Modigliani

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani (1884-1920) was an Italian painter, sculptor and draughtsman who spent the majority of his working career in Paris. Almost a century after his death, the Tate Modern in London is holding the biggest display of Modigliani’s work in the UK to date, looking back at the artist’s productive, albeit brief, life. With over 100 artworks produced in Modigliani’s distinctive style, this exhibition contains some of the professed most memorable artworks of the 20th century.

“The life of Modigliani, wandering artist, so often resembles a legend, it is difficult to determine fact from fiction.”

-Arthur Pfannstiel, 1929

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Photo: Modigliani

Modigliani died at the age of 35 after a fourteen-year career as an artist. Due to his early demise and his rumoured lifestyle, there has been a lot of incorrect speculation about his character. He was deemed as socially unconventional and earned a reputation as the archetypal romantic painter, starving in a cramped living space, whilst falling victim to alcohol and drugs. Within this exhibition, the Tate Modern attempts to biographically outline his life alongside his intense and controversial artwork.

Born into a Sephardic Jewish family in Livorno, Italy, Modigliani was a rather sickly child, suffering from a handful of illnesses, including Tuberculosis. His mother, at risk of spoiling her son, encouraged his passion for art, which led to him receiving a years education at Micheli’s Art School in 1898, run by the local artist Guglielmo Micheli (1866-1926). This was Modigliani’s first form of artistic instruction, which, naturally given the school’s location, focused on the study of techniques and themes of Italian Renaissance art. Although Modigliani would quickly develop his own style, evidence of his former training can be seen in his paintings, for example, the linear grace of his work resembles that of Botticelli (1445-1510), whereas, his focus on reclining nudes may have stemmed from Titian (1488-1576), who was one of the first artists to produce paintings of this nature.

Modigliani’s personal style began developing almost simultaneously with his move to Paris in 1906. Penniless, Modigliani settled in a commune in Montmartre, where he absorbed ideas from other artists in the area. He was particularly influenced by works he saw by the late Cézanne, adopting the simplicity of loose brushstrokes and method of colour handling. Modigliani is a significant example of the way exposure to new people and places affect artists.

Evidence of Modigliani’s impoverished lifestyle can be seen at the beginning of the exhibition. On more than one occasion, he used both sides of the canvas for different paintings, implying that he did not have enough money to afford new canvases. An example is The Cellist (1909), which contains Portrait of Constantin Brancusi (1909) on its reverse. In other works, ghostly faces can be seen through the bright paint as a result of Modigliani reusing old canvases.

 

Between 1911 and 1913, Modigliani put painting aside in favour of sculpture. At least two dozen were produced within this time period, several of  whichthe Tate Modern has on display. At this time in France, European artists were drawn to museums containing a wide range of historic art and antiquities, particularly from ancient civilisations in Africa. The Egyptian style was a particular favourite of Modigliani, which he replicated in his own carved heads by mimicking the clean lines and elongated facial features.

 

It is thought that Modigliani stole blocks of limestone from building sites to use for his sculptures. It was a far more expensive pursuit than painting, which may be one reason why he abandoned the project. Another reason may have been the outbreak of World War One, which would have restricted his access to materials, but, the most likely explanation for returning to painting was the effect the dust from the carved limestone was having on his weakened lungs. However, these few years spent sculpting brought a new dimension to his artwork.

The distinctive style of portraiture that Modigliani has become recognised for encompasses many of the elements that featured in his sculptures. Rather than painting the sitter as he saw him or her, Modigliani altered their appearances with swan-like necks and almond-shaped eyes. He often left the eyes blank with no discernible iris or pupil. Although not intentional, this makes the portraits look unnerving, like creatures out of a Doctor Who episode.

 

In 1916, Modigliani became friends with the art dealer Léopold Zborowski (1889-1932) and his wife Anna (1885-1978) – both of their portraits are part of this exhibition. Zborowski encouraged Modigliani to go down a new route: painting the female nude. Painting the naked body was nothing new in the art world, however, the way in which Modigliani approached it caused some controversy amongst art patrons.

