Category Archives: Modernist Art

Francis Bacon – Tate Britain – Autumn 2008

It’s possible to pontificate lots on Francis Bacon (and I shall probably try here), but there is a raw, burning intensity in Bacon’s best work that forces an immediate and rapid response. One can walk through this exhibition in twenty minutes and get just as strong as a reaction from the paintings as you could from an hour and a half of measured academic study. Indeed maybe even the charred, dark faces, the contorted flesh, the monstrous teeth are at their most dramatic when seen for the first time – innocent eyes exposed to twenty minutes of compressed horror.

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Francis Bacon, Triptych, 1973, Private Collection

Nevertheless my brain went through some strange mental processes when visiting the Tate’s Bacon blockbuster, and I began thinking of the impressionists.

Like Bacon, the impressionists were creating artifacts that could be easily assimilated by the viewer in a short space of time. For Monet, Sisley and the like, the bright palette and the unambiguous emotional unity give the viewer an immediate visual impact, as do the dimensions of the landscapes; rarely panoramic in scope but based on dimensions the human eye can immediately absorb. Of course, the gentleness of many impressionist works is the polar opposite to Bacon’s emotional register. But the similarity is not in the content, but the way in which the image can be immediately apprehended by the viewer – unlike say work by Velazquez, David or Picasso.

Bacon also shares the impressionists’ lack of interest in telling stories. There is no need for the viewer to decipher expressions and gestures to understand what the painting and its characters are about. This, too, enhances the immediacy. Bacon’s poor sitters are ripped out of their context, their life reduced to flesh, blood, violent unbalanced copulation. Critics (and Bacon himself) have alighted on the cinematic nature of his paintings and certainly the emotional punch has similarities to the effect of the silver screen. But cinema, whilst being dramatic, still demands a narrative around which its characters are wrapped; Bacon does not offer his paintings this context – the genre he develops is very much his own.

The exhibition booklet reminds you that Bacon is a portraitist, and the effect is somewhat jolting – when one thinks of an English portraitist one things of coiffured hair at a Regency club, or an aristocrat surveying his estate with proprietorial pomp. Yet it is useful to bear in mind, for it emphasises how Bacon, like many grandees of twentieth-century art, carves out a space which floats between the inherited traditions of representation (in this case the tradition of the portrait) and the modernist urge towards abstraction. Paint as a tool for representation merges into painting as an end in itself. This gives Bacon’s paintings not only aesthetic weight but also emotional impact.

His portraits struggle to asset their physical appearance. As soon as they make themselves apparent on the canvas they began to become deformed under the weight of being represented on a flattened plane of paint. Extraneous detail in background is eliminated, locking the sitter in the immediate foreground. Thin yellow bars that frequently act as cages jut awkwardly into non-existent space, framing and trapping the sitter. Like Richter’s anonymised portraits, as soon as the character is represented they become lost in the painted surface, the thickened oils scraped along the surface, almost erasing their features.

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Francis Bacon, Study after Velazquez, 1950

The series of Innocent X portraits are the most striking examples. The 1950 Study After Velazquez, painted exactly 350 years after the Spaniard’s stunning papal portrait, shows the pope trapped behind flat grills of paint, his screaming face evaporating into the gloomy darkness; his very identity being wiped out. As the shutters descend downwards on the canvas, they develop into large waves of kinetic energy, as if representing the lifeforce being dragged out of the unfortunate Innocent. Interestingly, these waves also reveal themselves to be folds of a curtain – once can see the curved bar with the rings holding the folds in place. With this motif, a new horror for the sitter is implied – that the curtain can be pulled shut, and the sitter will disappear into the darkness, out of sight, out of mind. It is motif that reoccurs within the exhibition.

Amongst all this pain, there is pleasure too, violent, sensuous pleasure. Bacon takes an arrogant pleasure in these bodies, creating tactile, sculptural forms with large chunks of flesh that one wants to meld and push. Equally the painted surface itself is pleasure, stained solemn backgrounds (the rich colouration of which would not disgrace Rothko’s palette), then tougher scratches, and then the thicker blobs of impasto that construct the bruised faces, only to find themselves flattened out so as to emphasise their entrapment within the frame of the canvas.

