Like all our most beloved artists – Van Gogh, Kahlo, Picasso – the work of Amedeo Modigliani is instantly recognisable. If you’ve seen one of his portraits or sensuous nudes, then in a sense you have seen them all, not because his works are all carbon copies of themselves, but because they are bound together by his utterly distinctive painting style. This famously elongates the human face and shapes women’s bodies into perfect arrangements of smooth curved lines. At once captivating, intimate, melancholic, and strange, Modigliani’s works are today celebrated in galleries across the world. But it wasn’t always that way.
In December 1917, a display of Modigliani’s nudes – his first and only solo exhibition – caused a stir at the Parisian gallery where they were hanging. The story goes that it was the suggestion of pubic hair in one or two of the paintings that led to public outrage; in response, the police removed the offending works, essentially demanding that the exhibition be censored before it could continue. One century on, the Tate Modern has assembled the largest collection of the painter’s works ever displayed in the UK, and in the process brought together 12 of his finest nudes – pubic hair and all.
The curator of the exhibition, Nancy Ireson, has spoken of the importance of Modigliani’s work: "They have this amazing sensuality, and yet at the same time they tell us about a very strong moment in time for young women. Women’s history was changing." When you take a look back at the time in which these works were created, it’s not hard to see her point.
Modigliani was born in Livorno, Italy in 1884. In 1906 he decided to pack up and move to Paris, desperate to surround himself with other modern painters and become a great artist. Sadly, by 1920 he was dead, his life cut short at the age of 35 by tuberculosis and alcohol addiction. Within the short time that he had lived and worked, he had produced hundreds of paintings and sculptures, and all against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world.
The First World War wiped out a generation of young men, and as a result, women entered the workforce in huge numbers for the first time. By 1920, women in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria (amongst others) had secured the right to vote. Hemlines had started to creep up, and tight and structured dresses had gone out of fashion. At the time in which Modigliani was painting, in other words, European women were in the midst of a huge transition.
It is, of course, possible to look at Modigliani’s intimate nudes and view them – with their passive, doe-eyed expressions, immaculate skin, and hourglass figures – as a classic example of the male gaze. And yet, as Ireson has pointed out, this was a key time for women, and particularly young women. There is something inherently political about these images, a daring, open celebration of female sexuality which – at the time, as we know – was simply too shocking for some viewers to comprehend. Ireson has also noted that Modigliani’s models clearly made "choices of hairstyle and makeup which [were] quite bold for the time." They weren't, perhaps, the passive dolls we might take them to be.
Significant too is the sense that Modigliani deliberately went in a different direction from his Italian contemporaries. Around the time that Modigliani arrived in Paris, Futurism was emerging amongst Italian writers and artists.
Concerned with technology, industry, progress, violence, and machismo, Futurism was not a movement that made room for women or the female form.
Indeed, as referenced here, the Futurists – many of whom would go on to align themselves with Fascism – actively denounced the nude that would go on to be championed by Modigliani: "We fight against the nude in painting, as nauseous and as tedious as adultery in literature." In his paintings, Modigliani pushed back against a movement that was, by its very essence, a celebration of all things masculine, and in the process produced works that are still beguiling viewers to this day.
The Tate Retrospective
For lovers of Modigliani – or those who would like to become better acquainted – a couple of tickets to this new exhibition at the Tate Modern would make for the perfect Christmas present. The show is set to run until April 2018 and boasts over 100 works.
Amongst the works on display are paintings such as "Female Nude" (1916), and two of his famous "Reclining Nudes" from 1917 and 1919. Also included are several sculptures, which were created between 1911 and 1912. Less well known than his paintings, Modigliani’s sculptures are just as hauntingly beautiful, at once recalling the aesthetic of his own portraits, and the distorted features of ancient tribal masks.
So far the exhibition has received a glowing, five-star write-up in The Independent, and prompted a number of opinion pieces in British newspapers looking at the lasting legacy of Modigliani. In short, it looks like this exhibition will be incredibly popular, so if you want to make an appearance, our advice would be to get there early!
Bring Modigliani into your Home with EasyFrame
A trip to the Tate Modern is not easy for everybody, but the good news is that you can still enjoy the works of Modigliani from afar. Visit the website for the Tate Modern art shop and you can browse a number of high quality Modigliani prints inspired by the exhibition.
Once your print has been delivered, you can order the perfect picture frame to hang it in. At EasyFrame we offer a custom framing and mounting service; simply visit this page, enter the dimensions of your print, and you can start putting together your own perfect picture frame. We dispatch all our frames within three days, which means you could be hanging your own Modigliani just in time for Christmas.
Lastly, remember that, even if you can’t get to London, there are plenty of wonderful exhibitions going on around the country right now. Click here to browse a list of arty events happening over the next few months.