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March 2018, No. 1380 – Vol 160

Modigliani, taste and the canon


Modigliani, taste and the canon

In this issue we begin a series of articles publishing findings from the Modigliani Technical Research Study. By providing detailed scientific analysis of his working methods, this ambitious international collaboration between some twelve institutions promises significantly to advance our knowledge of an artist who was more experimental and improvisatory than the calm authority of his best-known works might lead one to expect.

It will be interesting to see whether this new information helps more profoundly to change perceptions of Modigliani. He is an artist who sharply divides critical opinion, as has been emphasised by the response to the current retrospective at Tate Modern (to 2nd April), curated by Simonetta Fraquelli and Nancy Ireson, who initiated the Modigliani Technical Research Study. Although newspaper critics agreed that it is an exhibition of very high quality, they were polarised in their opinions of Modigliani’s art: ‘his range was narrow – but how inexhaustibly lovely were the best of what he managed to achieve over his short life’, wrote Michael Glover in The Independent,1 whereas to Jonathan Jones in The Guardian it is a ‘gorgeous exhibition about a slightly silly artist’.2

Jones’s objections were not very different from those expounded in a searching review of the exhibition by Sarah Whitfield in this Magazine.3 For Jones, we need to ‘abandon any illusion’ that Modigliani was subversive or ‘one of modern art’s great innovators’. For Whitfield, his ‘ideals were formed by the poetic aspiration of an earlier generation’ and the exhibition’s curators were not justified in ‘claiming Modigliani as one of the twentieth-century’s elect’. In other words, the division of opinion is less about Modigliani’s abilities as a painter and more about his place in the canon of twentiethcentury art – or, more precisely, the canon of twentieth-century Modernism.

The sort of misgivings expressed by Whitfield are not new so far as this Magazine is concerned. In a review of the exhibition Modigliani: Beyond the Myth at the Jewish Museum, New York, in 2006, Kenneth Wayne asked ‘is his art formulaic or does it have variety? Is it light and sentimental or does it have gravitas and sophistication?’4 He had no doubt: ‘To see Modigliani’s art in person is to gain a greater sense of the spirituality and soulfulness emanating from his canvases’. For Merlin James, reviewing London’s last major Modigliani exhibition, at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2006, ‘general uncertainty prevails as to the artist’s overall achievement; but in the end this is far preferable to the unquestioned approbation enjoyed by so many canonical “modern masters”’.5

This uncertain relationship with the canon is shared by other celebrated artists. An obvious comparison is a very different painter, Marc Chagall. Although the reasons for scholarly neglect of Chagall encompass factors that are not relevant to Modigliani – notably his over-production in old age of drawings and lithographs of uneven quality – there must also be a suspicion that critics of Chagall, as of Modigliani, are simply distrustful of work that is so widely appealing. In the past few decades critical engagement with twentiethcentury painting has focused on art that possesses the austere rationalism that many look for in Modernism – Cubism is the obvious example – or that clearly engages with ‘the modern’ in society and culture. The critical unease aroused by Modigliani’s failure to comply with such preconceptions of what is significant in twentieth-century art is paralleled, for example, by the scholarly neglect of Picasso’s Blue and Rose periods in comparison with his later work. It will be interesting to see if the exhibition Picasso: Blue and Rose that opens at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in September provokes the sort of divided response that has greeted Modigliani at Tate Modern.

For many critics, Modigliani’s standing depends on the degree to which he can be said to have advanced the art of painting. That lies at the heart of Whitfield’s objections to him: ‘it is difficult to ignore the fact that Modigliani’s art depended not so much on the context of his own time but on a nostalgia for the past and for a kind of a painting that aspired to a vague poetic ideal’. The implied placing of Modigliani’s art in the context of late-nineteenth-century Aestheticism is astute but the assumption that this disqualifies him from high critical esteem can be challenged. Elizabeth Prettejohn has eloquently attacked such dismissals of Aestheticism: why, she asks, ‘have the historians of modern art left Victorian Aestheticism almost wholly out of account? The reason, it seems to me, must be to do with a Modernist taste that stubbornly refuses to disappear even though the art theories upon which it relies (such as the “formalism” of [Roger] Fry or of Clement Greenberg) seem superficially to have been discarded’.6 Like such artists as Edward Burne-Jones or Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Modigliani is a victim of this sort of narrowness. An understanding of art based solely on formalist or social criteria ignores the challenging questions of taste and aesthetic value that Prettejohn raises. These are issues that are encapsulated in a concept ignored or despised by many contemporary critics of Modigliani but which is likely to be uppermost in the minds of most visitors to Tate Modern’s exhibition – beauty.

1 M. Glover: ‘This exhibition is just right’, The Independent (21st November 2017), review-a8067546.html, accessed 14th February 2018.

2 J. Jones: ‘Modigliani review’, The Guardian (21st November 2017), www.theguardian. com/artanddesign/2017/nov/21/modigliani-review-tate-modern-agorgeous- show-about-a-slightly-silly-artist, accessed 14th February 2018.

3 Reviewed by Sarah Whitfield in the February issue, pp.152–53.

4 Reviewed by Kenneth Wayne in this Magazine, 146 (2004), pp.574–55.

5 Reviewed by Merlin James in this Magazine, 148 (2006), pp.702–03.

6 E. Prettejohn: Art for Art’s Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting, New Haven and London 2007, p.9.