The models who posed for these paintings dominated the canvas, often making direct eye-contact with the viewer. This indicates the changes occurring in the lives of women at the beginning of the 20th century. Women were more independent and had more say about their bodies. To further emphasise the point, Modigliani went against tradition and included pubic hair in his compositions, showing the true female form and not the idealised male preference. Unfortunately, these paintings were censored by a police commissioner on the grounds of indecency. Twelve of these nudes have been located and loaned to the Tate Modern.

As the exhibition nears its end, visitors see some of the works produced within Modigliani’s final years. As well as this, the exhibition narrative takes a more personal tone, revealing the more private life of the painter. Modigliani travelled to Nice in 1918 to avoid the end of the war and to alleviate his worsening health problems. With him came his pregnant partner, Jeanne Hébuterne (1898-1920) who bore him a daughter of the same name (1918-84). Jeanne became the principal subject of his artwork, however, whilst in the French Riviera, he painted local children and friends, opting for warm Mediterranean colours. Arguably, these are some of his strongest works.

 

The quality of Modigliani’s paintings, however, are a stark contrast to the direction his life was taking. He never made much money from painting, and anything he did earn fueled his growing addiction to drugs and alcohol. Although he continued to paint, his health was deteriorating rapidly and frequently suffered alcohol-induced blackouts. None of this is evident in Modigliani’s final self-portrait. Instead, he looks like a professional, confident painter, well-dressed with paint palette in hand. His dapper appearance initially made him seem reserved and asocial at the beginning of his career, however, his reputation changed rapidly, resulting in the rakish vagabond he ended his life as.

Destroyed by his own self-indulgence, Amedeo Modigliani died on 24th January 1920 in the Hôpital de la Charité where he spent his final days suffering from tubercular meningitis. His fiancee, who was expecting his second child, took her own life the day after his funeral, jumping out of a fifth-story window.

Art historians suggest that if Modigliani had not neglected his health, he could have lived to produce great masterpieces. Modigliani kept his illness secret claiming the symptoms were a result of his drunkenness. At that time in Paris, drunkards were tolerated but disease carriers were not.

 

When Modigliani died, he was well-known amidst the artist communities of Montmartre and Montparnasse, however, he was still unheard of throughout the rest of the world. His posthumous fame began two years later after his work featured in an exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris. This was shortly followed by the publication of a biography by André Salmon (1881-1969) titled Modigliani, sa vie et son œuvre, which introduced Modigliani to people further afield.

Modigliani has been labelled an original artist of his time who modernised figurative painting, however, it is difficult to say how good a painter he was. In comparison to the traditional form of painting, Modigliani’s work is rather poor. On the other hand, modern artists and critics were beginning to develop a taste for unconventional ideas.

Some may say Modigliani’s loose brush strokes are expressive, whereas other people may declare they look rushed. One of his sitters noted that “the portrait was finished after a few hours without him stopping for even a minute.” Others recall that he was always drawing, sometimes ten sketches in one evening. It was almost as if he was addicted to painting in the same way he was addicted to alcohol.

The Tate Modern removes the focus from each individual painting, preferring to reflect on the styles and techniques used during various periods of Modigliani’s life. Regardless of visitors’ artistic preferences, there is something interesting in learning about the artist, his influences, and what led him to paint in this manner.

To delve deeper into the artist’s past, the Tate Modern offers a virtual reality experience, for those willing to queue for half an hour, which takes individuals on a tour of Modigliani’s final studio in Paris. Another option is an audio guide which provides detailed information about specific artworks around the exhibition. The latter, however, is not included in the price of the entry fee.

At £17.70, the exhibition is rather pricey and therefore may not be worth visiting if Modigliani’s artwork is not a favourite style. For members, however, entry is free therefore nothing is lost by viewing the exhibition, and, who knows, it may be more interesting than expected. It is certainly intriguing to find out about an artist’s background, and Modigliani’s life is a heartbreaking story.

Modigliani will remain open until 2nd April 2018. Tickets can be purchased online or on arrival at the gallery. Under twelves go free with a paying adult.