Nevertheless it is the immediate visceral horror that predominates – the echoes of the slaughterhouse, the grim torture chamber – the horrific immediacy of it all. And it can’t help but create a certain image of Bacon in your mind – the tortured post-Romantic artist, obsessed with sex, flesh and death, a visionary world documented in layers of paint, with each canvas a failed exorcism of the demons haunting his living hours.

But this exhibition has another angle of interest. Besides the paintings themselves, the Tate also includes the Bacon archive, the massive jumble of papers, documents and images torn or ripped out from newspapers, journals or whatever source Bacon came across. It provides a fascinating and vital gloss to Bacon’s work.

Often these are the rooms the visitor skips through – irrelevant social details in tiny print that require a different mental approach to assimilating the images on view. But here the Bacon archive is stuck almost in the centre of the exhibition, and the mass of material provides a much richer perspective on Bacon the artist; not as an artist that responded solely to his own lone, tortured view of the universe, but one who responded to the wider world around him, soaking up its images, it own ways of seeing. With this, Bacon comes across as a much more calculating, analytic artist, and also one with a broader range of sympathies and concerns.

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Francis Bacon, Pope I – Study after Pope Innocent X by Velazquez, 1951

Parts of the archive provide tiny visual clues – the vaulting in a photograph of some Vatican dignitaries was used as the ghostly outline of a church in the 1951 Pope I – Study after Pope Innocent X by Velazquez. Other parts reveal broader thematic preoccupations. Bacon, for instance, often alighted on laboratory images of animals in caged captivity, or scientific studies of human forms walking or growing over time. This gave him an immense range of source material for the captured and caged sitters in his portraits. Again, some of this is about details – in one or two of Bacon’s paintings there are ghostly echoes of the measuring tape and slide rules that appear in the scientific images. But it also illustrates the obvious resonance for Bacon between scientific and artistic modes of control.

One can see why Bacon had such interest in this genre of documentary images, for it provided him with a pool of visual and intellectual ideas which he could adapt, expand and incorporate. But the curatorial decision to exhibit such work also provides a different emotional context to Bacon’s oeuvre; seeing the Bacon paintings not as only his projections of the artist’s own emotional state, but as desperate stabs at empathy with his sitters, reflecting a world that objectivises under a scientific gaze.

This should not distract from Bacon the painter – what the curators have assembled here is a magnificent roll call of his work – and such paintings still speak with their garbled eloquence whether the contextual evidence is present or not. But we should also be thankful to Tate for exhibiting the Bacon archive; it does a tremendous job in breaking down the Hollywood reflex of thinking of the artists as a tortured genius instinctively responding to the manic visions in his head, and replacing it with a much more human, complex person.

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Notes on From Russia – Royal Academy – Spring 2008

  • Huge variety of styles on show, but drawing plenty of influences from Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism and other schools of the late 19th century.
  • Strong conceptulisation of centre and periphry
  • Russia as part of a tradition of European painting, excising its Soviet blip. An exhibition was a strong contemporary resonance
  • But using Malevich as an end-point – sudden minimalism of Malevich’s Black Squares after all the decorative, colourful work preceeding it. Very good curation of the final part of the exhibit (cf the Citizens exhibition where the cold, clinical Ingres portrait contrasted to the aristocratic grandeur that had preceded it)
  • Tatlin’s communism and related art as a non-European phenomen
  • Opportunity to rethink Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse in this context.

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Hammershoi – Royal Academy – Summer 2008

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Even the tiredest eye will alight on the affiliation between Vilhelm Hammershøi and Vermeer. There is the solitary woman, enclosed in a narrow domestic setting. She is absorbed in some mental process, oblivious to the viewer. Subtle graduations in light wash over the canvas.

But, it’s obvious to see from this Royal Academy exhibition, Hammershøi brings nothing of the same psychological richness to his paintings. Vermeer’s characters are poised in complex emotional dramas. The movement in their eyes, the gestures their arms make, the clothes they are wearing, their relationship to other characters and their position within the setting all help create a teasing, ambiguous narrative, which leaves the viewer looking for more. Such emotional phrasing does not materialise in Hammershøi – his characters tend to be solitary, folded up, and preoccupied by mundane tasks which leave little scope to the imagination. Above all, we see the backs of the women, thus avoiding their faces, fingers and all the parts of the body that could maximise expression. Hammershøi’s paintings are Calvinist in body as well as spirit.

