Modigliani exhibition at the Albertina: the primitivist revolution and beyond

There is only one painting by Modigliani in Vienna’s collections. The publicly accessible work is in the collection of the Batliners. These “Sitting Nude” has been admired at the Albertina for the last 15 years without interruption now. The museum has already changed its title three times in an attempt to refresh viewer’s perception. However, the contemplative lady does not change significantly from whether the explication reads ‘nude’ or ‘prostitute’. Not surprisingly, she is not the headliner of the current Modigliani exhibition at the Albertina, giving way to her brown-eyed colleague from the Antwerpen Royal Museum’s collection on the exhibition posters.

It is typical that a nude beauty has been chosen as the title work. This shows that the exploitation of female sexuality is a weak argument for exhibition marketing (at least in Vienna). Especially when it comes to the artist, whose nude divas have been storming the lists of the most expensive paintings.

The main theme of the exhibition is the connection between “primitivism” and “modernism”. So it is about the story of modernist art borrowing of forms of archaic and aboriginal art. And at the beginning of the 20th century almost every form of non-western art was considered primitive.

However, it is not Modigliani who has traditionally been regarded as the pioneer of such artistic experiments. It is widely acknowledged that Picasso, Derain and Brancusi were, and that is why their works are displayed at the beginning of the exhibition.

The curators have also placed amongst the modernist pieces “primitive” artefacts ranging from Cycladic figurines to Congolese masks, allowing the viewer to determine the degree of artistic appropriation for herself. Modigliani’s sculptures are of particular interest here, as they can rarely be seen in public collections. The artist only made a couple of dozen sculptural portraits, because he сould not work with lime dust due to his weak health. But these sculptural portraits juxtapositioned to Modigliani’s paintings offer a rare chance to see the primacy of the artist’s figurative thinking over the material.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to make a great exhibition on formal characteristics alone. So after the first rooms, the theme of primitivism gives the way to the most popular narrative. That is a “biography of a genius”. It is difficult not to take advantage of Modigliani’s life story in presenting his work. Illness, poverty, early death, the suicide of a pregnant lover … these occur either in the opera or in the biography of a genius artist. It is not surprising that many works are presented through the prism of Modigliani’s life.

The core of the exhibition is given to the reclining nude motif, as it is the most often thought of, when one speaks of Modigliani. However, the almost obligatory mode of criticism today, namely the problematic of the male gaze, is left out of the focus of the exhibition. At the time when even Renaissance artists have been criticised for their representation of passive female sexuality in art, to refuse to discuss these paintings in the discourse of “#metoo” already seems like intellectual courage.

The diversity of the works makes this exhibition worth a visit for anyone interested in 20th century art. And true admirers, those intrigued by the melancholic eyes and elongated figures, will find here atmosphere of perfectly staged piety.

Albertinaplatz 1, 1010 Wien
The exhibition runs until 9 January 2022, daily from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, Wednesday and Friday until 9:00 pm.
Exhibition website

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