I am doing something remarkable. I am a voyeur in an artist’s studio in Paris – in Montparnasse to be exact – for a full six and a half minutes. But, I am actually in London. I am gazing out of Amedeo Modigliani’s studio window, towards the smoky chimney tops and listening to the drizzling, sleepy Parisian rain. His papers are floating around the room, caught in the cross wind of a gentle breeze. Empty sardine tins are strewn across the floor. His filterless cigarette is still burning in the ashtray, and he has left his Rimbaud book on the mattress. And most remarkable of all, I am sitting in his chair, staring at an easel on which is perched his just-completed self-portrait. He is 35 in the painting, and he is about to die. And thanks to some very clever virtual reality, I am day-tripping over to the studio of one of the greatest painters of all time, in an exhibition which is sure to be a blockbuster: Modigliani at the Tate Modern.
It’s a titanic show with 100 works, 40 of which have never been seen in the UK. The exhibition includes portraits, sculptures and 12 of his infamous nudes. Many of the works are from private collections, and I hear one of them even belongs to Barbra Streisand. She was so intent on purchasing the painting that she performed her last tour in order to finance it. (Come on Babs, spill the beans. We want to know which one it is!)
Modigliani, or Dedo as he was affectionately known, was a handsome rogue, a dandy wrapped in bohemian clothes who loved his women. Born on a kitchen table in Livorno, Italy, his parents were Sephardic Jews. He was a sickly child and by the age of sixteen, had contracted tuberculosis. He started painting at a very young age, and later studied in Venice and Florence. His mother said of him at the age of 12: “he already sees himself as an artist.”
“My Italian eyes cannot get used to the light of Paris… Such an all-embracing light…You cannot imagine what new themes I have thought up in violet, deep orange and ochre.”
In 1906, he moved to Paris where he rented a studio in Montmartre. Here, he was influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso. He was quite the dapper, and Picasso was impressed: “there is only one man in Paris who knows how to dress and that is Modigliani.” Dedo’s impression of Picasso was less flattering: “He may have talent, but that’s no reason why he shouldn’t dress decently.”
He was already painting nudes in 1908 but not as we know them. You can see the influence that Toulouse-Lautrec had on his earlier works. For this painting, he re-used an old canvas and turned it upside down. Can you make out the face on the lower right-hand side? And there’s a dash of Picasso in the one below, don’t you think?
Between 1911 and 1913, Modigliani focused almost exclusively on sculpture, but it was a short career path. The materials were expensive and the dust from the carving affected his lungs. It wasn’t long before similar, elongated African-looking females would appear in a two-dimensional format.
Modigliani was hanging out with the right crowd in Paris. His intimate circle of friends included Juan Gris, Picasso (who he said is “always ten years ahead of us”), Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob and Chaim Soutine. I love his portrait of Diego Rivera (also known as Frida Kahlo’s fatter half). Rivera lived in Montparnasse for two years and in 1914, he and Modigliani shared a studio. He eventually rejected cubism and moved back to Mexico.
Nude, glorious nude
Well, one thing’s for certain: Modigliani liked the ladies. The Tate Modern exhibition includes 12 of his nudes and the largest group ever to be shown in the UK. The series was commissioned by Modigliani’s dealer Léopold Zborowski, who supplied the materials and models and paid him 15 francs a day.
The paintings are clearly intended for a male audience, but there’s an air of female emancipation in them. Female models would earn a great deal more than their factory worker counterparts (5 francs a day as opposed to 2). The sensual stares are confident and unapologetic.
The show that only lasted a day
Modigliani’s nudes were the scandal of “tout-Paris.” The Bethe Weil gallery gave them a public viewing in 1917, in what turned out to be his first and only solo exhibition. Unfortunately, it was closed down in less than a day on grounds of indecency. A policeman from the station across the road was unimpressed by the display of pubic hair, and that was the end of Modigliani’s pinups. The paintings that scandalised Paris of the early 20th century are now some of the most famous (and expensive) paintings of the 21st century.
The hard stuff
Plagued by illness, Modigliani turned to drink and hashish, selling paintings to pay for food and drugs. He died tragically at the age of 35. His mistress Jeanne Hébuterne, who was 21 and eight months pregnant, threw herself out a window two days later. Modigliani left behind a 13-month old daughter and a legacy of paintings which now belong in the $100 Million Club. His Nu Couché sold for a whopping $170.4 million, putting it in second place behind Picasso.
“from the day that he abandoned himself to certain forms of debauchery, an unexpected light came upon him, transforming his art. From that day on, he became one who must be counted among the masters of living art.” André Salmon.
Modigliani and The Ochre Atelier
In 1919, Modigliani returned to Paris from a sabbatical in the south of France. Zborowski found him a home and a studio in Montparnasse: the Ochre Atelier. It still exists, but it has changed significantly. The Tate and technology company VIVE have launched a new virtual reality experience as part of the exhibition, re-creating his final workplace. A separate room includes nine seated stations where you are virtually beamed over to his studio. Each of the 60 objects featuring in the VR experience have been meticulously researched over a period of five months. The experience lasts just over six minutes and I think it’s one of the highlights of the show.
Modigliani at Tate Modern. From 23 November 2017 to 2 April 2018.
Tickets from £15.90 to £25.00
Tickets for the Modigliani Ochre Atelier VR experience are limited and issued every half hour on a first come, first served basis at the entrance to the exhibition.
About Tate Modern
Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG
Nearest tube: Southwark and Blackfriars
Opening Times: Sunday to Thursday: 10.00-18.00 Friday to Saturday: 10.00-22.00
Entry is free except for special exhibitions