This is Tate’s Big One for the autumn/winter season. Alexei Modigliani is a favourite with the public, probably because he represents everything an artist living in Paris at the time of Picasso should be.  He ticks all the boxes: often penniless and sometimes starving, he adopted the role of the tragic bohemian figure, unrecognised and misunderstood during his short life, handsome, pugnacious, promiscuous, an alcoholic and drug addict, wracked with tuberculosis and dying desperately young.

This exhibition brings together 100 works, forty of which have never been shown before in the UK. It is also the largest show devoted to the Italian artist ever assembled in Britain, with portraits, sculptures and a large series of nudes. In post-Dreyfus France, he would introduce himself as ‘I am Modigliani, painter and Jew,’ as though to underline his role as a double outsider. When he first arrived in Paris with a modest amount of money from an uncle, he rented a studio near Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre, where he mingled with such artists as Picasso, André Derain, Francis Picabia, Juan Gris and Kees van Dongen, the Fauvist painter, whose influence can be seen in some of his early portraits. Still in search of a style of his own, he saw two retrospectives that greatly impressed the twenty-two year-old: Paul Gauguin at the Salon d’Automne in 1906 and Paul Cézanne in 1907, of which The Beggar of Leghorn and The Cellist, painted two years later, are good examples. Picasso introduced him to the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncusi, who he admired greatly and who, turn, encouraged him to take up sculpture.

These elongated heads owe as much to Brancusi as they do to ‘primitive’ art from Africa, Egypt and Oceania, which was all the rage in and around the first decade of the Twentieth century.Geometric, tapering features, punctuated with half-moons and circles lend both serenity and elegance to these strangely attractive sloe-eyed, mask-like faces. Jacob Epstein, visited him in Paris, as did Augustus John, who purchased two heads, which paid for a trip back to his family in Livorno. Included in the exhibition are a number of drawn and painted caryatids, both angular and voluptuous, but the main thrust in the show is his series of nudes, some reclining, others sitting, but all sensual, alluring and deeply erotic. Some are professional models, others probably mesdames de la nuit, and his mistresses, including Jeanne Hébuterne, an eccentric Welsh woman Nina Hamnett and Beatrice Hastings, the feisty South African-born English poet and journalist. They were all thoroughly modern girls, from their hairdos to their make-up. Nudity had been common currency in art for centuries, but the depiction of female body hair, particularly pubic hair, was not, and his first and only solo show, at the Galerie Berthe Weill in Rue Taitbout just off Rue La Fayette, was closed by the police on the grounds of indecency. Some of his finest portraits are of his friends and dealers, including Paul Guillaume, whose sculpted baby-faced features appear in several paintings, and his dealer and patron, Léopold Zborowski, who looked after him when his health declined and arranged for him and Hébuterne to go to the French Riviera. He also arranged for nine of his paintings and some 50 drawings to be included in the Exhibition of French Art 1914-1919 at the Mansard Gallery in London, alongside Derain, Matisse, Picasso, Utrillo and Vlaminck.

Earlier, he shared a studio with Diego Rivera, of whom there is a powerful portrait in the exhibition, as there are of Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso, Moïse Kisling, two of the poet Max Jacob, and a fine, angular, Soutine-like portrait of Jean Cocteau. He was not called up for military service when war broke out due to ailing health, but stayed in Paris. He ended his relationship with Hastings, started another with a Canadian, Simone Thiroux, with whom he had a child, but refused to acknowledge paternity, then met and fell in love with a nineteen year-old art student Jeanne Hébuterne, who gave birth to his daughter in Nice. When he returned to Paris in May 1919, Jeanne was pregnant again, but Modigliani was becoming seriously ill and in January the following year, he died of tubercular meningitis. Jeanne, nine months pregnant was distraught and killed herself by throwing herself out of a fifth floor window. He did not quite die in the romantic bohemian tradition, alone and unloved. Large crowds gathered as his coffin passed and mourners at his funeral included Picasso, Brancusi, Chaim Soutine, Fernande Léger, Gino Severini, Maurice Utrillo, André Derain and Jacques Lipchitz.

At £25, the exhibition catalogue is an excellent buy with well-written essays appraising this important and influential artist, and numerous illustrations and a thorough chronological timeline. As a diversion in the Exhibition, there is a simple 8-minute virtual reality ‘experience’, entitled The Ochre Atelier, depicting his untidy studio, with a cigarette burning in an ash-tray, paints, brushes, his palette and easel, a bucket on the floor catching drops of rain, and, out of the window, smoking chimneys over les toits de Paris. Charmant.

Tate Modern

Until 2 April 2018

Admission £19.70

About author