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
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
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.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London