But that’s not to say we should write the Dane off.

Despite the absence of complex emotional textures, the paintings still emit an eerie psychological sensation. It’s not so much the narratives that create this (one really has to push the imagination to create a rich storyline from a Hammershøi canvas) but the way that the paintings don’t allow for emotional contact between the characters; or indeed how the characters of the paintings do not engage with the viewers. There is an unerring consistency within Hammershøi’s paintings for his figures to turn away; for figures not to meet the eyes of anyone around them.

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Interior with Woman, 1903-4

Visual empathy, and indeed any empathy, is prohibited. It’s not a class or social thing at all (one is hardly sure if a character is a wife, servant or a mother), but something much more essential; almost a metaphysical conviction that afflicts all beings.

Hammershøi even turns this back on himself. His Interior with Easel simply shows an empty easel, as if Hammershøi had tried to paint himself, only to find it impossible. Even empathising with the ego is difficult in Hammershøi’s world.

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Interior with Easel

And it’s not just people. Objects become difficult to behold (another contrast to the forensic clarity of Vermeer). Reflections appear on polished tables or serving jugs but they only reflect smudge of the original objects, which are themselves hazy. Maps and images on the walls are vague and indistinct. Like the characters, they are impossible to read. The gloomy light that already envelops this patch of Copenhagen seems to cloud over everything.

The sense of emotional distance evoked becomes even more intriguing when one considers what type of patron may have bought these paintings. Were they intended for the very type of customer who, like Hammershøi, led a quiet, modest middle-class life in clean apartments with minimal decoration? Were the paintings in some way mirrors of their own existences? Did his patrons want to have this emotional coldness thrown back at them in paintings? Or, in seeing the paintings in this way, are we bringing a particularly modernist angst to his ouevre?

It is question worth further exploration, certainly because the exhibition reveals Hammershøi’s affinities not with Vermeer, but with a host of more modern artists who were far more open in engaging with avant-garde concerns. And it’s these connections that lend Hammershøi a special resonance as a painter who did not make easy imitations of the past, but began, in his quiet studio in Copenhagen, to touch on some of the preoccupations of twentieth-century art.

The exhibition notes recorded Hammershøi’s appreciation of Whistler, but there are other more intriguing connections.

Magritte, for example, seemed to reflect the same ideas about the impossibility of knowing the self via work such as The Human Condition and and The Forbidden Reproduction. There is also a family resemblance between Magritte’s mirror portrait and the Double Portrait of artist and wife that Hammershøi executed in 1905. Hammershøi’s wife, it should also be noted, has that distant other worldly look that is shared by the pipe smokers recorded by his contemporary Cezanne.

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Rene Magritte, The Forbidden Reproduction

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Double Portrait, 1905

De Chirico is another soulmate. Hammershøi’s architectural paintings, particularly those of the grey hulk of the royal palace, are northern cousins of the arcades depicted by De Chirico. In both, their uncanny emptiness which seem to presage some ominous event. Alternatively, one could place Hammershøi next to Hopper, artistic voyeurs, who may not be the best painters but are evocative artists, peering into the private lives of of others.

Or finally, how about Hammershøi as a prototype for Rothko – the Dane’s paintings as Calvinist colour fields. In paintings such as {woman at piano} there is strong element of geometric precision, with the resultant grids doing their best to hold seeping blocks of colour. The stillness in Hammershøi’s painting aids this, as the static figures blend into the background, thus focusing attention on the soft lozenges of colour, breathing gently in the muffled Danish light.

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You may not wish to consider the Dane a full modernist – indeed in limiting his oeuvre to quiet domestic lives, there seems something very anti-modern about him. But this is where his strengths lie, not looking back to Vermeer, but in beginning to unpick and psychological and aesthetic concerns that would mark twentieth-century art.

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The American Scene – British Museum – August 2008

Take a step back from the subject matter, from the skyscrapers and boxing matches, from the futurist bridges and the Jungian blobs of ink, and be bedazzled by the richness of the collection itself. While modern art galleries around the world, particular those without generous philanthropists, struggle to develop meaningful collections, the British Museum restricts itself to prints, and has developed a staggering treasure trove from which to a story of twentieth-century American art can unfold. Sometimes less is more.

