Nothing but portraits executed by the same means – the elongated noses, pursed lips, almond eyes, the tilted face, often furnished with a deliberately expressionless gaze. The characters share such a limited emotional palette that it seems Modigliani is projecting something of his own on to his sitters rather than finding new visual means to describe each sitter’s interior world.
Modigliani, Youth in Blue Jacket, 1919, Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Supporters of Modigliani will mention that this sense the detached melancholy (that, above all, pervades many of the later paintings) is powerfully communicated. I don’t disagree with such a prognosis, but when it happens in painting after painting its effect is diluted. A few paintings, such as the strongly Cezanne-esque Youth in Blue Jacket, create a more sophisticated illusion of broken space and are all the better for it. However, most portraits focus attention only on the sitter and their environment is largely ignored. The concentration is on the detached, almost alien, sitter, time after time. Whatsmore, some of Modigliani’s early portraits seem like caricatures – a deliberate dimming of certain aspects of the character in order to give weight to other aspects, and it makes some of his sitters appear rather cartoon-like or buffoonish.
In terms of the establishment of style, it’s hardly up there with the grand masters. There’s not the steady evolution of ideas that demonstrate an artist growing in confidence and learning how to challenge himself with different aesthetic questions. Modigliani keeps on asking himself the same question; the result, as one might expect, is the same answer.
1. Of course, Modigliani died young, at the age of 36, so the whole concept of gilding him with a ‘mature style’ seems rather pointless. Indeed, much of the repetitive nature of his output can be explained that we are seeing ten or fifteen years of painting rather than an extended lifetime of fifty years. In my book, Modigliani only had an early style.