By Lara Feigel
He was the ‘ravishing villain' who drank, took drugs and bed-hopped his way around Paris. But Modigliani's nudes – warm portraits of confident women – caused a revolution in painting
“We fight against the nude in painting, as nauseous and as tedious as adultery in literature,” proclaimed the Italian Futurists in 1910. The nude was dead; the speeding car more thrilling than the female body. Yet by 1919, Modigliani had almost single-handedly resuscitated her. This was not the decorous nakedness of Manet, the woman seen at a distance, wreathed in allegory. Neither was it the mutilating brutality of Picasso, whom Kenneth Clark saw as engaged in “a scarcely resolved struggle between love and hatred”. These were warm, living women, bursting out of the frame towards the viewer; women drifting languorously to sleep or writhing with pleasure. Naked flesh, captured on the canvas, would never be the same again.
For decades, every Modigliani book and exhibition has talked about the “myth” of Modigliani, and the upcoming retrospective at the Tate is no exception. Is the story I've just described part of the myth? It may be, but like every myth, it points to a truth: they are different; they did change everything. We couldn't have the abstracted forms of Alfred Stieglitz or Edward Weston‘s nude photographs without the influence of Modigliani. Without him, it might have been years before the nude became so easily erotic.