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Giacometti the Obscure

 

Man Pointing 1947 by Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966

Man Pointing, 1947, Tate, London

It has been twenty years since a large display of Giacometti’s surrealist sculptures have been seen in the UK, however, the Tate Modern has reintroduced them to the public with their latest exhibition. Tracing Giacometti’s career and evidencing his interest with different materials, the gallery unveils his immediately recognisable, unique style of sculpture as well as portrait painting, some of which have never been seen before.

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) was born in a small village in the Swiss Alps where he was surrounded by paintings produced by his post-impressionist artistic father. After a brief education at the École des Arts et Métiers in Geneva, Giacometti abandoned the taught naturalistic method of sculpture in favour of experimentation. His peculiar style developed further after temporarily joining the Surrealist movement in the early 1930s.

It was after the Second World War when Giacometti finally settled on the elongated style of figures seen in the Tate Modern’s exhibition. These fragile looking sculptures suggest existentially tragedy with their emaciated appearance. This may have been influenced by Giacometti’s friendship with the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Satre.

On entering room one of the exhibition, visitors are subjected to gruesome-looking heads shaped out of clay and plaster – Giacometti’s preferred material. It is obvious from the unevenness of the sculptures that they have been moulded by hand, the pressures of the fingertips evident on the facial features. Although the subject matter is plain to see, the roughness of the texture gives the outcomes a more abstract feel. The proportions of skull and physiognomy are not aligned, resulting in a ghoulish appearance.

The human body remains Giacometti’s main focus throughout his life, moving on from the head to include the rest of the skeletal structure. His full body sculptures give off a sense of unease with their rawness and frailty. Apart from the period when Giacometti worked in miniature, his human depictions are extremely out of proportion. Often the legs are twice the length of the body, and the arms dangle down, muscle-less in an awkward fashion. The statues are painfully thin and inhuman, looking as though, were they not cast in bronze, they could easily snap in half.

Giacometti restricted himself to a minimum of means, using his hands rather than tools to shape and sculpt his figures. He had found his style and stuck to it, putting great care and effort into the work he would be remembered for. Giacometti liked to depict the rawness of reality rather than the ideals of the subconscious mind. As a result, his work is chilling and more likely to leave people cold or nauseated instead of appreciative and awed.

Although Giacometti’s skeletal figures may not be all that appealing, he was still a great influence and impressed many people. However, this was largely on account of his personality and devotion to his work, rather than his outcomes. Simone de Beauvoir, a French writer declared “Success, fame, money – Giacometti was indifferent to them all.”

There were occasions, however, when Giacometti did have to think about money as a means of living, particularly during the 1930s. During this decade, he created art with the intention to sell, focusing on decorative objects such as vases, jewellery and wall reliefs. As the Tate reveals in a cabinet in the third room of the exhibition, these commodities were dissimilar to his bronze sculptures, but still had Giacometti’s unique touch. His gritty, hand-rendered style meant each object was unique, yet, unfortunately, not particularly attractive. However, they must have appealed to someone since they were featured in both Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazine.

Despite the fact that sculpture was Giacometti’s primary technique, he also enjoyed painting. Painting was a significant part of his early life, but after moving to Paris, sculpture predominated all else. It was not until the conclusion of the Second World War that Giacometti made a welcome return to the paintbrush and easel. The final rooms of the exhibition display the portraits he produced in this latter period.

Unlike other artists, Giacometti was not interested in painting well-known people or taking commissions. Instead, he preferred to have his mother and brother sit for him, or close friends and acquaintances.

In the same way as his sculptures, Giacometti’s portraits feel raw and unfinished. His artistic style is so unique, it is easy to identify the paintings with his scultpures. The insubstatial, fragile representation of the human body is something which Giacometti portrays regardless of method or material.

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By drawing or painting, Giacometti was able to focus more on facial features and small details, something which was impractical on his wraith-like sculptures. And, although he restricted himself to a small palette, he was free to add touches of colour to his artworks.

Unlike the sculpted figures, it is possible to recognised the sitter (if you know who they are to begin with) represented on the canvas. They are also far more interesting to study. Expressive line work and range of tone add together to reveal a whole host of components to scrutinize.

