Saturday, December 17, 2016

Amedeo Modigliani (an exhibition at Ateneum)

Amedeo Modigliani: Head of a Woman (1911). Musée National d’Art Moderne / Centre de création industrielle – Centre Pompidou, Paris. © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Philippe Migeat. – Please do click on the images to enlarge them!

Amedeo Modigliani: Reclining Nude with Loose Hair (1917). Osaka City Museum of Modern Art, Japan. Photo: Osaka City Museum of Modern Art.

Amedeo Modigliani: Portrait of the Artist Léopold Survage (1918). Finnish National Gallery/Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen.

Amedeo Modigliani: Maternity (1919). Musée national d’art moderne / Centre de création industrielle, deposited in LaM, Lille métropole musée d’art moderne, d’art contemporain et d’art brut, Villeneuve d’Ascq, Donation of Geneviève and Jean Masurel in 1979. Photo: Philip Bernard.
Man Ray: Amedeo Modigliani's death mask (1929). Musée National d’Art Moderne / Centre de création industrielle – Centre Pompidou, Paris. © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Guy Carrard. © Man Ray Trust / Kuvasto 2016

Amedeo Modigliani. An exhibition at Ateneum / Finnish National Gallery, 28 Oct 2016–5 Feb 2017
    The Helsinki leg of a touring exhibition previously seen in Lille and Budapest.
    The international book to the touring exhibition:
    Amedeo Modigliani: The Inner Eye. [Editors n.c.]. Contributors: Damien Castelain, Sophie Lévy, Jeanne-Bathilde Lacourt, Marie-Amélie Senot, Kenneth Wayne, Marc Décimo, Sophie Krebs, Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel, Stéphanie Verdavaine. Printed in Belgium on the presses of Geers Offset, Ghent. Paris: Editions Gallimard / LaM [Lille Métropole d'Art Moderne, d'Art Contemporain et d'Art Brut], 2016.
    The Finnish book to the exhibition:
    Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff (ed.): Amedeo Modigliani. Contibutors: Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, Timo Huusko. Ateneumin julkaisut n:o 85. Printed at Premedia Helsinki. Published in two editions: Finnish and Swedish. Helsinki: Kansallisgalleria / Ateneumin taidemuseo, 2016.
    Visited on 5 Nov 2016 and 17 Dec 2016.

From the official press introduction: "An exhibition of the work of the painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920) opens at the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki, Finland, on Friday 28 October 2016. The exhibition, which was on display in Lille and Budapest prior to Helsinki, will present the multifaceted life and work of the Italian artist. Modigliani, who died on the verge of fame at the early age of 35, is one of the most interesting artists in modern art today. The works on display constitute the largest Modigliani retrospective in the Nordic countries to date."

"The Ateneum collection includes what is presumably the only Finnish-owned Modigliani oil painting, Portrait of the Artist Léopold Survage (1918). When the Modigliani exhibition was being put together, a letter sent by Léopold Survage to the Ateneum in 1956 was discovered in the museum archives, in which he describes the circumstances around the painting's creation and its provenance. The correspondence was related to the acquisition of the Modigliani piece and its inclusion in the Ateneum collection in 1955. The letter presents new information on Modigliani for international research. Léopold Survage (1879–1968) was one of Modigliani's closest artist friends."

"Amedeo Modigliani is known particularly for his sensuous portrayals of women. This top international exhibition will provide an opportunity to explore Modigliani's diverse work, and his life in the Montparnasse district, which was the centre of artistic life in Paris in the early part of the 20th century. Modigliani wanted to use his sculptures and paintings to create a new kind of aesthetic that would bring together art from different eras and continents. His fascinating portraits, mystical sculptures, and sensuous nudes present a picture of an international, ambitious and educated artist."

"The inner circle of the charismatic Modigliani included painters, sculptors, writers, poets and composers. Modigliani's lady friends – the poet Anna Akhmatova, the art critic Beatrice Hastings, and the art student Jeanne Hébuterne – also played a significant role in his art and life. The exhibition will also feature works by Modigliani's artist friends, such as Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brâncuși. A total of 83 paintings, sculptures and paper-based works will be on display."

"The exhibition coincides with the publication of a book that presents Modigliani's art and his eventful life. The work is the first Finnish-language publication on the artist in decades. The book will also be available in Swedish. An English-language exhibition catalogue, specifically produced for the touring exhibition, will also be for sale at the Ateneum."

