Shock of the nude

He was known in Paris for be­ing the ‘rav­ish­ing vil­lain’, an ir­re­sistible yet iras­ci­ble ro­man­tic. But now a ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tive claims to show Modigliani in a new light, his vi­sion as chal­leng­ing as it was erotic. By Lara Feigel

The Guardian - Review - - Review - Modigliani is at Tate Mod­ern, London SE1, from 23 Novem­ber.

We fight against the nude in paint­ing, as nau­seous and as te­dious as adul­tery in lit­er­a­ture,” pro­claimed the Ital­ian Fu­tur­ists in 1910. The nude was dead; the speed­ing car more thrilling than the fe­male body. Yet by 1919, Modigliani had al­most sin­gle-hand­edly re­sus­ci­tated her. This was not the deco­rous naked­ness of Manet, the woman seen at a dis­tance, wreathed in al­le­gory. Nei­ther was it the mu­ti­lat­ing bru­tal­ity of Pi­casso, whom Ken­neth Clark saw as en­gaged in “a scarcely re­solved strug­gle between love and ha­tred”. These were warm, liv­ing women, burst­ing out of the frame to­wards the viewer; women drift­ing lan­guorously to sleep or writhing with plea­sure. Naked flesh, cap­tured on the can­vas, would never be the same again.

For decades, every Modigliani book and ex­hi­bi­tion has talked about the “myth” of Modigliani, and the up­com­ing ret­ro­spec­tive at the Tate is no ex­cep­tion. Is the story I’ve just de­scribed part of the myth? It may be, but like every myth, it points to a truth: they are dif­fer­ent; they did change ev­ery­thing. We couldn’t have the ab­stracted forms of Al­fred Stieglitz or Ed­ward We­ston’s nude pho­to­graphs with­out the in­flu­ence of Modigliani. With­out him, it might have been years be­fore the nude be­came so eas­ily erotic.

The other el­e­ments of the Modigliani story also re­main too en­tic­ing to aban­don al­to­gether. There is still some­thing com­pelling about the com­bi­na­tion of his early bril­liance and his doomed body. He had come down with pleurisy and ty­phoid by the age of 14, and at 16 he con­tracted the TB that would even­tu­ally kill him. His easy pop­u­lar­ity makes him a cap­ti­vat­ing pres­ence even now. He was the pre­co­cious child of Italy who be­came the dar­ling of Paris. He moved, charm­ing, feck­less, from the bed of one woman to an­other, mad­den­ing them with his drink­ing and his tem­per, se­duc­ing them with his eru­di­tion (he knew long sec­tions of Dante by heart), his tal­ent and good looks. “How beau­ti­ful he was, my God, how beau­ti­ful,” lamented one of his mod­els.

At the same time there were the grim ter­rors of poverty that be­set many of the artists in Mont­martre and Mont­par­nasse in these years. And then there was his death in 1920 at the age of 35, which many saw as a kind of Faus­tian reck­on­ing. “There was some­thing like a curse on this very noble boy,” Cocteau wrote af­ter­wards. So it was only fit­ting that it should fol­low the same fairy­tale pat­tern as his life. “Bury him like a Prince,” said the poet An­dré Salmon, and they did: every artist in Paris fol­lowed his funeral pro­cession to Père Lachaise. And then, to com­plete the story, his young, preg­nant lover, Jeanne Hébuterne, fol­lowed him two days later, leap­ing from her win­dow to join him in par­adise.

So how do we go beyond the myth? Each biog­ra­pher has had a new ap­proach. The most re­cent, Meryle Se­crest, has sug­gested, rather un­con­vinc­ingly, that he wasn’t an al­co­holic or a drug ad­dict after all. Both the habit and the ex­pres­sion of it were man­u­fac­tured in or­der to dis­tract on­look­ers from the se­cret of his TB. Ex­hi­bi­tions have fo­cused on elu­ci­dat­ing the specifics of his Ital­ian her­itage or his so­cial mi­lieu. This new one at the Tate – his big­gest ret­ro­spec­tive in decades – makes much of his cos­mopoli­tanism, re­mind­ing us that he was a Jewish Ital­ian in Paris. It em­pha­sises that he was a sculp­tor as well as a pain­ter (re­mark­ably, they have as­sem­bled nine of his sculp­tures from around the world) and ex­am­ines his so­cial and his­tor­i­cal con­text. It sheds light on his re­la­tion­ship with cinema and con­tem­po­rary fash­ion and at­tempts to give agency to his fe­male mod­els, re­ject­ing a nar­ra­tive of male artists making pic­tures for male deal­ers in which the women are merely the pas­sive re­cip­i­ents of the male gaze.

