Rats' teeth and empty eyes
06-08-06 Adrian Searle
* Nude by Amedeo Modigliani, 1917
Is Modigliani really anything more than a caricaturist?
I cannot like Amedeo Modigliani, whom I rarely think about; when I do, he only irritates me. Confronted by his work, I find myself moving on to something else as quickly as I can. He's like an unfortunate acquaintance one can never entirely shrug off.
Drunken, ranting and stoned on one thing or another - add hash, coke, ether and opium to the alcohol -Modigliani, the archetypal cursed artist, the peintre maudit, rattled round Paris, between studios, salons, bars and lovers from 1906, when he arrived from Livorno, until his death, from tubercular meningitis, in 1920. Oh God, here comes Modi, you can hear half Paris muttering as he hove into view. The other half swooned. He was a Martin Kippenberger of his time, but with less talent, fewer ideas. He must have had something, though: a charmer then, brooding and handsome, an exotic Italian Sephardic Jew, a seducer who could quote Dante. He is still seductive; how else to account for his enduring popularity?
After the long necks, the oval faces, the out-of-kilter almond-shaped eyes and the pinched, pursed lips of his subjects, what is there to be said about Modigliani's work? For a start, there are the nasty little rats' teeth that sometimes peek from between those lips. There are the often unhappily planted noses - sometimes graphic and schematic, sometimes as sculptural as the keel of a boat - and that offhand way he has with the tamed and tweezered eyebrows he always drew; the funny little cursive bump he does to delineate a chin.
The eyes in Modigliani's paintings are unfailingly odd. Whenever he paints the lashes, the eyes end up looking as if they've been stitched to the face. Other eyes are blank holes with no pupils, which make his figures look hollow ( I think they're meant to be inward-looking, deep, poetic and mysterious), or as if they're being peered through from behind, like masks.
In one 1918 portrait of his last lover, Jeanne Hébuterne, the disjunction between the face and the eyes is so strong it looks as though a figure painted by Picabia is hiding behind the sitter, and looking back at Modigliani. Eyes with a squint, slanting eyes, blind eyes and dead eyes, little piggy eyes, empty eyes, bedroom eyes - the eyes are arresting.
Somehow they also give his game away. Modigliani mistook caricature for character. And a caricaturist, albeit an extremely limited one, is perhaps what he always was, although what he ended up being was a painter of types - implacable seated women, wanton or sleeping nudes, drinking buddies and collectors. I try hard but am unable to discover much about his subjects from his paintings.
He painted one lover, Beatrice Hastings, 14 times. Hastings also had affairs with Ezra Pound and Katherine Mansfield, and briefer encounters with André Breton, Picasso and Wyndham Lewis, among others. She carved notches on the headboard to keep a tally of her lovers. A journalist and unfairly neglected novelist, she gassed herself, along with her pet mouse, in 1943. But knowing all this doesn't get us far when it comes to Modigliani's portraits of her. Intriguing biographical back-stories don't make Modiglianis any better as paintings. Towards the end of the first world war Modigliani travelled south with Hébuterne, and painted anonymous peasants and servants. The only full-length portrait in the show, of a servant girl, has a stillness and presence so many other of his paintings lack. These tender depictions of nameless young men and women are deeply indebted to Cézanne, yet they have an unexpected dignity. Modigliani's contemporaneous portraits of friends, painted in his elongated, faux-Renaissance style, strike one as Modiglianis first, real people second, if at all.
It is as difficult to see the artist himself as a real person. Modigliani wanders in and out of biographies of Picasso and Matisse, tolerated but never seeming entirely welcome. Yet there Modigliani was, hanging out with Picasso and Juan Gris, Brancusi, Max Jacob and Apollinaire, Jacob Epstein, Jean Cocteau. Did they admire him, or was he merely humoured? Picasso painted over one canvas he bought from Modigliani, although he bought another that he kept until his death.
The critic André Salmon, one of Modigliani's sitters, said that Modigliani was "the sole painter of women from life". Emily Braun, writing in the current catalogue, says that "the most startling aspect of a Modigliani nude, what makes it immediately identifiable, is the way in which the female body is literally in your face". Surely, a Modigliani nude is neither "literally" in anyone's face, nor is this what makes one of his nudes "immediately identifiable". I recognise Modigliani's paintings, whether they are portraits or nudes, the only two subjects he had, because of their stylisations. A Modigliani doesn't need to be in your face: his art is instantly recognisable, however far away you stand.
Nor is the flesh in Modigliani all that fleshy. A Modigliani nude always wears its colour like a fake tan. Real light never falls on a Modigliani nude; they all have that same orangey inner glow, the same softened shadows, the same smoothed, easy-on-the-eye pin-up physicality.
Little wonder the Californian artist Mel Ramos did a whole series of vaguely art-historical babes called You Get More Salami With Modigliani. There's nothing much in a Modigliani nude to hold anyone's gaze, male or otherwise, for long. They are a sort of porn-lite decor. Looking at the great nudes of Picasso and Matisse (think of Matisse's Pink Nude of 1933) one is struck by the way these artists were interested in form. There is so much variety and inventiveness and curiosity in their manipulation of their real or imagined models, compared with Modigliani's. "What is truly obscene," writes Braun, "is that Modigliani painted such gorgeous female bodies, whole and sensual, flushed rose by the vitality of a beating heart and pumping arteries, while several miles away the limbs of men were being blown to bits." This, I think is hyperbole. What is obscene is that two days after Modigliani's death, the pregnant Hébuterne leapt from an upstairs window, killing herself and the child she was carrying.
For all his druggy wildness, Modigliani is an unpleasantly meek and bland artist. Looking closely at his nudes, there is little evidence of adjustment, much less radical reworking. What goes down onto the canvas stays, by and large, where it is put. Only at the frontiers between the bodies of his nudes and the spaces and things that surround them, is there a sense of a body actually inhabiting space. This is where things could get sexy and dangerous, but they don't. Nor does his brush traverse the body in an interesting way. His nudes are ciphers.
You can take it that I'm pretty much immune to Modigliani. Perhaps I am missing something, and Modigliani and His Models, his first major show in the UK for over 40 years, is a long-awaited corrective to all the cliches about an artist who was, himself, something of a purveyor of cliches. But it doesn't wash, in the end. As much as Modigliani is always his own, limited self, he also looks like a pasticheur, of the artists he looked at and admired. He went some way to make their lessons his own, but he was less than the sum of his influences, which run from Botticelli, Pontormo and Titian to Cézanne, Gauguin and Picasso. Without Picasso's example, without all the sex and drugs and drink, what would we be left with? The best we can say is that without Modigliani, no Beryl Cooke. Modigliani has been called "a superb draughtsman", but he did very little with it. There's a thinness and overweening graphic ease about his talent.
He didn't really develop much. He had a "way" and that was it. Unlike, say, the abstract expressionist Arshile Gorky, who said, about his early career that "first I was with Cézanne, and now, naturally, I am with Picasso", and who was, in Robert Storr's phrase, "both the real thing and the perfect simulacrum of the creative genius". Gorky managed to make something vital from his sources; Modigliani added very little.
The drugs - which his patron, the dermatologist Paul Alexandre, encouraged him to take in the belief that they could unlock the artist's creativity - cannot have helped. Even William Burroughs said he couldn't write on drugs, and Francis Bacon could rarely work productively when he was drunk. Picasso's opiated evenings during the blue and rose periods, before Modigliani arrived in Paris, may have provided him with imagery, but even Picasso couldn't work in a stupor. Cocaine never did the YBAs any good. Hashish, in my experience, makes you perceive the world with a heightened and erroneous sense of detail, and robs you of the ability to connect the details into a coherent whole. Drugs did Modigliani no favours. He became, I think, seduced and captivated by what talent he had - a very dangerous and narcissistic place to be.
· Modigliani and His Models runs from Saturday until October 15, Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 Details: 020-7300 8000;
First published at