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Sexiest show in town? In Paris in 1917 it was Modigliani’s exhibition of nudes, a scandal shut down by the police after a day, and in London in 2017 it is Tate Modern’s enrapturing retrospective of the same artist, also concentrated on the nudes.

From all sides of a huge central gallery, their dark almond eyes meet our gaze. Unusual vertical figures with luxuriant folds of flesh — “Seated Nude”, “La Belle Romaine” — arrest us with startling arabesque poses. The sweeping, sinuous “Nude” seen from the back turns enquiringly in our direction. Models greet us first decorously clothed, then disconcertingly stripped bare, as in St Louis’s “Elvira Resting at a Table” reunited with Bern’s “Standing Nude (Elvira)”. In this largest ever British survey of the artist, a range of such monumental nudes of outstanding formal grace and sensual allure are presented as the apotheosis of Modigliani’s art, and key to understanding his unique position in the Parisian avant-garde.

You see why the carnal realism of Modigliani’s rhapsodic, languorous women provoked in 1917. The flushed complexions, complicit smiles, exposed pubic hair in “Reclining Nude on a White Cushion“ and “Nude on a Divan (Almaisa)” proclaim forthright enjoyment. Apricot skin tones emanate warmth, and creamy smooth paint depicting the figures, contrasted with the rough textures of their divans, such as the Guggenheim’s close up sleeping “Nude” on crude patches of red and white, evoke sense of touch.

These compliant women no longer shock; instead, what surprises today is the force of tradition. Modigliani, inebriated bohemian of first world war Montmartre, turns out at a century’s distance to be the modern master who most sustained the heritage of western European figuration. Arriving in Paris from Livorno in 1906, he encountered the avant-garde at the moment when the nude became its new battleground, and fought a distinctive rearguard action.

‘Portrait of a Young Woman’ (1918) © Yale University Art Gallery

In 1907 Matisse’s “Blue Nude, Biskra” and Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon” savagely deconstructed the female form; in 1912 Duchamp’s abstracted “Nude descending a Staircase No 2” pushed conceptual possibilities further. The nude had not been a prominent subject in Impressionist Paris, but after 1900, writes Kenneth Clark, “when art was once more concerned with concepts rather than sensations, the nude was the first concept that came to mind.” Modigliani’s concerns, though, remained sensations; he resisted Cubism’s con­ceptual games in favour of the elegant stylisations of Renaissance classicism.

His streamlined serpentine figures with their contrapposto twists recall Botticelli and Parmigianino, the melancholy tilting heads return to the Sienese trecento. The abandoned pose of arms thrown back above heads in the most assured, erotic pictures — MoMA’s supremely elongated “Reclining Nude” and the Guggenheim work — are homages to Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus” and responses to ancient architecture.

Throughout, lyricism of line determines an ideal of the beauty that Modigliani had always sought. At 16, recovering from a tubercular haemorrhage and recognising that his life would be brief, he visited Rome and declared his aims: “I am trying to formulate with the greatest lucidity the truths of art and life I have discerned scattered amongst the beauties of Rome. As their inner meaning becomes clear to me, I shall seek to reveal and re-arrange their composition . . . to create out of it my truth of life, beauty and art.”

‘Head’ (1911) © Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum

In Paris, he rearranged the austere forms of archaic, classical, African, sculptures within a language of modernist flattening and cropping: he drew his lover Anna Akhmatova as an Egyptian queen in “Woman Dressed in Low-Cut Gown Reclining on a Bed (Akhmatova)”, and depicted his own features as an angular mask in “Self-Portrait as Pierrot”.

Tate includes some wonderful “Caryatid” drawings where Modigliani appropriates the Greek sculpted female figures that acted as architectural pillars. (A more extensive display is currently in Modigliani Unmasked at New York’s Jewish Museum, whose catalogue, published by Yale, is a scholarly resource on these seminal works on paper.) Magnificently, the caryatid’s vertical pose with raised arms is transformed horizontally in the reclining nude paintings.

A display of the compressed, reduced pale limestone heads, solid yet ethereal, which occupied Modigliani between 1911 and 1913, is a major highlight here. Modigliani’s patron Paul Alexandre wrote that “when a figure haunted his mind, he would draw feverishly with unbelievable speed, never retouching, starting the same drawing 10 times in an evening by the light of a candle. He sculpted the same way. He drew for a long time, then he attacked the block directly.” Legend has it that an intoxicated Modigliani would embrace these sculptures; certainly he called them his “column of tenderness” and exhibited them as an ensemble, candles placed on top of each, to suggest the gravity of ancient temples.

‘Jacques and Berthe Lipchitz’ (1916) © The Art Institute of Chicago

Hieratic, impersonal, with closed eyes, arched eyebrows and exaggerated long noses in a decorative Y shape, the sculpted heads in their accentuated linearity define the Modigliani style which would characterise the faces of the nudes and a compelling group of 1916 portraits. Modigliani was after interiority of being: the otherworldly expressions in the marriage portrait of Russian immigrants “Jacques and Berthe Lipchitz”, the survivor’s robustness of “Moise Kisling Seated” versus the effete dandy “Jean Cocteau”, who commented of his portrait, “It does not look like me, but it does look like Modigliani, which is better.”

Otherworldly presence combined with liveliness of line and brushwork unite these works, and demonstrate the lasting effect of Modigliani’s sculptural experiments — abandoned because of weak health — on his paintings. “The beautiful variety and play of his surfaces is one of the remarkable things about Modigliani’s art, and shows that his sculptor’s sense of formal unity is crossed with a painter’s feeling for surfaces,” wrote the critic Roger Fry.

In 1918 Modigliani became so ill that he moved to the French Riviera, where his portraits took on a Mediterranean luminosity, with the use of thinner paint giving a translucent quality, along with new warmth of colour and a sad grandeur. The stunners are children’s portraits — the simplified, frank “Little Peasant”, the golden “Boy in Short Pants” — whose emotional restraint calls to mind Cézanne, and depictions of Modigliani’s auburn-haired, oval-faced lover Jeanne Hébuterne.

‘Jeanne Hébuterne’ (1919) © Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York

With hair staked high Jeanne resembles Nefertiti; stately in an ample armchair, she conjures an opulent Renaissance portrait; pregnant, in a loose white shift, she is Madonna-like in her still demeanour yet sense of tragic presentiment. Days after Modigliani died in 1920 she jumped to her own death from a window, sealing the myth of bohemian excess around the artist. The works in this far-reaching show tell a deeper story: of a striving for harmony, calm and joy by a stricken artist in beleaguered wartime France — an inspiration.

To April 2, tate.org.uk

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Photographs: Museum of Modern Art, New York; Yale University Art Gallery; Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum; The Art Institute of Chicago; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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