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)

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