This works well when it comes to Modigliani’s most sig­nif­i­cant love af­fairs. He didn’t shy away from fall­ing in love with women with as much per­son­al­ity as he had, and there are three very in­ter­est­ing women to ex­plore. Two of these, the Rus­sian poet Anna Akhma­tova and the South African-born Bri­tish jour­nal­ist Beatrice Hast­ings, were at least as pro­fes­sion­ally suc­cess­ful as he was. He met Akhma­tova, who was mar­ried at the time, in 1910, and their af­fair lasted for more than a year. At this point he was a pen­ni­less sculp­tor, haunt­ing the build­ing sites of Paris by night in search of lime­stone. Of his iso­la­tion she re­called: “Ev­ery­thing in Modigliani only sparkled through a kind of dark­ness … He seemed to me en­cir­cled with a dense ring of lone­li­ness.” They walked in the rain and re­cited Ver­laine to each other. He drew her re­peat­edly and one of the few sur­viv­ing draw­ings ap­pears in the Tate ex­hi­bi­tion. There is some­thing oth­er­worldly about her, re­clin­ing in bed: her hair forms a kind of halo and the sheet around her legs gives her the ap­pear­ance of a mer­maid.

The re­la­tion­ship with Hast­ings lasted longer, from 1914-16, and re­sulted in some in­trigu­ing paint­ings. Few letters from Modigliani sur­vive, so Hast­ings’ col­umns for a London mag­a­zine form a cru­cial lens onto the artist in this pe­riod. These were the years that saw him making his rep­u­ta­tion as a pain­ter but also saw him suc­cumb­ing more se­ri­ously to al­co­hol and drugs, and be­com­ing more un­pre­dictably iras­ci­ble. After first en­coun­ter­ing him, she de­scribed “a rav­ish­ing vil­lain” dressed in cor­duroy. Soon she was com­plain­ing that he was “a pig and a pearl”: “the spoiled child of the quar­ter, en­fant some­times ter­ri­ble but al­ways for­given”.

A fem­i­nist, ded­i­cated to liv­ing un­con­ven­tion­ally, Hast­ings smoked in pub­lic and matched her lover in his drink­ing. She also seems to have fought back. The myths about their quar­rels still pro­lif­er­ate. There’s an anec­dote in which he threw her through a closed win­dow and she bit him in the balls. Cer­tainly it was vi­o­lent; un­doubt­edly it was cre­atively fruit­ful for him. Per­haps the most strik­ing por­trait of her is the one from 1915 where she’s fig­ured as “Madam Pom­padour”, an an­gli­cised ver­sion of Louis XV’s smart and po­lit­i­cally in­flu­en­tial mis­tress. With her ex­u­ber­ant hats, Hast­ings ap­pears as a woman of the world, her face and neck elon­gated in Modigliani’s now char­ac­ter­is­tic way. He had brushed with cu­bism, with the heavy lines of ToulouseLautrec and with the late por­traits of Cézanne; he’d fol­lowed his Parisian con­tem­po­raries in learn­ing what he could from African and Oceanic art. Now he was forg­ing a style that was dis­tinctly his, the lines out­lin­ing his fig­ures clear and def­i­nite, the hu­man shapes, whether of eyes or faces, echo­ing the al­mond-ovals of his sculp­tures.

Then there is Jeanne Hébuterne, the most fre­quently painted of Modigliani’s lovers. They met in 1917 when he was 33 and she 19; she bore his child in 1918 and seems to have com­mit­ted to him un­con­di­tion­ally even in his dark­est times. Jeanne was un­doubt­edly the meek­est of Modigliani’s se­ri­ous lovers. Though she was a pain­ter in her own right, it’s hard to ar­gue that her ca­reer mat­tered much in years that were dom­i­nated by child bear­ing and cur­tailed by her will­ingly sac­ri­fi­cial death. If there’s a case to be made for her in­de­pen­dence then it comes through the por­traits, which, partly be­cause there were so many of them, dis­play a range of pose and at­ti­tude that goes beyond the merely sub­mis­sive. Preg­nant, she is ma­jes­tic; painted only as a head, she is aus­tere and de­ter­mined; draped on a chair with her hair up, she has the lan­guid poise of the mod­ern woman.

It’s pos­si­ble, then, to cre­ate a nar­ra­tive in which agency is given to Modigliani’s most sig­nif­i­cant mis­tresses. But what of his nude mod­els – surely the paint­ings that many of the vis­i­tors will be there to see. The Tate has col­lected 17 of the nudes painted between 1916 and 1919, as well as an ear­lier one made in a darker ex­pres­sion­ist style. Though some of the mod­els of these paint­ings are given first names and are recog­nis­able across sev­eral pic­tures, we don’t know any­thing about them. And it’s dif­fi­cult to claim that they had the kind of equal sta­tus of Hast­ings or Akhma­tova. Modigliani was typ­i­cal of his day in re­fus­ing to paint nude the lovers he ac­knowl­edged in pub­lic, though it’s quite pos­si­ble that he be­came the lover of his mod­els.

The ar­gu­ment put for­ward by the ex­hi­bi­tion’s cu­ra­tor Nancy Ire­son is more com­plex. She sug­gests that these mod­els can be iden­ti­fied as “new women” by their hair and make up. They were rel­a­tively well paid, earn­ing five francs a day at a time when a fe­male factory worker would earn two or three. And as a re­sult they could par­tic­i­pate in the new craze that saw or­di­nary French women as well as pros­ti­tutes buy­ing the in­creas­ingly avail­able cos­met­ics. Their red lips and dark eyes sig­nify not that they were women of the night but that they were tri­umphantly of their times, in­flu­enced by fe­male film stars. Cer­tainly this is ren­dered con­vinc­ing by their ex­pres­sions in the paint­ings. Modigliani por­trays them as erotic sub­jects in con­trol of their own sex­u­al­ity, fully able to an­swer the male gaze with de­sire of their own.

Vis­ually, there is some­thing un­usu­ally sat­is­fy­ing about looking at a Modigliani nude from his fi­nal years. It’s per­haps largely a ques­tion of form. The only one in Bri­tain – the 1916 Fe­male Nude on loan from the Cour­tauld – isn’t among the best. The torso is well shaped, the tex­ture of the skin pleas­ingly wrought in thick strokes of rich or­ange

and pink, but the head seems awk­wardly stuck on the body, the an­gle of the chin un­con­vinc­ing, the hair over­worked. What it does dis­play is the char­ac­ter­is­tic crop­ping of the arms and legs – in this case the paint­ing ends just below the thighs – which al­lows his fig­ures to move beyond the con­fines of the can­vas, as though into the arms of the viewer or, in the case of the hor­i­zon­tal por­traits, invit­ing the viewer in to­wards them.

A char­ac­ter­is­tic ex­am­ple is the won­der­ful Sleep­ing Nude With Open Arms (1917), where a woman lies, erot­i­cally splayed, her legs lead­ing off beyond the edge of the pic­ture. The gaze is drawn rapidly down so that the process of looking, if sus­tained, be­comes a process of re­peat­edly ca­ress­ing from head to thigh. Sub­tle vari­a­tions in colour show the mus­cles in her stom­ach tensed with ex­pec­ta­tion; this is a woman re­cently touched and about to be touched again. Her arms, open be­hind her head in a ges­ture of de­servedly self-sat­is­fied dis­play, seem about to move for­ward, al­low­ing her to par­tic­i­pate more ac­tively in the scene.

Other nudes are more qui­etly lan­guorous. The Tate show in­cludes two wil­lowy re­clin­ing fig­ures from 1919, both ap­par­ently asleep, with the lines of the body tak­ing us more slowly from left to right, rather than in that sharp de­scent. There’s even the oc­ca­sional ges­ture of mod­esty, with a 1917 stand- ing nude some­what half­heart­edly cover­ing a breast and patch of pu­bic hair with her hands. It was the pu­bic hair that was the fo­cus for shocked out­rage when Modigliani first ex­hib­ited the por­traits in 1917 (the po­lice re­moved the nudes from the gallery, though the cat­a­logue in­forms us that they didn’t close the en­tire ex­hi­bi­tion, as is fre­quently claimed). Ac­cord­ing to Ire­son, even this is a sign of the women’s moder­nity as well as the pain­ter’s: this was the era when women be­gan shap­ing their pu­bic hair with newly avail­able in­stru­ments.

Though the nudes may be a high­light, the show aims to give a sense of his range. There are friends (Cocteau is among the most vis­ually ap­peal­ing), deal­ers and or­di­nary peo­ple. The Tate’s own The Lit­tle Peas­ant (1918) and the 1919 The Boy are moving por­traits from his fi­nal years, where he seems to have re­turned once more to the in­flu­ence of Cézanne, this time making the mon­u­men­tal­ity of his hero’s por­traits more com­fort­ably his own. The ex­hi­bi­tion ends, as it must, with his haunt­ing fi­nal self-por­trait from 1919, his cheeks gaunt, his eyes half-shut with sad­ness and pain, but both the face and body as poised as ever. “Hap­pi­ness is an an­gel with a grave face,” Modigliani had writ­ten, be­fore paint­ing him­self in that role. And so the myth en­dures.

▲ Clock­wise from main: Re­clin­ing Nude (c1919); Modigliani in 1918; Jeanne Hébuterne Seated (1918)

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