Modigliani: A Unique Artistic Voice

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art

15 April – 28 June 2015

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Charting the evolution of Modigliani's portrayal of the human form.

Modigliani seemed destined to become an artist. From a young age he devoted the majority of his time to creative practice, leading his mother to write when he was just 11: 'he already thinks of himself as a painter'. It was during a bout of typhoid as a teenager that Modigliani – in a delirious, near-fatal state – made his mother promise to take him to Florence to see the great Italian renaissance paintings should he survive. On his recovery Eugenie not only arranged the trip, but she also enrolled her son to study under the best painter in the region.

While at art school Modigliani tackled a range of subject matter, but it was always when depicting the human form that he excelled. The young artist was particularly inspired by the readings of Nietzsche and Baudelaire, and he developed the belief that the only route to creativity was through defiance and disorder. He moved to Paris to be at the centre of the avant garde, but the work he began to produce – characterised by disproportionate elongation of the face and figure –was too radical for audiences at the time; it has only been since his death that the artist has found acclaim.

This exhibition of 30 drawings includes many from the collection of Modigliani's close friend Paul Alexandre – his only patron at the start of his career. It features a selection of caryatid figure drawings capturing anonymous, androgynous human beings in simplistic style. Breaking with form, one piece – Kneeling Caryatid – shows the details of a face. This is thought to be a drawing of Russian poet Anna Akhmatora: Modigliani's first serious love who had a year-long affair with the artist before choosing to return to her husband. For Modigliani, Akhmatora personified the ancient Egyptian goddesses they saw together on their visits to the Louvre. She later wrote of him: 'I thought, even then, that he clearly saw the world through different eyes to ours'.

After a troubled period of alcoholism, drug abuse and debilitating tuberculosis, Modigliani died in Paris aged 35. As he had been a highly prolific artist – producing up to 100 sketches a day– an unusually diverse body of work remains. Inspired by Cycladic, Etruscan, African, Asian, Buddhist and Italian Renaissance influences, Modigliani was able to incorporate historical tradition with his own vision to create a truly modern style.

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On display is the closest known study to Modigliani's masterpiece, L'Amazone. The successive series of works he created in preparation for this piece reveal his obsessive search to represent the truth of the character he depicts.

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