The major Modigliani show sheds new light on the artist’s way of working

Written by the author Hannah McGivern

This article was originally published by The Art Newspaper, an editorial partner of CNN Style.
More than a century after Amedeo Modigliani’s death, a consortium of art historians and conservation experts assembled by Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation is uncovering hidden aspects of the artist’s techniques thanks to new research and analytical technologies.

Classically trained in his native Italy, Modigliani was one of many young artists who flocked to Paris in the early 1900s. But the avant-garde achievements of his short career have long overshadowed the bohemian stories of his life. Nicknamed “Modi,” a play on the French word “maudit” for “curse,” he was involved in a series of volatile romances, lived in poverty, struggled with alcoholism and substance abuse, and died of tuberculosis. 35

But Modigliani’s chaotic reputation belies a stylistically limited and highly skilled body of work. “Modigliani Up Close,” a major exhibition opening this month at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, aims to deconstruct the myth and dissect the artist’s working methods. The founder of the institution, Albert C. Barnes, was an early patron of the artist, and collected the first pieces in 1922, the year his foundation was approved.

A new Modigliani show at the Barnes Foundation takes a close look at the techniques of the artist, whose troubled life often overshadowed his artistic prowess. Credit: Cerruti Foundation for Art / Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art / Turin

Unusually, the exhibition of over 60 works is organized by art historians and conservators working together: The Barnes’ Chief Curator Nancy Ireson and Chief Conservation Officer Barbara Buckley are joined by Curator Advisor Simonetta Fraquelli and Annette King, Painting Conservator of Tate London.

The project, involving 28 institutions and some private lenders, is based on a smaller study originally carried out for the Modigliani survey exhibition at Tate Modern between 2017 and 2018, in collaboration with Ireso and Fraquelli. It also includes the findings of a 2018-21 study of all the artist’s paintings and sculptures in French public collections.

An X-ray showing an underlying drawing of the 1917 work, "Nu couché de dos (Nu couché de dos)."

An X-ray showing an underlying drawing of the 1917 “Nu couché de dos” work. Credit: Barnes Foundation

“There is still much to learn about Modigliani as an artist,” said Ireson, who curated the exhibition after it moved from the Tate to the Barnes in 2018, in an interview with The Art Newspaper. It is unclear what happened to the contents of his studio after Modigliani died, and he left no writings describing his creative process. “There is a lot to make conjectures and myths about, but actually when you start looking at the physical works themselves, they offer a challenge to some of the stories.”

A common misconception is that Modigliani’s style of simplified, elongated figures never changed. “Modigliani only painted four landscapes,” King stated in a joint interview with Buckley. “He specialized in portraits, but somehow it’s even more fascinating to see how he evolves as an artist with this subject.”

What’s underneath

The exhibition opens with the works Modigliani created after his first arrival in Paris, and he often used old canvases, both in his discarded compositions and painting over the works of others. New X-ray analysis found three previously unknown sketches under the 1908 “Nude with a Hat/Maud Abrantès” in the Hecht Museum at the University of Haifa. Conservators in France discovered six paintings beneath “Antonia,” made around 1915, fueling the theory that wartime austerity forced the impoverished artist to revert to canvases instead of painting in fresco.

But this new study suggests that Modigliani’s deprivation was not the only motivation. Modigliani earned 500 francs for his first portrait commission, “Jean-Baptiste Alexandre with a Crucifixion” of 1909, but chose to compose the work on an old canvas. For “The Pretty Housewife,” painted six years later, he worked in thin layers that fused the skin tone of the painter and the wicker basket with the colors and textures of the underlying paintings. “It’s a very resource-intensive way of working,” Ireson said.

The exhibition is a wide-ranging study of the artist's practice, with over 60 works, following a survey of London's Tate Modern.

The exhibition is a wide-ranging study of the artist’s practice, with over 60 works, following a survey of London’s Tate Modern. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource

Other displays magnify Modigliani’s careful painting technique. “His color palette was thought to be quite limited,” Buckley said. “But once you start looking closer, you see that he’s using color very skillfully.” She revealed flashes of blue-grey canvas to add depth to her provocative nude women, “contrasting and complementing the hot pink tones of the flesh,” Buckley added.

Sometimes he used a piece of cloth or paper to smooth out the texture of the skin, King added. “Based on the information of his paintings, we do not consider him a chaotic artist at all.”

As for the sculptures that dominated Modigliani’s practice between 1911 and 1913, science seems to back up some of the stories of his bohemian lifestyle.

"There is still much to learn from Modigliani as an artist," said Nancy Ireson, chief conservator at Barnes.

“There is still much to learn about Modigliani as an artist,” said Nancy Ireson, chief curator at the Barnes. Credit: Collection of Bruce and Robbi Toll/The Barnes Foundation

The new study of eight stone heads yielded “one of the most beautiful discoveries,” Ireson said. Wax accretions were found on several heads, consistent with anecdotes that Modigliani burned candles over the sculptures in his studio, creating the atmosphere of an ancient temple. Flat plans and masonry marks also lend weight to accounts that the artist took stone blocks from construction sites in Paris.

Buckley hopes that this new technical research, accumulated over years by conservators, will serve as a “springboard” for further scholarship on Modigliani.

“Probably, in some ways, our project raises more questions than it answers, because you always have to qualify your findings,” Ireson explained. Ultimately, however, a deeper look at the exhibit reveals a clear bigger-picture conclusion, he said. “It shows that Modigliani is a complex artist.”

Close to Modigliani,” is on display at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia through January 29, 2023.