Modigliani review

Art
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

It’s not often that you get access to the studio of an artist – never mind one who died 97 years ago. But for their new Modigliani exhibition, the Tate has collaborated with a tech company to recreate the Italian artist’s Parisian digs in virtual-reality form. Put on the headset, and you’re suddenly there: watching the smoke drift from the cigarette beside his easel; listening to the rain beat down on the street outside. It’s incredibly evocative. But it isn’t without its problems.

Amadeo Modigliani is ranked among the heavyweights of early-twentieth-century art for two reasons. Firstly, he was a decidedly singular artist: his portraits, with their subjects’ elongated heads, tapering necks and almond-shaped eyes, are instantly recognisable. Secondly, he was the absolute embodiment of the ‘tragic artist’ cliché. He arrived in Paris in 1906, exploded on the arty Montmartre scene, failed to make any money, grew fond of booze and drugs, shagged around a lot, then died from tuberculosis at the age of 35. (Two days later, his heartbroken partner committed suicide, nine months pregnant with their child.) Whew!

 The show’s centrepiece is undoubtedly the room given over to 12 of his female nudes. They’re as vulgar as they are sensual: his models (often sex workers) lie on rumpled beds, sometimes half-dressed, always (shock horror!) with their body hair exposed. You can practically hear them bickering with Modigliani, demanding an extra franc for their trouble. Other pictures act as a who’s who of the Parisian cultural scene: look out for Picasso, the poet Max Jacob and the writer Beatrice Hastings (another of AM’s GFs).

 And there’s the rub: Modigliani feels trapped in his own story. The VR stuff is fun but it detracts from what’s important. Let’s not forget that his milieu was one of war, turmoil, poverty and disease, and he himself was an alcoholic, self-destructive bully. Coating all that in a vie boheme nostalgia is a little icky. A lot of the paintings, with their absent faces and unseeing eyes, are surprisingly mournful. A sense of death hovers around them: you really get the sense that Modigliani knew he was living on borrowed time. If only the Tate hadn’t entombed him in the past.

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