"The exhibition has been produced by La Réunion des Musées Nationaux (RMN) / Grand Palais, and the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art, in association with the Hungarian National Gallery / Museum of Fine Arts Budapest, and the Ateneum Art Museum. The chief curator of the Modigliani exhibition is Sophie Lévy, who previously worked as the director of the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art. The other curators of the exhibition are Jeanne-Bathilde Lacourt and Marie-Amélie Senot. The chief curators Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff and Timo Huusko are responsible for the exhibition at the Ateneum end.

AA: All autumn Amedeo Modigliani has been drawing big crowds to Ateneum, the Finnish National Gallery. The touring exhibition is based on the collections of the Lille Métropole d'Art Moderne; their holdings, in turn, based on a donation by Geneviève and Jean Masurel, heirs to the Roger Dutilleul collection. This is the largest Modigliani exhibition seen in the Nordic countries, and at least a half of the visitors are from abroad.

The winter solstice is drawing near – the darkest time of the year, when the sun shines for only six hours, even then crawling next to the horizon –, and Modigliani is perfect colour therapy. One of the most profound elements of his art is the Mediterranean glow of the sun. Many Modigliani paintings bathe in warm colour. I like to get next to them in the exhibition, to feel the heat. I carry the exhibition books with me and compare the colour worlds. The books fail to convey Modigliani's fire.

The selection is selective but representative, covering the range of Modigliani's quest. We see his sketches, drawings, sculptures, portraits, and nudes. His Jewish context and his influences in ancient and African art are covered. There are displays of the Parisian art milieu of his age.

The chief curator Sophie Lévy and the curators Jeanne-Bathilde Lacourt and Marie-Amélie Seno quote three aspects that have guided their selection. They want to explore how an artist with a classical heritage creates universal beauty by drawing on ancient and non-Western art. They want to question the received image of the marginalized loner in discovering Modigliani's rich cultural milieu. And they want to give a special focus on the role of Roger Dutilleul in the recognition of "Modi the Maudit".

In his art Modigliani aspired at the universal. At the same time he was proud of his Jewish identity, having grown in a loving Sephardi family and community in Livorno. Modigliani made a point of signing not only his own name but also the names of his Jewish sitters in his portraits, including those of Max Jacob, Moïse Kisling, Chaïm Soutine, Jacques Lipschitz, and Henri Epstein (who would die in Auschwitz in 1944). A special feature of the exhibition is a display of paintings of Modigliani's Jewish fellow artists such as Kisling and Soutine.

Modigliani belonged to the first significant generation of Jewish fine artists. There had been single masters such as Mark Antokolsky in Russia and Camille Pissarro in France, but never before a full generation. The true history of Jewish fine arts starts in the 19th century, and the bloom starts in the 20th. The background to such a delay is in the Biblical image ban in the Ten Commandments the First or the Second, depending on the edition. It has been argued that American Abstract Expressionism after WWII is not in conflict with the image ban since the paintings are not figurative, not representational of concrete reality.

Modigliani's art was always figurative and representational, but never in a straightforwardly realistic way. The depiction is reduced. The form is stylized. The figures are elongated. There is a sense of something broken. The affinity to ancient images is evident. Like in sculpture, eyes are often merely indicated also in paintings. The other eye may be empty: one eye is the exterior one, the other is the inner eye.

We are remembering the centenary of the First World War. On Sunday, 18 December, we have the centenary of the end of the Battle of Verdun of 1916, the second bloodiest battle in history, only surpassed by the Battle of Stalingrad. Over 700.000 died in the meaningless massacre of Verdun.

In the history of art, WWI meant the end of the Belle Époque. Modernist trends that had started in the 19th century became dominant. As an artist working in the figurative and representational continuum, Modigliani was not among the leading Modernists, but his oeuvre is relevant from viewpoints of Symbolism, Expressionism, Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. He was among the artists that were included in the Cabaret Voltaire ensemble in 1916, a hundred years ago. There is a sense of a volcanic force about to erupt in many of his works. At the same time there is a sense of the atavistic in his reverence of the bold stylization of classical and ancient art. In Modigliani's late work there is a unique synthesis of the starkly reduced form and a sensitivity to the telling individual detail. All basking in glorious, often warm, colour.