The paintings, although somewhat abstract, are apprecibly more pleasant to view. Spectators are not subjected to, or repulsed by the nauseatingly skeletal framework of the figurines. Regrettably, there are a significant lack of these illustrations on display – the scultpure taking precedence.

The Tate Modern has done well to create a timeline of Alberto Giacometti’s life, from the beginning of his career until his death at the age of 65. Rather than detailing the works on display, the Tate has provided written information about different time periods and the effects the events within them had on his artistic developments.

Unfortunately, Giacometti’s distinctive techniques will not appeal to everyone; there is no beauty to be found, only intrigue at most. Unless you have a peculiar fascination with obscure scultpure, it is probably not worth paying the entry fee (unless you are a member, in which case you get in for free). This thus poses the question, how long will it be until Giacometti is forgetten about altogether?

2017: Wolfgang Tillmans

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La Palma, 2014

Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’ debut exhibition 2017 at the Tate Modern is a week away from closing but is still attracting the attention of many visitors. Although born in Remscheid, Germany in 1968, Tillmans has spent many years in the UK and became both the first photographer and the first non-British artist to win the Turner Prize in the year 2000. Most of the works displayed at the Tate today, however, are from 2003 onwards.

Although the exhibited photographs span the past 14 years, 2017 is not a compilation of Tillmans developing style and skill, but rather a focus on the present day. Most people would define a photographer essentially as someone who takes photographs, but Tillmans takes the name to new levels. Each room has been specifically arranged by the artist to help visitors engage with themes of community, politics and society.

Rather than simply hanging photographs on walls, Tillmans has experiemented with whole-room installations, publications, videos and music. As visitors walk around the gallery, they can see snapshots laid out on tables where individual pieces can be studied in detail. The majority of the works that are on the walls are printed on papers of a considerable size, often meaning they are better viewed from a distance. With these mix of approaches, Tillmans is trying to represent how culture and technology shape the way people understand the current world.

Initially, the opening rooms may not enliven onlookers, and, without the provided guide leaflet, may not make sense or mean anything. However, with thanks to the Tate’s written explanations, it becomes clearer that method is just as important for Tillmans as the final outcomes. For instance, Tillmans likes to experiment with technology to show how advanced it has become, comparing digital methods with the outdated manual. For example, Tillmans reveals how much easier it is to photograph an urban night scene from a moving vehicle without the photograph being ruined by blurring. This is a result of the faster shutter speeds the latest cameras possess.

Each room of the exhibition contains a new theme, idea or approach, often displaying photographs from a particular project. One such undertaking is a series of photographs titled Neue Welt in which Tillmans visited the different continents taking snapshots of communal spaces, food, people and still-life, recording the differences and changes that time has had on the different cultures. Some of these are quite beautiful and are a contrast to some of his more abstract works.

Another project is titled Truth Study Center, which is focused less on a photography and more on research. It is in the room that Tillmans has made the most of the scattered tables in order to present his findings. Photographs, newspaper clippings, advertisements and so forth are laid out to express contridictory opinions and statements that have been issued by the government and politicians over the past couple of decades. This study questions what truth is and whether it is possible to trust what individuals, groups or organisations profess.

 

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Shanghai Night, 2009

It is clear from a great number of photographs that Tillmans primary topic of interest is
social life. He believes that everyone is vulnerable and is determined to prove his belief through unstaged imagery. He is particularly concerned with freedom and the interweaving spheres of personal and public life. Tillmans photographs people on the street and contrasts them with pictures of a more private nature, occassionally consisting of nudity.

 

Like many photographers, Tillmans has played around with portraiture, however his commercial outputs, and presumably his method of earning money, are a mix of posters, catalogues, magazine spreads, leaflets and books – principally items that can be mass produced. Examples of these can be found on tables in one of the exhibitions rooms. There are too many to be able to study them in detail, but the underlying theme is prominent. These lucrative formats are a means to express political opinion and contemporary interest. Although these compositions may not make his name known, Tillmans can still impress his views and beliefs over a widespread audience.

