Modigliani exhibition reveals the artist's empathetic period

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The Independent Online

When Amedeo Modigliani displayed one of his now-famous nudes in the only solo exhibition of his work during his lifetime, scandalised crowds gathered outside and the police closed it down.

Nearly 90 years later, crowds are expected once more as the Royal Academy of Arts in London, mounts the first major show of Modigliani's work in Britain for four decades.

The artist's stock has risen enormously since his death in 1920, at the age of 35, and the police are not expected this time.

The exhibition, Modigliani and his Models, includes more than 50 portraits of people including the artists Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris, his lovers Beatrice Hastings and Jeanne Hébuterne, and friends such as Leopold Zborowski, a Polish poet and art dealer, and Paul Guillaume, an art dealer-collector.

The nudes, nearly all of which were painted between 1917 and 1919, featured mainly southern European models, including Italians, Jews and Gypsies.

They now comprise some of his most famous paintings, despite their inauspicious start in an exhibition at the gallery of Berthe Weill, a Jewish woman, in December 1917 when one nude, visible through the window, drew a crowd of onlookers, prompting the local police chief to order their removal.

The artist's reputation has since risen to such an extent that one of his portraits of Hébuterne sold for more than £16m in London last month.

Simonetta Fraquelli, who curated the exhibition, said Modigliani showed great empathy with all his sitters. Although popularly known for figures with an elongated form, each was distinctive. "Despite having developed this highly recognisable style, the individuality or specifics of each sitter does come through," she said.

He drew on a wide range of influences including ancient Egyptian and classical Greek art, Cambodian and African sculpture and Jewish mysticism to produce his distinctive style.

Modigliani was born in 1884 into a Jewish family from Livorno in Italy, and studied in Florence and Venice before moving to Paris in 1906. Alcohol and drugs contributed to his premature death from tubercular meningitis in 1920.

But while he was living and working in Montparnasse in Paris, he was at the heart of a flourishing artistic community creating what is now known as Modern Art. He painted some of his muses many times.

Between 1914 and 1916, Beatrice Hastings, a South African-born British writer and poet, was his lover and main muse. From 1917 to 1919, three women became his principal models - Hanka Zborowska, the wife of his dealer; Lunia Czechowska, a friend and guest of the Zborowskis; and Jeanne Hébuterne, a young art student who became the love of the artist's life and the mother of his child. He painted her 25 times and she was so distressed by his death that, while pregnant with their second child, she committed suicide two days after his death.

Norman Rosenthal, the exhibitions secretary at the Royal Academy, which has previously presented the artist's drawings, said what was striking about the paintings was their "painterliness".

He said: "When you see him reproduced, you see him very much as a linear artist, but when you look at them, there's something almost tactile about them.

"You can see that he's not only a worthy successor to Botticelli but also to Titian. I'm sure he loved them both in different ways."

The exhibition includes one self-portrait from 1919, which was probably his last work, painted not long before his death. The face is painted as if an effigy, in apparent anticipation of his imminent death.

Modigliani and his Models, at the the Royal Academy, opens on Saturday and runs until 15 October. Admission £8.