A hundred years ago Modigliani embarked on his cycle of nudes of which he painted several dozen during 19161919, commissioned by his dealer Léopold Zborowski. They brought him a certain notoriety as the police asked them to remove the nudes from the storefront of Modigliani's only solo exhibition. Although highly reduced and stylized, Modigliani's nudes often displayed pubic hair, rarely seen in classical art. Modigliani's nudes were far from obscene. Rather, Modigliani's faith was the same as Rodin's: in art, everything is sacred.

What was obscene was the skyrocketing of the market value of Modigliani as soon as he was dead. There is a true mystery in Modigliani like in Van Gogh. Both failed to receive decent financial compensation for their works during their lifetimes. The market value of both spiralled to surreal heights after their deaths.

Modigliani's idiosyncratic and reduced style is easy to imitate. Elmyr de Hory created dozens of "new Modiglianis" in the master's style, appreciated by experts until de Hory was exposed. There has also been the Christian Parisot affair. In 2015, Modigliani's Nu couché Paris 1917 was sold at Christie's US at over 170 million dollars. Sums like that make it easy to understand the temptation of Modigliani for forgers and swindlers. (Elmyr de Hory was not necessarily a forger, but he was a swindler because he did not sign his works in his own name).

As a teenager Modigliani caught tuberculosis, then the leading cause of death. During his short life he was always aware of its brevity. He worked and lived like in a fever. He was an alcoholic and a drug addict or he pretended to be so to lead people's attention away from his TB. He was not a recluse. When he died there was an enormous funeral of mourners.

He pretended to be a corrupt primitive, but he was a deeply cultured man who knew by heart passages or whole works by Dante, Nietzsche, and Comte de Lautréamont, among many others. His closest friends included the poets Anna Akhmatova and Beatrice Hastings.

Film-relevant: I am fond of Jacques Becker's Montparnasse 19 / Les Amants de Montparnasse (1958) starring Gérard Philipe (Modigliani), Anouk Aimée (Jeanne Hébuterne), Lilli Palmer (Beatrice Hastings) – and Lino Ventura as the art dealer just waiting in the background for Modigliani's death, after which he knows his market value will explode. Many things may be wrong in this movie, but Becker had a strong sense of the death drive. (Max Ophuls, the original director, had just died. Philipe would die next year, and Becker the year after that. They lived the part.).

Film-relevant also: on display is also Modigliani's portrait of Gaston Modot (1918) which I last saw at Centre Pompidou two years ago; I believe it had then been recently rediscovered for the public view. Gaston Modot (1887–1970) was, among other things, an acteur-fétiche of the French cinema from 1909 until 1964, starring in Luis Buñuel's L'Age d'Or and Jean Renoir's La Règle du jeu, among some 330 other films. He was a comic talent who portrayed a "stubborn kind of fellow" for those two masters.

Both books to the exhibition are worthwhile. The international book to the touring show includes illustrations of many works which are not exhibited at Ateneum. On the other hand, we see at Ateneum works that are not included among the illustrations of the international book, but illustrations of those works appear in the Finnish book. The international book is eminently readable, and a favourite chapter of mine is Marc Décimo's "Modigliani: Modern Man of Letters".

The Finnish Modigliani book is an introduction for the general audience, but it also has an article of expert interest: Timo Huusko on the portrait of Léopold Survage (1918), presumably the only Modigliani painting in a Finnish holding. The portrait dates from the same year and has the same approach as the Gaston Modot portrait, by the way. I had been under the impression that Survage was born in Finland, at Lappeenranta (Villmanstrand), during Finland's years as a part of the Russian Empire. Even on the frame of that painting there is the writing "Le peintre finlandais Survage", but it turns out that only Survage's grandfather had been born in Lappeenranta, and Survage just performed his military service there. In 1918 Modigliani also painted the portrait of a woman whom Survage would meet three years later and who would become his wife Germaine Survage. That painting is also displayed at Ateneum.

The illustrations in the book look lovely, but they literally pale in comparison with the originals. The colours in the books are dimmer or paler or both.

P.S. 30 Dec 2016. Modigliani belongs to the most recognizable artists because of his unique signature style. But not all works on display are truly great, including the big nude poster shot (see above). There is a touch of the decorative and the commercial, although, tragically, Modigliani himself never got to enjoy the financial success of his art.

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