The first room of the Modigliani exhibition is almost empty. One single self-portrait of humble size hangs on the right hand side of a rather dingy blue room. While this is a somewhat unusual and potentially even anticlimactic entrance to an eagerly anticipated exhibition, it importantly and pointedly sets the tone for the rest of the show, which elegantly focuses on careful appreciation of each individual piece of art.
The exhibition does not over-exert itself for the sake of drawing big crowds. Unlike many recent exhibitions focused on art giants of the 20th century, the walls are not plastered from ground to ceiling with every possible piece of art that can be fit within the space limits. Instead, each painting is given precisely the necessary space to be appreciated in its own right. It has been argued that as a medium, large scale exhibitions naturally overwhelm, and prevent sincere appreciation of any one single piece. And it is certainly true that there is a fine line between giving people their money’s worth (exhibitions at the Tate are certainly not cheap, even with student concessions) and maintaining the suitable atmosphere for the individual pieces on show.
The curators of the Modigliani collection, however, manage this balance with almost unprecedented success. His preparatory drawings, for instance, are not a few faint scribbles used for the sake of filler, but hold true merit in their own right. They are striking and poignant and illuminate things that the final paintings never could.
The information given alongside his first portrait is not only useful and interesting, but marks the end of the exhibition’s concern with Modigliani the man; the focus from this point forward is primarily about the work itself. One room makes up a secondary part of the exhibition, with separate (free) tickets, and delves into the way in which he lived. It makes use of virtual reality headsets, and whilst I initially thought that this could come off as a gimmick, in fact it is extraordinarily immersive.
It also cleverly declutters the rest of the show; looking at the art itself, the audience is not overwhelmed by artefacts, photographs, or long spiels of information. The presence of Modigliani the man is only felt in one other part of the exhibition, in a film projection titled ‘Modigliani’s Paris’, which consists of a small selection of clips and images focusing around the role of Montmartre. The exhibition is structured in such a way that this primarily acted as an introduction to the next two rooms of artwork, which focused on Modigliani’s potentially lesser-known work with stone and free carving. He was quoted to have said that he always wanted to work with stone, and although this work was limited due to his poor health, the small white room dedicated to his sculpted ‘Heads’ is a highlight of the whole show.
This focus on the merit of each individual piece is consistent throughout the exhibition; the Art acts as the central focus. Any relevant history of the era is woven into the description of the works, providing accents to the pieces without dictating or defining the layout. The small descriptions under the name and date of the works, which in other exhibitions are often filled with pointless technical details, here provide well-written insights into the subject of the painting, Modigliani’s relationships and his influences.
The room of nudes, which includes the controversial pubic hair that led to the closure of his only solo show by police in 1917, are not scandalous in the same way anymore. In fact, I didn’t even initially notice the demure little dark triangles (though maybe that’s just because I’m a hairy feminist myself!). More importantly, however, not all women had these little bushes, some were more classically smooth, and while this may not seem exciting or interesting in itself, the originality and variation of the female form certainly was.
Modigliani painted women with pubes and women with small, sharply pointed breasts, as well as some women with narrow hips and wider waists, and some with soft rounded boobs, which sat lower on their chests. This meant that when the traditional Serpentine S expected of a woman’s silhouette in art was present, it didn’t feel as tired, it just seemed to suggest that this woman depicted really was naturally wide hipped. Of course, the pieces were made for male buyers, but the inaccuracies and sumptuous quality of the female bodies are at least interesting and at times quite accurate, without being angry or vicious like the nudes of Picasso and the Surrealists can often be.
The exhibition has been criticised for being nothing more than a simple display of everything we know about Modigliani, which therefore only acts to illuminate his lack of range. It is unfair, however, to argue that this is indicative of a lack of quality, and obtuse to suggest that as a result all the paintings begin to look the same. This is an artist who painted for himself and for his subjects, rather than for an audience. All the works certainly do look like Modigliani’s, but they also differ dramatically at times, as they sensitively channel the essence of their subjects and when he pulls it off really successfully, the results are intensely powerful.
With hindsight Modigliani’s work was not particularly dangerous; it did not take the art world by storm or change the face of art as we know it. Compared to his contemporaries and his influences, Modigliani was relatively tame; all his subject’s eyes, however creepy their monochrome nature may be, are in the right place, the sloping mannerist limbs have not progressed much further than the likes of Botticelli and he never put a urinal in an exhibition declaring it to be ‘Art’. This does not, however, imply that his art isn’t valid and interesting. The exhibition is beautiful, it has humour and power and is a delight to walk through; I would suggest it is a brilliant way to spend a couple of hours.