13 March 2018

Modigliani revival at the Tate Modern

What a creative life and a tragic death Amadeo Modigliani (1884–1920) had. He left home in Livorno Italy in 1906, at 21, with money from his mother, and moved to the centre of the art world: Paris. He was en­grossed by the works he saw, from artists ranging from the late Paul Cézanne to his cont­emporary Kees van Dongen.

Modigliani lived at various addresses in the boh­emian district of Montmartre, not far from Pablo Picasso’s home. In the early days in Paris, Amadeo’s sub­jects included figures from the demimonde eg circus performers. But during the 13 years that followed, he struggled with the dark side which, in turn, strengthened his art.

Modigliani’s years of poverty were clear from the beginning – he was tubercular, hungry and poor. The consequences of his short and disordered life have resulted in debates amongst scholars, museums, dealers, auction houses and private collectors. His official cat­al­ogue raisonné is no longer 100% trusted because of disputed forg­eries and subsequent court cases. But at least the authenticity of Dr Paul Alexandre’s wonderful collection of Modiglianis was never chall­enged.

The very handsome Amadeus Modigliani

Now the Tate Modern in London has brought together drawings, paintings and sculptures by Modigliani which might help with understanding his art. All the early work done in Italy was destroyed at Modigliani’s own request. So the Tate Exhibition consists of paintings and carved stone sculpture done during his chaotic, artistic life in Paris.

The paintings were sensitively hung in the Tate Mod­ern galleries, with their colours creating a radiance. And the display ref­lected Amadeus’ progress over time. In 1909, he painted a very handsome portrait of his friend Paul Alexandre with layers of al­most Turner-like brushwork. That same year he depicted the youth he referred to as a Young Gypsy with a stylised geometric angularity, posing him with legs spread apart and hands loosely resting in his lap. In 1918, Modigliani painted the Little Peasant with a simp­lif­ied classicism but left him with the same rounded hands and arms a la Paul Alexandre but in a lighter palette.

What about the 12 nudes in the same section of the Tate, perfectly timed to mark the 100-year annivers­ary of Modigliani’s only solo show. That exhibit, at Gallerie Ber­the Weill, was closed by police on its first day because of indecency. The heroic Mrs Weill’s im­pressive list of artists included Raoul Dufy, André Derain, Georges Braque, Kees van Dongen, Maurice Utrillo and Suzanne Valadon.

Paul Alexandre by Modigliani

Tate is showing the 1919 Self-Portrait owned by Brasil’s Museu de Arte. This paintings crys­tallised everything Modigliani saw in his idol Cezanne, but made it person­al. Plus paintings of the saucy Maud Abrantès stand out. She may have been the mistress of both Modigliani and his patron Alexandre, but was married to an art dealer. Maud was probably the model for The Jewess, a painting that was inspired by the Fauves. Modig­liani must have loved The Jewess; he exhibited it in the 1908 Salon des Indép­endants.

Was being Jewish in post-Dreyfus Paris a problem? Modigliani was not interested in the issue! While there were several memoirs that des­c­ribed Modigliani’s passionate response to anti-Semitism, there was no evidence that he felt himself an “outsider”. This cosmop­olitan family had come from France, Tunisia, Italy, Algeria and Sardinia; national boundaries melted away. In Paris, his friends included many Jewish artists eg Lipchitz, Soutine, Chagall, Zad­kine, Nadelman and Kisling, artists of mixed origin eg Diego Rivera, and non-Jews like Picasso, Laurens, Gris and Cocteau. If he was consid­ered Italian, it was because of his dashing, aris­tocratic style.

The end was tragic. Amadeus’s young lover Jeanne Hébuterne was 36 weeks pregnant with their second baby. Suffering from acute kidney pain and spitting blood, Modigliani lay in bed and a frightened Hébuterne huddled by his side in their Rue de la Grande Chaumière flat. They were cold that winter, hungry and messy. When he finally fell into a coma, Modigliani was carried to hospital and tended by nuns while friends surrounded him.

Amadeus died and the artist’s brother paid expenses for a lavish funeral, where thousands of people gathered behind a horse-drawn carriage bearing his flower-covered casket. As the funeral cortege passed by, Hébuterne leapt out the 5th storey open window and died on the footpath below. At Cimetière du Père Lachaise, the Jew­ish funeral was packed out. Hébuterne’s Catholic parents arranged their daughter’s tiny funeral early the next day.

Decades after her parents’ deaths, Amadeus’ daughter Jeanne wrote a book called Modigliani: Man and Myth. Jeanne described her father as the pampered and indulged youngest son in an eccentric Italian family, his own bankrupted father, and Amadeus’ near-death exper­ien­­ces in childhood from pleurisy and typhoid. Perhaps by choosing the life of a Bohemian artist, he was toughening himself up physically while saving his poetic soul.

Sleeping nude by Modigliani

Modigliani was my favourite C20th Bohemian; he was an emotionally intense portrait painter, poet, philosopher, a consumptive and an uncontrolled son and lover. But until I see the exhibition myself, I am relying on Frances Brent in TabletThe Tate,  his daughter Jeanne’s book, Modigliani: Man and Myth and previous posts in this blog.

The Modigliani Exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York just ended in Feb 2018. It was largely a pre-WW1 drawing show, focused on the coll­ection of Paul Alexandre, Modigliani’s first patron, the doctor who created a meeting place for artists in Mont­parnasse. The New York exhib­it­ion was accompanied by a catalogue published by Yale UP.


Andrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew said...

Typo, take 2.

Will we ever see such interesting artists again such as those from the 19th and 20th centuries? Even Australia had some quite interesting and good artists between 1900 and 1990, but I see nothing new now, not one fresh faced and challenging, but more importantly not a great artist.

Deb said...

Why didn't Eugenie keep sending money? There would be nothing more tragic than seeing your son and pregnant daughter in law starving :(

bazza said...

Modigliani's portraits always put me in mind of those by El Greco, with the elongated features and all. There are theories , I believe, that El Greco was a Sephardic Jew.
I feel that knowing the fate of the artist adds a certain amount of poignancy when looking at his (or her) paintings. We cannot truly appreciate an artist while they are among us. To paraphrase, "No man is a prophet in his own time".
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s abounding Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The saying that artists must suffer certainly seems to be borne out by Modigliani's story. What a tragic ending also for his fiancée, but how could she leave behind her other daughter? I was surprised to read in Wikipedia that the surviving daughter was brought up by Modigliani's parents in Italy rather than by Hébuterne's parents in France.

Hels said...


it seems that all the excitement, progress and modernity arrived from the Edwardian era to the 1920s, in arts, sciences, architecture, dance, clothes, sport and every other area of human endeavour. This was true in France, Germany, Britain, Russia, Austria, USA, Canada, Australia as you say, and many other places. WW1 and then the Great Depression pretty much ended great cultural progress.

Hels said...


Amadeo's mother Eugenie Garsin and her husband enjoyed a very good life until they had to declare bankruptcy in 1883. Yet they still had to pay the dowry of Eugenie's sister in law, Olimpia Modigliani, and those dreaded in-laws seized ALL the properties in the house. Apparently the family had to move to a very modest house and had to manage on whatever moneys Eugenie was could bring in from her teaching. Amadeo's father did nothing, apparently :(

Hels said...


I have always believed that El Greco was a truly devout Greek Orthodox congregant. Fortunately for him, Toledo was the religious capital of Spain and a source of many religious commissions (especially complete altar compositions) for the recently arrived artist.

But I know exactly what you mean by the elongated physical features. El Greco was expressing religious emotion via exaggerated, Mannerist traits. Modigliani on the other hand, was a socialist Bohemian who used elongated necks and mask-like faces to reveal each individual's inner life.

What a shocking waste of a life, dying so young :(

Hels said...


apparently the maternal grandparents really disliked Amadeus and didn't want his baby in their home. Fortunately Jeanne was brought back to Italy by the artist's brother, raised by her paternal grandparents and finally adopted by her paternal aunt. Fortunately the Modigliani family were very well known in Livorno and baby Jeanne was promised a wonderful life.

Ex Pat said...

My sister queued up for the Ochre Atelier which she thought you might like to mention. But be warned. It was a slow moving queue.

Hels said...

Ex Pat

The Tate said that the environment in which Modigliani made his last works is re-imagined. The visitor immerses himself in a virtual reality recreation of the artist’s final Parisian studio, which uses his actual studio space as a template. I would love to see the 60+ objects, artworks and materials that Modigliani actually handled.

CherryPie said...

This sounds like a fine display to go and see.

iancochrane said...

One of my favourites also, with a distinct style all his own. I was not aware of the tragic ending... alas the lot of a true Bohemian.

Hels said...


I can only travel abroad during our June-July winter holidays, so I am dependent on exhibitions coming to Australian galleries or me being able to visit European galleries at exactly the right time! You are soooo fortunate with the Tate Modern etc.

Hels said...


tragic and young :( Egon Schiele, Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh, Lyubov Popova, Frederic Bazille.. they all died in their 20s and 30s and broke my heart. Even artists who were not my favourites, like Theodore Géricault, didn't have enough time to establish their careers.

Only being a musician seems more risky to life and limb :(

Mark Brown said...

A Modigliani reclining nude is to be offered at auction with an estimate in excess of $150m (£108m), the highest pre-sale figure for work of art. Sotheby’s announced the estimate as it unveiled the 1917 painting Nu couché (sur le côté gauche), a star of the recent Modigliani show at Tate Modern, to an audience of collectors and journalists in Hong Kong.

At 147cm wide, it is the largest work Modigliani painted. The majority of his reclining nudes are in museums, particularly in the US. The Guggenheim, MoMa and the Met in New York own one each. The only one in the UK is in the Courtauld Gallery in London.

The painting will be sold in New York in May, part of Sotheby’s big evening sale of impressionist and modern art.

Mark Brown
The Guardian

Hels said...


as much as I love Modigliani's life and works of art, no single painting is worth in excess of $150m/£108m. Nonetheless I always track Sotheby's special auctions and will report back the final bid in this blog in May.

Edward Helmore said...

Last night in New York Sotheby’s confidently put the highest estimate ever placed on a work of art at auction. It exceeded the $100m estimate Christie’s placed on last year’s Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (which sold to a Saudi prince for $450m) and the $140m placed on Pablo Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger.

The reclining nude by the modernist master Amadeo Modigliani fetched $157.2m last night, the highest price in Sotheby’s history. But it failed to beat the $170m record set for the artist three years ago.

Edward Helmore
The Guardian
Tue 15th May 2018