Visitors to the RA will be disappointed if they are looking for a festival of Modigliani's art. On display are just one painting and one sculpture. The four galleries devoted to the Alexandre Collection are otherwise filled with drawings whose achievement is not really that high. Considered purely as a draughtsman, Modigliani belongs to the second division of modern artists. He was, however, acute. We see him at work between 1906 and 1914, the high period of the Parisian avant-garde, when he sensed what was in the air and knew exactly which influences would be most suited to his talents. This is the real subject of the exhibition.
Essentially it's a show for art historians. 'The Unknown Modigliani' is a title that promises revelations, but the information it contains will mainly be of interest to specialists. Personally, I am impressed by the signs of thoughtful labour in these sheets. They make us see Modigliani as a more careful artist, at least in his early days. They also point in the general direction of sculpture. This confirms what we already knew: that when Modigliani was first in Paris he thought of his painting as a secondary activity. Among Dr Alexandre's gifts to Modigliani was an introduction to Brancusi. The older artist stimulated Modigliani's search for the simplest three-dimensional forms. Many drawings at the RA attest to this interest, and they are the most satisfying in the exhibition. We also, of course, notice the lingering influence of Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec. Less obvious is a kind of contemporary smartness that may derive from French fashion plates. Brancusi taught Modigliani about irreducible objects, but still the young Italian had lapses of taste. He hankered, for instance, for the religious art of his homeland, and this did him no good at all.
At bottom Modigliani was a sentimental artist. His character led him towards the maudlin and ingratiating. Perhaps a fuller devotion to Brancusiesque sculpture could have strengthened him. But he hadn't the will, and then drink and tuberculosis claimed him. This may sound a little stern, but there is no doubt that something went wrong with Modigliani. This exhibition, which really is of early self-educating and working drawings, emphasises that a talent was either eroded or squandered.
'The Unknown Modigliani': Royal Academy, W1 (071-439 7438), to 14 Apr.
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