Why have you given me only one eye?” demanded a Modigliani sitter. “With one eye you are looking at the outside world. With the other you are looking within yourself,” replied the artist. That interiority of being was what the scores of pioneering artists who converged on Paris between 1900 and 1920 all sought. “I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me,” said Matisse – licensing fauvist colour, cubist fragmentation, expressionist distortion: every form of early modernism that demanded an art of felt experience.

Apart from them all stood the portraits and nudes of the Italian Jew Amedeo Modigliani. Indisputably modern in look and tone, his girls have cropped hair, sharp, Vile Bodies-like features, serpentine dresses and a primitivist sexuality recalling the African statuaries that similarly inspired Picasso. Yet Modigliani’s long-necked figures are also deeply classical, bound in their sinuous lines and elongated forms to the Italian quattrocento at a time when painters everywhere were rejecting western traditions. Straddling the generation between the fin de siècle and the classicising epoch of art deco, Modigliani was an original who got scant recognition in his lifetime: his only exhibition, at Berthe Weill’s chic Paris gallery in 1917, was forcibly shut before it had even opened when a passing policeman noticed the nudes in the window had pubic hair and called in his colleagues to remove the lot. “What an idyll,” wrote Weill, “each policeman in the squad with a naked Modigliani beauty in his arms.”

Now, for the first time in 40 years, a host of naked Modigliani beauties are in London, and still they hold the show at the Royal Academy’s Modigliani and His Models. Along with the greatest British Modigliani, the Courtauld’s rapt, sublime, apricot-skinned “Female Nude”, here are the privately owned “Reclining Nude with Her Right Arm under Her Head”, depicting Modigliani’s last lover, auburn-haired Jeanne Hébuterne, “Reclining Nude on Red Couch”, “Reclining Nude with Outstretched Arms”, the Guggenheim’s “Nude” and the Museum of Modern Art’s late “Reclining Nude”. Each model throws arms ecstatically behind her head, legs are cropped at mid-thigh and bodies appear to tilt daringly out of the picture, with all the sensuous languor of Giorgione’s or Titian’s nude goddesses. Such overt, uncomplicated eroticism is unique in modernism. How did Modigliani achieve it?

Both the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris and New York’s Jewish Museum have recently had large retrospectives, which attempted to answer this question with emphasis on Modigliani as a painterly radical and on his Italian or Sephardic roots. At the Royal Academy, by contrast, the nudes steal a much smaller show by subterfuge. Modigliani and His Models is typically British in its anecdotal focus, exploring Modigliani’s short career – the first works here date from 1913 and by January 1920 the tubercular artist had drunk himself to death – through a narrative detailing the people he painted. It makes a moving, lively story, for Modigliani was both a shrewd psychologist and emotionally volatile. Pose and features of his lover Beatrice Hastings, with whom he had a publicly tempestuous relationship, are fraught, uneasy, angular. A rival young artist, the cubist Juan Gris, has a thrusting, intelligent expression on a face composed of disjointed geometric blocks – almost a satire. The pull between self-assurance and nonchalant geniality in the portrait of the dealer Paul Guillaume, with his sinister dead eye, compels in its impression of complicity between painter and patron.

Lining the walls of the Sackler Gallery’s three long rooms, as in an old-fashioned portrait gallery, these unyielding modern types glint at you from all sides – yet how little their portraits are to do with character in the traditional 19th-century sense. How mesmerisingly they convey instead the 20th-century fixation on consciousness itself. Personality is subsumed within the formal pictorial vocabulary to which the artist made every model conform. Until dust destroyed his lungs, Modigliani was a sculptor. He carried over the attenuated forms and stylised features of his elongated limestone heads, and the flat linear drawings he made for them, in his first, hieratically simple paintings, such as “Caryatid” and “Large Red Bust”.

These open the show and are the bare bones on which Modigliani hung the flesh of his mature work – essentially monochrome portraits that stand alone like sculptures in an even,
shadowless light, with neither setting nor props. As with Italian Renaissance works, their distancing effect invites you to penetrate beyond the surface to an inner secret, the self-absorption being suggested especially by the expressive almond eyes. Often these are blank, or painted in a single colour, and pull you to the heart of the painting – in the portraits of “Leopold Zborowski”, Modigliani’s far-sighted, thoughtful supporter, for example, or his friend “Luna Czerchowska”, whose hard-won tranquillity and seriousness he captures, placing her against a backcloth of furious red brushstrokes.

By then Modigliani, addicted to a cocktail of drink and drugs, was so ill that Zborowski arranged for him and Jeanne Hébuterne to move to the Côte d’Azur. Here even the monochromatic Modigliani could not resist letting the colour, and Cézanne’s blue tonality, as well as a French severity and stillness, shape the portraits of peasants and maids such as “La belle épicière”, “The Boy (Youth in Blue Jacket)” and “The Little Peasant”, which he made, in the absence of his Parisian friends as
models, in the south. “Like Cézanne’s figures, they want to express nothing but a mute affirmation of life,” explained Modigliani.

In portraits of Jeanne from this period, Modigliani fuses melancholic detachment and withdrawal with lyricism and tenderness; these works are exceptionally affecting. The two greatest here – the Metropolitan Museum in New York’s simplified portrait, with Jeanne draped in a white shift and her eyes little more than blue slits, and the Merzbacher collection’s “Jeanne Hébuterne sitting”, in which the muted greens, ochres and russets of her dress and body are echoed in a harmonious background – show her pregnant; her delicate, passive face, suffused with light as in an icon, has a Madonna-like sadness and resignation, as if she foresaw a tragic future.

Shortly after they were painted, the 35-year-old Modigliani burst into vibrant colour in his final work, São Paulo’s luminous “Self-portrait”. Wearing a thick-piled crimson coat, he holds a dazzling palette; his head, outlined against a gold background, turns towards us, eyes blank, emaciated features suggesting a death mask – but also that transcendence of youth and art that has always constituted his legend. He called himself “an angel with a grave face” but took the nickname “Modi”, (“maudit” – damned – in French), and this portrait calls to mind centuries of doomed, beautiful young artists, from Keats to Kurt Cobain.

Two days after her lover’s death, Jeanne, nine months pregnant, threw herself from a fifth-floor window, adding to the myth of Modigliani as not only a frenzied modernist but also, as
this show unravels, a too-late

‘Modigliani and His Models’ is at the Royal Academy, London, from July 8 to October 15. Tel 870 8488484

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