Modigliani’s great show sheds new light on the artist’s work


Written by Hannah McGivern

This article was originally published by The Art Newspaper, an editorial partner of CNN Style.
More than a century after the death of Amedeo Modigliani, a consortium of art historians and conservation experts brought together by the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia is uncovering hidden aspects of the artist’s techniques thanks to new technologies of research and analysis.

Classically trained in his native Italy, Modigliani was one of many young artists who converged on Paris in the early 1900s. But the avant-garde achievements of his short career were long overshadowed by his bohemian life story. Nicknamed « Modi », a pun on « maudit » the French word for « cursed », he was involved in a series of turbulent love affairs, lived in a state of poverty, struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction, and died of tuberculosis at the age of just 35.

But Modigliani’s chaotic reputation belies a stylistically restrained and highly skilled work. « Modigliani Up Close », a major exhibition which opens this month at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, aims to deconstruct the myth and dissect the working methods of the artist. The institution’s founder, Albert C. Barnes, was an early patron of the artist, collecting the first pieces in 1922, the year he founded his foundation.

A new Modigliani exhibition at the Barnes Foundation takes a close look at the techniques of the artist, whose eventful life has often overshadowed his artistry. Credit: Cerruti Foundation for Art/Museum of Contemporary Art Castello di Rivoli/Turin

Unusually, the exhibition of over 60 works is curated by art historians and conservators working in tandem: Barnes Chief Curator Nancy Ireson and Senior Curatorial Director Barbara Buckley are joined by Consultant Curator Simonetta Fraquelli and Tate London paintings conservator Annette King.

The project, involving 28 institutions and a handful of private lenders, builds on a smaller study originally carried out between 2017 and 2018 for Tate Modern’s Modigliani investigative exhibition, co-curated by Ireson and Fraquelli. It also incorporates the results of a 2018-21 study of all of the artist’s paintings and sculptures in French public collections.

An x-ray showing an underdrawing under the 1917 artwork, "Nude reclining from behind (Nude reclining from behind)."

An X-ray showing an underdrawing beneath the 1917 work, « Reclining Nude from the Back ». Credit: The Barnes Foundation

“There is still so much to learn about Modigliani as an artist,” said Ireson, who curated the exhibition after moving from the Tate to Barnes in 2018, in an interview with The Art Newspaper. It is unknown what became of the contents of his studio after Modigliani’s death, and he left no writings describing his creative process. « There’s a lot of guesswork and myth-making, but actually when you start looking at the physical works themselves, they provide a challenge to some of the storytelling. »

A common misconception is that Modigliani’s signature style of simplified, elongated figures never changed. « Modigliani only painted four landscapes, » King noted in a joint interview with Buckley. « He specialized in portraits, but somehow it’s even more fascinating to see how he evolves as an artist with this subject alone. »

What lies below

The exhibition opens with the works Modigliani created after arriving in Paris, during which he often used old canvases, painting both on his own rejected compositions and on the work of others. New X-ray analysis has revealed three previously unknown sketches beneath the 1908 double-sided work « Nude with a Hat/Maud Abrantès » in the Hecht Museum at the University of Haifa. French restorers also found six underlying paintings in « Antonia », made around 1915, prompting the theory that wartime constraints forced the impoverished artist to reuse canvases rather than paint over new ones.

But this new research suggests that Modigliani’s misery was not the only motivation. Modigliani earned 500 francs for his first portrait commission, « Jean-Baptiste Alexandre with a Crucifix » from 1909, but chose to compose the work on an old canvas. For « The Pretty Housewife, » painted six years later, he worked in thin layers that fused the skin tone and wicker basket of the model with the colors and textures of the underlying paintings. « It’s a very ingenious way of working, » Ireson said.

The exhibition is an in-depth study of the artist's practice, with over 60 works, following a survey at the Tate Modern in London.

The exhibition is an in-depth study of the artist’s practice, with over 60 works, following a survey at the Tate Modern in London. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource

Other exhibits zoom in on Modigliani’s careful painting technique. “We thought her color palette was pretty limited,” Buckley said. « But once you start looking closer, you see he uses color very skillfully. » He exposed flashes from the backdrop of the blue-gray canvas to add depth to his provocative female nudes, « contrasting and complementing the pink and warm flesh tones, » Buckley added.

Sometimes he would use a piece of cloth or paper to smooth out the texture of the skin, King added. « Based on information from his paintings, we do not consider him to be a chaotic artist at all. »

As for the sculptures that dominated Modigliani’s practice between 1911 and 1913, science seems to support at least some of the stories of his bohemian lifestyle.

"There is still so much to learn about Modigliani as an artist," said Nancy Ireson, chief curator at Barnes.

“There is still so much to learn about Modigliani as an artist,” said Nancy Ireson, Barnes’ chief curator. Credit: Collection of Bruce and Robbi Toll/The Barnes Foundation

A new analysis of eight carved stone heads yielded « one of the finest finds, » Ireson said. Waxy accretions were found above several heads, matching anecdotes that Modigliani burned candles above sculptures in his workshop, creating the atmosphere of an ancient temple. Flat planes and masonry marks also lend weight to tales that the artist salvaged blocks of stone from Paris building sites.

Restorers hope that this new body of technical research, accumulated over the years, will serve as a « springboard » to learn more about Modigliani, Buckley said.

“Probably, in some ways, our project raises more questions than it answers, because you always have to qualify your conclusions,” Ireson explained. Ultimately, however, the exhibition’s in-depth approach reveals a clearer and more overarching conclusion, she said. « It shows that Modigliani is a complex artist. »

« Modigliani up close, » is on view at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia through January 29, 2023.

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