by Roderick Conway Morris

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MoMa, New York
The Great Nude by Amadeo Modigliani, 1917

A new vision of woman

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 15 December 2017


After his arrival in Paris in 1906, Amadeo Modigliani aroused among his fellow artists as much comment on his striking good looks and innate sense of style as on his paintings. 'He looked like a young god disguised as a workman in his Sunday best,' recorded one sculptor; and another, that the Italian 'looked aristocratic even in his worn-out corduroys'. Picasso declared him, 'the only man in Paris who knows how to dress.'

Yet Modigliani seems to have been devoid of personal vanity and led a penurious life, which ended tragically in 1920, when he was only 35, still trying to perfect his art. He was too idiosyncratic to fit into any movement and his unwavering pursuit of figurative art and his favouring of portraiture were later to make him unfashionable in modernist circles. The Tate is now giving him a timely retrospective of over 100 works - including 9 sculptures and a dozen nudes - the largest show ever dedicated to him in Britain.

Modigliani was born into a Sephardic-Jewish family in the Tuscan port of Livorno and received a sound art education. He arrived in Paris during a period of artistic ferment, and although initially influenced by the likes of Gauguin, Cézanne and Kees van Dongen, he soon formed a powerful and distinctive style of his own, which he honed in his portraits of male sitters.

One of the most fascinating aspects of his art is the way in which he managed to employ the lessons he had learned from the great Italian artists of the past, especially the Mannerists, such as Pontormo and Parmigianino, with an innovative 20th-century style of painting. As the poet André Salmon acutely observed of Modigliani's absorption of his heritage: 'he knew the secret of establishing a subtle and profound link between high traditions.'

The artist's celebrated nudes were painted over a short period between 1916-1919. In them he reached the acme of his own mannerist style, and in their elongated, sinuous forms and enigmatic facial expressions they could be said to have created a new vision of woman. The erotic realism of his daring depiction of pubic hair led to the censorship of the only solo show he ever had during his lifetime, in Paris, in 1917. But these nudes guaranteed him a place as an original exponent in a genre central to the development of Western art.

Modigliani; Tate Modern; 23 November 2017- 2 April 2018

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024