Major Modigliani show sheds new light on how artist worked

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 convened by the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia is discovering hidden aspects of the artist’s techniques thanks to new research and analytical technologies.

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 have long been 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 substance abuse, and died of tuberculosis aged just 35.

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

A new Modigliani show at the Barnes Foundation closely studies the techniques of the artist, whose turbulent life often overshadowed his artistic skill. Credit: Cerruti Foundation for Art/Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art/Turin

Unusually, the show of over 60 works is organized by art historians and conservators working in tandem: The Barnes’ chief curator Nancy Ireson and senior director of conservation Barbara Buckley are joined by consultant curator Simonetta Fraquelli as well Tate London’s 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 survey exhibition, co-curated by Ireson and Fraquelli. It also incorporates findings from a 2018-21 study of all the artist’s paintings and sculptures in French public collections.

An X-ray showing an underdrawing beneath the 1917 work, "Reclining Nude from the Back (Nu couché de dos)."

An X-ray showing an underdrawing beneath the 1917 work, “Reclining Nude from the Back (Nu couché de dos).” Credit: The Barnes Foundation

“There is still so much to learn about Modigliani as an artist,” said Ireson, who spearheaded the exhibition after moving from the Tate to the Barnes in 2018, in an interview with The Art Newspaper. It is unclear what happened to the contents of his studio after Modigliani’s death, and he left behind no writings describing his creative process. “There’s a lot of conjecture and myth-making, but actually when you start to look at the physical works themselves, they offer 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 in a way it’s even more fascinating to see how he evolves as an artist with this one subject matter.”

What lies beneath

The show opens with the works Modigliani created after first arriving in Paris, during which he often made use of old canvases, painting over both his own rejected compositions and the work of others. New X-ray analysis uncovered three previously unknown sketches beneath the double-sided 1908 work “Nude with a Hat/Maud Abrantès” at the University of Haifa’s Hecht Museum. French conservators also found six underlying paintings in “Antonia,” made around 1915, prompting the theory that wartime constraints forced the impoverished artist to repurpose canvases, rather than paint on fresh ones.

But this new research suggests Modigliani’s destitution was not the only motivation. Modigliani earned 500 francs for his first portrait commission, 1909’s “Jean-Baptiste Alexandre with a Crucifix,” yet 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 sitter’s skin tone and wicker basket with the colors and textures of the underlying paintings. “It’s a very resourceful way of working,” Ireson said.

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

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

Other displays zoom into Modigliani’s careful painting technique. “It was thought that his palette of colors was fairly limited,” Buckley said. “But once you start looking closer, you see that he is using color really skilfully.” He exposed flashes of the blue-gray canvas ground to add depth to his provocative female nudes, “contrasting and complementing the rosy and warm tones of the flesh,” Buckley added.

Sometimes he used a piece of cloth or paper to smooth the texture of the skin, King added. “Based on the information of his paintings, we don’t think of him as 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 of the Barnes.

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

New analysis of eight carved stone heads yielded “one of the loveliest discoveries,” Ireson said. Waxy accretions were found on top of several heads, consistent with anecdotes that Modigliani burned candles above the sculptures in his studio, creating the atmosphere of an ancient temple. Flat planes and masonry marks also lend weight to accounts that the artist scavenged stone blocks from Paris building sites.

The conservators hope this new body of technical research, accrued over years, will serve as a “springboard” to further scholarship about Modigliani, Buckley said.

“Probably, in some ways, our project raises more questions than it answers, because you always have to qualify your findings,” Ireson explained. Ultimately, however, the exhibition’s in-depth approach reveals a clear bigger-picture conclusion, she said. “It shows Modigliani to be a complex artist.”

Modigliani Up Close,” is on view at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia through January 29, 2023.

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