And even though the British Museum has *restricted* itself to prints, what one gleans from this exhibition is the enormous range of possibilities the print provides. Perhaps for the the uninitiated all the artworks are all flat black and white images of similar dimensions, but the media (and the plural is used advisedly) exposed in this exhibition inspire an array of different textures and surfaces – grizzled, controlled, velvety, precise, stylised, electric – from which American artists explored and recorded their accelerating country. While the subject matter may focus the spectator’s attention elsewhere, one can also marvel at the at the ingenious techniques by which these artists exploited the medium.

The American Scene starts in the early 1900s and finishes in the 1960s (an era broader than the Hopper and Pollock boundary posts in the exhibition’s subtitle). Much of the focus of the exhibition is documentary in nature; the modernist tendency towards abstraction is certainly tangible but never as intrinsic as it was to European avant-garde. These prints are not statements of aesthetics, but tools for both a laid-back and acute observation of the the country that is flourishing around their creators.

So we witness, for instance, the architectural explosion, the rise of the skyscraper, engineering’s clean lines, its squares and grids, its vertigo inducing beams of steel. Prints like Walter Drewes’ Hell Gate Bridge or Charles Sheeler’s Delmonico Building are typical in this respect. Electric light and logos are common elements. Prints allowed huge areas of dark backgrounds, allowing for creating night-time cityscapes with company’s names attached to office towers and illuminated by shards of proud electricity.


Martin Lewis, Little Penthouse, 1931

Not that it was all soaring Manhattan skylines. Many of the prints, particularly the earlier ones, draw on the traditions of French nineteenth-century realism. There is a Dickensian relish in the dirtiness of everyday life in some of Ashcan school prints. Some are faintly comic, and almost gentle in tone, but then George Bellow also depicts the trauma of electrocution, the victim blindfolded whist all bustle around him, in a print that prefigures Warhol’s printed silkscreens later in the century.


George Bellows, Electrocution

Equally, the agricultural landscape is re-imagined and the rural condition becomes more dreamy, tinged by an innocent, naive surrealism. Good examples are Wanda Gag’s Whodunnit or the bizarre sight of Doris Lee’s Helicopter, where the mechanical object floats above the farmer’s landscape as if it been pasted in by accident.

When, at the tail of the exhibition, the great American modernists (the Pollocks, the de Koonings etc.) home into view, the effect is somewhat disorientating; the sudden change of thematic focus makes it appear as if the stories, motifs and myths built up the earlier artists have been dismantled and abruptly jettisoned. Within the context of this exhibition, it feels as if something has been discarded without a good explanation. The immersion in abstraction, whilst powerful, neglects decades worth of artistic engagement with the growth of America the country. Maybe in becoming truly international artists, US artists had to shed something of their national identity. In today’s international picture gallery this evolution towards American modernism seems a natural, progressive thing, but here where it is the etching knife and copperplate rather than oil and canvas that is doing the recounting, a different story of America’s visual history is told.

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Colour After Klein, Barbican Gallery

Exhibition held in Spring / Summer 2005

Colour’s an easy choice for a hard-up curator. There’s a lot of it going around in painting, sculpture etc. And even by restricting yourself to a certain period, say, from after Yves Klein, there’s still no shortage of the stuff in installation, video, and performance art. And everyone likes colour. Bright colours, dark colours, shiny colours, scratchy colours. Primary colours. Zig-zag strips of colour dashing from left to right and back again. The kids will like it too.

That’s why I was a bit suspicious of Colour After Klein at the Barbican. Just throw any old stuff together and pretend to make a show of it. An exhibition gathered from whatever could be got on the cheap from other galleries closed for refurbishment or in need of some kudos by exhibiting in London.

But heck no. This worked well, although not in the expected fashion. Most exhibitions work by bringing an artist’s works or a theme together, gradually establishing an overarching narrative for the exhibition a whole. Colour after Klein had no real truck with this method. Instead colour was framed as a technique rather than a theme, something that can be vividly exploited to create myriad effects that jut off at wholly different tangents. On walking through, it was obvious there was no real detailed thesis about colour – the exhibition’s sum conclusion was something like ‘colour is powerful and can induce lots of different effects’. But this didn’t stop each of the works demonstrating how powerful these effects were.

Isolating the works and providing a splendid diversity of media was part of this process. In the central downstairs foyer of the gallery, one saw the juxtaposition of the grey sheen of Richter’s Mirror Painting (Grey) and Bruce Nauman’s kite-shaped pattern of neon lights (White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death). One working like a glassy marble coated with a reflective oil, all natural materials giving subtle hints of the spectrum; the other all mechanical and seemingly transparent, until the bubble-gum neon colours burst into light to reveal their seemingly commonplace slogans.

Beyond the materials, the works’ messages don’t have too much in common, Nauman, in this instance, having a much more clear social agenda than the opaque aestheticism of Richter,. But colour vitalises them both; Richter in the way that colour disturbs and enlivens the seemingly grey surface, and Nauman in exploiting of the expectations, messages and pleasures that different colours convey.

Bruce Nauman, White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death, 1985

Other contrasts were emphasised via different media; Louise Bourgeois’s claustrophobic installation Red Room (child) used a single colour to hem the viewer in while James Turrell’s Zennish experience allowed a room slowly pulsing with a spectrum of glowing colours to allow the mind to escape.

Most effecting of all was the video (Dammi I Colori) Anri Sala had made of the Albanian capital of Tirana. Sala’s video camera had been hoisted on to a lorry cruising around the night-time streets of the city. With the aid of some truly high-powered spotlights, the camera panned along the facades, walls and roofs of the housing and offices Mayor Edi Rama had, as part of a massive regeneration scheme, painted in joyous slabs and patterns of bright colours. The long strips of fresh colour, juxtaposed against the black of the night and the dirty, scarred roads below, served as a life-affirming statement of how the country is attempting to recover from its Communist past. While the rest of the exhibition focuses on colour as an aesthetic element, here it was elevated to a lofty, if perhaps slightly superficial, social position, an ingenious method of adding a little joy to a city sadly deprived of colour of many years.

I’ll finish at the start. Yves Klein’s set of seven or eight Monochrome paintings greeted the visitor on entering and provided, in what was essentially an exhibition stuffed with conceptual art, a little lesson in painterliness. To the untutored eye, it was not too much – cheap paint slapped on to canvases with no skill but a lot of a cheek. But to the more aesthetically minded, a modernist essay in the application of paint. Seven or eight paintings, of different sizes and textures, with subtle adjustments in tones and hues (despite the promise of monochrome in the titles), using different paints on different surfaces, showed how much can be achieved, and how much the observant eye can be rewarded, even in the absence of narrative and polychrome.

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Albers and Moholy-Nagy, From the Bauhaus to the New World, Tate Modern

Exhibition held in Spring 2006

Inspired by the Bauhaus and by the relentless development of the early twentieth century, Joseph Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy were extraordinary visual innovators, continually rearranging abstract forms through a bewildering range of media. The wide variety of material on which these artists depicted their generous family of shapes – shapes such as circles, twists, blocks and orbs – document not only modernist invention, but stand as a virtual timeline of industrial innovation; as each material was developed – aluminium, perspex, sandblasted glass – so Albers and Moholy-Nagy jumped on it and turned it towards their own visual needs.

Josef Albers, Structural Constellation, Transformation of a Scheme No.12, 1950, Tate Modern.

But innovation is not quite a guarantee of artistic quality. Many of the modernist branches they followed may have initially appeared interesting but soon appeared to be dead ends. To an extent, Albers’ experimentation counted against him – he tried so many different routes that it is hardly a surprise that some of them would turn out to be false paths. For example, the works done with sandblasted glass or the later Structural Constellations created from engraved Vinylite. Initially impressive, above all because of their smooth jet-like finish, they soon become lifeless objects, rearranged according to the same formula. The initial idea is appealing but there is little to sustain the variations – you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. As visual designs they are interesting (like many of Albers’ works they would make for affecting album covers) but as artworks their sustained repetition brings little beyond the original conception.

In actual fact, it was Albers’ stated desire to move art and design closer together, so maybe we should be praising him for executing this strategy within his works. One can see the enormous influence that Albers, vigorously inventive in its geometric concepts, has had on later design styles. For example the illusory set of rectangles in To Monte Alban which anticipates the op-art inspired designs of the sixties and seventies; or the nervous but excited lines on the blue background of in open air which seem closer to reflecting the hedonism of the sixties than its actual year of creation of 1936.
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Modigliani and his Models, Royal Academy of Art

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.

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