We fight against the nude in painting, as nauseous and as tedious as adultery in literature,” proclaimed the Italian Futurists in 1910. The nude was dead; the speeding car more thrilling than the female body. Yet by 1919, Modigliani had almost single-handedly resuscitated her. This was not the decorous nakedness of Manet, the woman seen at a distance, wreathed in allegory. Neither was it the mutilating brutality of Picasso, whom Kenneth Clark saw as engaged in “a scarcely resolved struggle between love and hatred”. These were warm, living women, bursting out of the frame towards the viewer; women drifting languorously to sleep or writhing with pleasure. Naked flesh, captured on the canvas, would never be the same again.
For decades, every Modigliani book and exhibition has talked about the “myth” of Modigliani, and the upcoming retrospective at the Tate is no exception. Is the story I’ve just described part of the myth? It may be, but like every myth, it points to a truth: they are different; they did change everything. We couldn’t have the abstracted forms of Alfred Stieglitz or Edward Weston’s nude photographs without the influence of Modigliani. Without him, it might have been years before the nude became so easily erotic.
The other elements of the Modigliani story also remain too enticing to abandon altogether. There is still something compelling about the combination of his early brilliance and his doomed body. He had come down with pleurisy and typhoid by the age of 14, and at 16 he contracted the TB that would eventually kill him. His easy popularity makes him a captivating presence even now. He was the precocious child of Italy who became the darling of Paris. He moved, charming, feckless, from the bed of one woman to another, maddening them with his drinking and his temper, seducing them with his erudition (he knew long sections of Dante by heart), his talent and good looks. “How beautiful he was, my God, how beautiful,” lamented one of his models. Read more