Amedeo Modigliani’s Most Comprehensive Exhibition at Tate Modern: Curator Interview
The Tate Modern is showcasing the most comprehensive Amedeo Modigliani exhibition ever held in Britain, assembling celebrated figurative portraits, sculptures once shown at the 1912 Salon d’Automne, and drawings created throughout his short life (1884–1920). The Italian-born Jewish artist moved to Paris at age 21, where he toiled experimentally, mingled with turn-of-the- century creative luminaries, and frequented shows by Gaugin and Cézanne. Across almost 100 works — including his then-incendiary nudes —the exhibition examines the abundant influences that shaped Modigliani’s spectacular output. MODERN PAINTERS speaks to Emma Lewis, an assistant curator at Tate Modern, about the show — which opened on November 23, 2017 and runs through April 2, 2018 — and about finding a fresh take on a beloved art-world icon.
The exhibition is framed as a way to “reevaluate” Modigliani — what in particular does this show reconsider about his aesthetic, his approach, or his legacy?
Modigliani is undoubtedly one of the best-loved painters of the 20th century, and his biography — he died young, in somewhat tragic circumstances — has left been left open to become the stuff of anecdote and myth. One of the main things that we’re looking at is the idea of the artist as a young man, who just arrived in Paris, and thinking about the effect that that environment would’ve had on him at such an impressionable time in his life. We are looking closely at the influences that he exposed himself to, we’re looking at the people he surrounded himself with, the art he was looking at, and using that as a starting point to really better understand his life and work.
What were some of those key influences that would have informed his practice and outlook?
One thing that’s so exciting about Modigliani’s work is that he experimented with some of the developing styles at the time, such as Cubism. But he didn’t completely embrace it, and in fact he decided to forge his own style. So he experimented widely, and he was in conversation with and absorbed some of the ideas of the vanguard movement of the time — but he also kept himself at a distance, and established his own path. One example of how we’re highlighting influences within the show: we assembled nine of his sculptural “Heads.” By seeing his sculptures together, you can see the ambitions of his work: the intentions of the sculpture. You can see the influence of his friend Constantin Brancuși; it’s there in the carving. You can also see the influence of Egyptian, Cambodian and African artifacts on his sculptural practice. And that’s something that he later translated to his paintings, stylistically.
He socialized with other artists and even depicted several (Diego Rivera and Jean Cocteau among them). Who was part of his Paris art community at the time?
It was a rich, vibrant community that he drew influence from. Modogliani’s circle included Brancuși, Juan Gris, Moise Kisling, Chaim Soutine, to name just a few. It also included poets, like Beatrice Hastings, who is a figure we are shining a new light on in the show, giving her the credit that is very much due. And it included actors, such as Gaston Modot.
There was a four-person team of curators on the show. You assisted the independent curator Simonetta Fraquelli; Nancy Ireson, the Tate Modern curator of international art; and Marian Cousijn, the Mondrian Fund Curatorial Fellow. What was that collaboration like?
Fraquelli, who knows Modigliani’s work incredibly well — she curated his exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2006 — focused on one of the very under-researched aspects of Modigliani’s practice, which is the work he produced in the South of France. Ireson looked at Modigliani’s nudes in the context of what it meant to be a woman in the 1910s working as a painter’s model: completely recasting them from muses to active independent women. My own background expertise lies in lens-based media: photography and film. I used that to work very closely with archives and find new documentary material, notably his interaction with cinema in the 1910s.
Were there any surprises or discoveries in the archival research you did personally?
One of the most exciting discoveries for me was that: we know Modigliani lived in a disused convent on the rue de Douai for a short period in 1910. I also found, from my research, some secondary sources that say Picasso, André Salmon, and Max Jacob were visiting the cinema on that street at the time. Through delving in archives and finding photographs and reading newspapers at the time, I found that Modigliani was actually living in a former convent at the same time as it was being used as a cinema, as a sort of ad-hoc space. So connections like that have been fascinating. It shows, in this instance, the new medium of the cinema was quite literally on his doorstep, which brings up the question of the influence it might have had on him — in his artwork, and in his social life as well. We’ve also unearthed what we believe is unseen footage of one of his exhibitions in his lifetime. Something really tangible — but I want to leave some surprises.
That’s thrilling. In terms of multimedia, there’s also a virtual reality component to the exhibition… can you expand on that?
In the penultimate room of the exhibition, we have a virtual reality room, which is sponsored by HTC Vive. You put on the headsets and are transformed back into Modigliani’s studio on 19 rue de la Grande Chaumière, where he lived the last months of his life with his partner Jeanne Hébuterne. We’ve worked with experts around the world to be able to create the experience of being immersed in the studio. You’re able to see the materials that he worked with, what his living environment was like; there’s a narration by people very close to him at the time. You can see the canvases up close and learn more about the brushes he was using. It’s a completely unique insight into these aspects of his life and work.
A recent Modigliani retrospective toured Helsinki, Budapest, and Lille. How would you differentiate the Tate’s perspective on him?
It’s different in terms of the story told and loans secured. Also, the starting point to our thinking was the experience of being a young person moving to a big city for the first time. We imagine that as a universal experience: a young man moving to Paris, in the same way people can remember being 21 and moving to London from a much smaller part of the country. So tapping into something that many people can relate to — it crosses geography, and it crosses time as well.
Does this show have a particular resonance with now, with 2017/2018?
It’s fascinating how a modern master, whenever the story is told, will inspire different readings depending on the moment and place that is hearing it. The internationalism of Modigliani’s circle is something that has a special resonance now. I think it’s implicit in the way that the exhibition is hung, to see how people from different walks of life were living, working together and exchanging ideas in this incredibly diverse, fruitful environment. That perhaps takes on new meaning a hundred years later, in the political situation that we’re in.