Modigliani. Art critics say he was a great painter of female nudes. But why? Read on to understand why. I will take you on a tour around just one of his nudes. Critics say they are all sensual and expressive. But why are they so expressive? What was the method, the tricks?
This lady was painted around 1916, and exhibited in Paris a year later. The exhibition lasted a few hours, and was shut down by the police from a station across the street; the reason was indecency. It was pornographic to show pubic hair at the time.
In fact, you don’t see this painting the way it is presented on the Gallery’s web-site. You don’t see the dabs. It looks much smoother:
Colours: It is good to remember that Modigliani was fascinated by Renaissance art. The background greenish blue and red can be seen in many Italian paintings showing Madonna. Especially in the ones that were not “cleaned” in the late 19th century, when Amedeo was a teenager roaming the churches and galleries of Liguria and Tuscany.
Shapes: The pose of the model resembles that of some mannerist paintings by Parmigiano. There’s the most famous, Madonna of the Long Neck in Florence that might have inspired Modigliani to arrange the model in this way (not to mention that his manner of showing elongated forms has a lot to do not only with the fashion for African art, but first of all with his passion for Renaissance).
The artist’s provocation: Modigliani undresses the madonna, taking off her garments and presents us with her young and tender body. It is, in fact, not the pubic hair that’s indecent in this painting. It is the blasphemy of the artist who links the Virgin to an alive body capable of provoking not just spiritual adoration but sexual arousal.
The model is not trying to cover her breasts, but she doesn’t look wanton. Somehow. She does not look even accessible!
The conflict. As I often say, no conflict – no drama – no interest. Where is the conflict in this painting?
Look at the way the face is painted. Same colours as the background, and very different from the body. The face stays “dressed” in the Virgin’s blues and reds, it is just the body that is revealed. Obviously, the red on her cheek turned to us can’t come as a reflection from the red behind her back. The pun was intended, not “copied” from nature.
That’s the main conflict in this painting. The modesty of the face and the eroticism of the body.
Modigliani looks “flat” to many people. Well, he is far from being flat. He spent a hell of a lot of time doing this painting. You can see it from the X-ray image the gallery did of this painting:
All those brushstrokes, layer upon layer. What did he try to achieve?
You may notice that the size of brushstrokes that make up the face is different from those that shape the body. This is another sign where the conflict was intended.
Modigliani wanted to be a sculptor and tried to become one when he had a chance. His brushstrokes sculpt the body as if he were working with a chisel.
His – as often an art critic would say – “bold” lines show the boundaries of the sculpted form. Inside the line you find a sculpture, outside is a simple painting:
Look at the way he sculpts the legs. A very subtle change of colour bends her legs in a way that the body stays smooth and the skin not wrinkled at all – showcasing the beauty of a young body.
And also look at the white spot on which she sits. It is made with very loose, impasto brushstrokes that leave no doubt about what it is: a part of the painting area.
When you get to London, go to the Courtauld Gallery and enjoy this painting for yourself. And, to leave you some space for your own exploration, think about why Modigliani used white accents in his painting. Find them and try to figure out his logic!
PS Apologies for using pics done with a mobile phone: the colours are often wrong.
PPS. And one more thing. If this article made you look at Modigliani in a new way, if, having read it, you really felt his genius – drop me a comment, let me know whether it worked or not!