Interestingly, since he was born, lives and works in Berlin, Tellmans is passionate about the effects of Brexit, and in 2016, produced a series of posters encouraging British citizens to vote “remain”. Not many of these advertisements are amongst the selection of commercial items, however the photographs used on the designs are displayed in the final room of the exhibition. These images may look like tranquil sea-scapes, but they have an ulterior purpose. Tellmans is intrigued with the tangible lines and borders on the horizon caused by what looks like the meeting of the sea and sky, whereas, in reality, these are fluid. These photographs of the Atlantic Ocean are metaphors for opposing time zones and national frontiers, which may not be causing waves right now, but have the potential to in the future. This is why this series was suitable to illustrate the Brexit posters, because leaving the EU is a journey into the unknown. No one knows how it may affect the “tides”.

These posters were found in an article in the magazine Dezeen.

2017 is an interesting exhibition and not necessarily what you may be expecting. Seeing the processes and research that Wolfgang Tillmans undertakes makes the final outcomes far more meaningful than if viewed solely as artworks with no substantial background information. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, the exhibition is finishing soon, the final day being Sunday 11th June. However, there are over 200 photographs on the Tate website for those who wish to receive a basic impression of Tillmans photography, and one series of work (Concorde Grid, 1997) is on show at the Tate Britain as part of the  Walk Through British Art display. There are, of course, books such as Books for Architects, available for purchase.

Piet Mondrian: (A), B, C

On a recent trip to the Tate Modern, a friend and I came across a couple of paintings by the Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). Without reading the accompanying title plaque, we both recognised the artist’s distinctive use of geometric shapes and colours. We learnt that these particular paintings were titled Composition B and Composition C, to which we both responded, “Where is Composition A?” Whether or not the Tate was displaying this painting (the website suggests it was) we never found it, but it made us wonder about the significance of these compositions.

With thanks to Google, I located a photograph of Mondrian’s Composition A, which conforms with his well known style, however contains significantly more colour.

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Having now seen all three of these compositions and compared them with each other, I was still none the wiser to their purpose or significance.

I wish to approach truth as closely as is possible, and therefore I abstract everything until I arrive at the fundamental quality of objects. – Mondrian

Born on 7th March 1872, Piet Mondrian, was one of the leading individuals in the establishment of abstract art. His early works were realistic representations with a delicate use of colour, however this all changed from 1907 onwards.

Mondrian was a pioneer of more than one art movement, the first significant one being Cubism. During the first world war, Mondrian was influenced by other painters of the time to stop using curved lines within his artwork. This led to the geometrical paintings Mondrian is well known for, and the development of another movement: De Stijl.

As the main face of De Stijl, Mondrian named his personal style Neo-Plasticism, a system that restricted artists to straight lines and basic colours (usually primary). During this period of time, the world was rapidly changing. The Great War provoked transformations in governments, societies, technologies and general day-to-day living. Mondrian attempted to find the undeviating reality buried beneath all the upheaval and believed that his strict, grid-like, asymmetrical paintings reflected this.

The art world may have moved on from Cubism and De Stijl, but Mondrian was a great influence on artists at the time, yet also the later industrial, decorative and advertisement art that began in the 1930s. His use of bold grids and thick black lines, encouraged designers to be more mindful of the ways artwork and typography are presented within a design. The grid structure was heavily adopted by the Swiss Typography movement, and is still used and taught today in design schools throughout the world.

Mondrian’s Compositions A, B and C, were essentially his way of coping with the destruction of the world he grew up in. By stripping back to the bare bones – black and white, primary colours – Mondrian was trying to reduce the world to its basic elements. The balance between black and white with red, blue or yellow are a representation of opposing forces that create a balance in the world, i.e. male and female, positive and negative.

Looking at the above paintings alone, you may conclude that Mondrian was an eccentric man, deliriously believing that he was accurately representing the world. However, if you study the progression from his early works to the ones he his more famous for, you will notice a gradual development of style, rather than a rapid, out-of-character change.

Whilst we will never know exactly what was going through Piet Mondrian’s head (unless we read his numerous writings), we can speculate that painting real life representations of landscapes and so forth lost the appeal after the destruction of countries as a result of war. Who would want to paint that, when instead you could focus on the true, never changing actualities at the heart of our existence?

I don’t want pictures, I want to find things out. – Mondrian