ART / The legend of the damned: Modigliani worked hard at his wild man reputation, but Andrew Graham-Dixon isn't convinced. Just look at the evidence at the R A . . .

He who looks to a poison in order to think will soon be unable to think without it,' Baudelaire once wrote. 'Picture if you will the appalling fate of a man whose paralysed imagination would be unable to function without the help of hashish.' Amedeo Modigliani appears to have modelled himself, during his short and unedifying life, on this cautionary figment of a poet's imagination.

Dead at 36, killed by his almost religious adherence to a diet of drugs, cheap brandy and absinthe, Modigliani's entire adult life amounted to a suicide committed by degrees. He may have believed too literally in a certain romantic notion of what it is to be an artist, widely current in fin-de-siecle and early 20th-century Paris, and have mistaken disorientation of the senses for inspiration.

Surprisingly little is known about him. He emerges from various accounts as a kind of caricature early Modernist, the supreme peintre maudit. His friends even nicknamed him 'Modi', pronounced 'maudit' ('damned'), a fact of which he seems to have been singularly proud and which he did his damnedest to live up to. In the stories told about Modi he is a cartoon character, invariably manic and absurd: pawning his clothes for drink or drugs to dance, naked and intoxicated, through the streets of Montmartre in midwinter; demolishing one of the walls of his studio in a drunken rage; abruptly terminating an argument with his lover, Beatrice Hastings, by throwing her through a window.

He cannot always have been quite so stereotypically crazed, and Picasso, intriguingly, suspected him of playing up to his image, noting that he always reserved his worst behaviour for public occasions - but there is almost no evidence of what he might have been like in his quieter moments. The relationship between Modigliani's personality and his most admired art - those beatifically calm, elongated stone heads with inscrutable almond- shaped eyes - has never been clear. He has been submerged by his own myth and become, merely, a colourful character, almost entirely devoid of human characteristics.

The Unknown Modigliani, which opened last week at the Royal Academy, is a promisingly titled exhibition. It suggests disclosure, a fleshing out of the bones of the Modigliani myth, a revelation (or at least a glimpse) of the private man. The show consists almost exclusively of drawings from the collection of Paul Alexandre, a doctor and friend of Modigliani's said to have supplied him liberally with opium in exchange for works of art. Although the show offers no deep insight into Modigliani's personality, it is possible to read between the immaculate lines of the artist's drawings and to guess at some of the conflicts that were played out in his sad, short life.

The earliest drawings in the exhibition reveal an artist fashionably fascinated by the subject matter of the Parisian fin-de-siecle, producing stylish impressions of essentially the same demi-monde painted by Toulouse-Lautrec. Sketching a gawping clown or a dancer lifting her skirts to an appreciative audience in a Montmartre music-hall, Modigliani reveals an entirely conventional avant-garde determination to find the subjects of his art in low rather than high life. Much the same impulse lay behind his contemporary Picasso's melancholic pictures of circus troupes and the urban poor, the sad harlequins and emaciated laundresses of his Blue and Rose Period pictures.

Modigliani's drawings of this time are shot through, too, with an uneasy and somewhat forced mysticism. He draws a pair of spiritualists, rapt and entranced during a seance, clearly attempting to endow his subjects with a sinister and sacerdotal intensity but sabotaging the effect with his characteristically elegant, dandyish draughtsmanship. The resulting awkwardness is extremely characteristic of much of Modigliani's work: the sense of a split between subject and manner, of an artist working the wrong genre like a comic actor trying to play Macbeth or a novelist of social manners attempting to write epic poetry. Elegance may, in retrospect, have been Modigliani's greatest shortcoming, as well as what came to him most naturally.

There is a scrap of paper behind glass, encountered early in this show, on which he has written what may be the closest he came to a manifesto for his art: 'What I am searching for is neither the real nor the unreal, but the Subconscious, the mystery of what is Instinctive in the human Race.' Not much of a manifesto, perhaps, and it does not even make much sense, but it does give a clear sense of what Modigliani was after: something profound; something powerful; something universal.

This explains why, like many other artists of his time, Modigliani began to work in ways indebted to non-European art. The elongated oval heads and the solemnly expressionless caryatids that he drew and sculpted were his stab at timeless, tribally powerful art. But unlike Picasso's work in a similar vein, which manages a kind of genuine modern savagery, Modigliani's primitivist work remains curiously and perpetually elegant.

This is particularly apparent in his many drawings of caryatids in the current exhibition. They have the character of stage props, or of architectural decorations, and to note the difference between one drawing and another is often to see an artist working on the irreproachably stylish embodiment of a preconceived formula - adjusting the fine line of a profile, say - rather than responding to the urgings of a dangerous and unfettered creativity. Modigliani may not have been quite the wild man of his myth. This may also explain why he worked so hard at that myth.

Modigliani's primitivism, which lies behind the works for which he has been most often remembered - his sculpted heads, his portraits of people transformed into mute and sightless totems - has a distinctly odd character. It uneasily combines two vastly different traditions of art. His sources might be the Buddhist statuary of India or Cambodian temple sculpture, but his visual sensibility is thoroughly Western European, infused with a kind of bravura seemingly derived from Italian High Renaissance and Mannerist art: Modigliani's caryatids and his long-necked Buddhas with their mysterious smiles owe as much to Leonardo da Vinci and Parmigianino, the painter of long- necked madonnas, as they do to the art of the East. The collision of these various influences and affinities with the artist's avowed intent to confront 'the mystery of what is instinctive in the human race' produces something of a freak: art that is torn between immense spiritual ambition and facility; art that marries the atavistic and the chic.

In another life, Modigliani could have been a talented painter of society portraits. His various drawings of the so-called Amazone, an unnamed Baroness in riding costume, demonstrate his considerable talents for characterisation (almost caricature) as well as his desire to transcend such talents: she is a haughty socialite, on the brink of metamorphosing into one of Modigliani's fey and theatrical temple goddesses. Modigliani might have been happier if he could have admitted that it was to her polite and well-mannered world that he really belonged. Narcotics and alcohol may have been his way of trying to induce, in himself, frenzies that he could not naturally feel; and Modi's tragedy may have been that he expended his life in an attempt to live up to a nickname that did not really describe him.

(Photographs omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Above the hat of the toy gibbon, artist Mark Roscoe included a ‘ghost of a bird’ and a hidden message
art
Arts and Entertainment
Alien: Resurrection, Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder
film
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable