‘What an idyll,’ sighed gallery owner Berthe Weill over the censorship of Modigliani’s only solo exhibition in Paris, on Rue Taitbout in 1917. ‘Each policeman in the squad with a naked Modigliani beauty in his arms.’ Today, only a few outraged officer’s steps from the scene of the crime, the Pinacothèque has hung a (fully dressed) Modigliani damsel on the Place de la Madeleine to entice visitors to view the collection of Jonas Netter; a shy and retiring character whose patronage encouraged some of the most explosive talents in Paris in the early 20th century.
From the neoclassical Madeleine, you slip into side streets stamped with pink neon: sex shops, erotic libraries, peep shows. It seems a fitting locale for this celebration of a brilliant and flawed era of painting and patronage, nestled somewhere between Paris’s chic outer costume and its frilly garter belt. Netter wasn’t a born collector like the Rothschilds or the Steins, nor was he a fabulously wealthy member of the nouveaux riches. He couldn’t afford the well-known Impressionist works he so admired; instead he went underground, seeking out striking – and cheaper – canvases through emerging dealers and galleries. And so, largely through Polish dealer Leopold Zborowski, Netter became the patron of artists who really thrilled him – Utrillo, Soutine, Kisling and of course Modigliani, as well as tens of other lesser-known names.
This is the glut of talent on display at the Pinacothèque – uneven, sure, but with enough brilliance to fascinate even visitors who are only there for the big names. Here, a sleek portrait of Modigliani’s tragic wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, there one of his delicate caryatids. There are luscious Soutine canvases, whose dead hares or wild-eyed sitters glow with an unearthly vibrancy, and precise, detailed Utrillo Parisian street scenes. Even a dour and claustrophobic canvas by Jeanne herself, who jumped from a window the day after Modigliani died of tubercular meningitis, killing herself and her unborn child.
The Pinacothèque is a strangely utilitarian space, with low dark ceilings, the walls of the first room painted a distressing off yellow hue. But the world of these painters shines through. From Modigliani’s charming, desperate letters begging for money, to the works that came out of Roaring Twenties Paris after his death – a fantastical merry-go-round where painting and writing were as essential to life as smoking, drinking, heroin and cocaine – this is both a formidable collection and an electric record of a turbulent and thrilling time for Parisian art.
A free exhibition guide is available in English from the information desk.