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Modigliani: A Large-Scale Study Sheds Light on His Myths and Ghosts

Published on , by Vincent Noce

French museums and laboratories have conducted an unprecedented investigation into Amedeo Modigliani, whose work is dogged by a demonic legend and all manner of scandals.

Le Nu assis à la chemise (Seated Nude with Shirt), 1917, under analysis.Photo: N.... Modigliani: A Large-Scale Study Sheds Light on His Myths and Ghosts

Le Nu assis à la chemise (Seated Nude with Shirt), 1917, under analysis.
Photo: N. Dewitte/LaM

The Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France (Research and Restoration Center of the Museums of France, C2RMF), in collaboration with the Musées Nationaux de France (National Museums of France), has conducted an exhaustive investigation of the works in their possession by Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), the results are being presented in an exhibition at the LaM, the Musée d’Art Moderne, d’Art Contemporain et d’Art Brut in Villeneuve-d'Ascq, near Lille. This is the second time such a comprehensive investigation into an artist has been carried out in France, after the one in 1999 on Vincent Van Gogh—which put a swift end to the wild rumors that had been circulating in museums and auction rooms about "fake Van Goghs". Eleven institutions, including the Centre Pompidou, the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris and the Musée Picasso, took part in this new study entitled "The Secrets of Modigliani". Three sculptures and twenty-seven paintings were autopsied, four of them on cardboard and one on paper, and two of which were considered to be copies. At the end of three years' work, a symposium was held in March, and the publication is expected at the end of the year.

This provides particularly welcome insight into a legacy clouded by a dearth of archives and an endless succession of scams and forgeries, to which the phenomenal rise in the artist's index has added a disturbing dimension. Professionals have had only one reference on hand, and it has limitations: the catalogue raisonné published by Ambrogio Ceroni between 1958 and 1970. Unlike Kenneth Wayne's significant research project in the US, that of the French museums includes only works in the public domain and thus free of any financial influence," says Marie-Amélie Senot, curatorial attaché at the LaM. At the same time, for Michel Menu, who as head of the C2RMF lab co-directed the operation with her, "the dissemination of new scientific data is always the best way to detect fraud in the market. The LaM was the obvious leader for this campaign because it holds six paintings and a sculpture by Modigliani: the largest collection in France, thanks to the donation made in 1979 by Jean Masurel, the heir to a Modigliani collection started in 1917 by his uncle, Roger Dutilleul. The works, which also came from Grenoble, Nancy, Rouen and Troyes, each spent two months in the lab undergoing a battery of pigment analyses and scientific imaging. The examination of the oil binders was entrusted to the MSAP (Miniaturization Laboratory for Synthesis, Analysis and Proteomics) at the University of Lille.

Antonia, c. 1915, oil on canvas, 82 x 46 cm/32.3 x 18.1 in. Musée de l'Orangerie.RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l'Orangerie)/Hervé Lewandowski

Antonia, c. 1915, oil on canvas, 82 x 46 cm/32.3 x 18.1 in. Musée de l'Orangerie.
RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l'Orangerie)/Hervé Lewandowski

Abandoned Fragments
For Marie-Amélie Senot, this set of analyses helped to "deconstruct the myth" proliferating in literature and the media of the accursed painter prey to alcohol, opium and hashish. However, as she notes, the studies have in fact "uncovered a highly structured creator." One of the most striking results on show in this didactic exhibition is the emergence of "ghosts": abandoned compositional elements on which Modigliani painted portraits. Anaïs Genty-Vincent, who conducted the lab analysis, found nine cases among the twenty-five paintings. Sometimes the artist covered them with a layer of white, but usually, he used them as a colored preparation left visible in reserve—for instance, making the red and green patches of a landscape appear next to the bust of Viking Eggeling (a Swedish artist of the Paris School) or in his jacket. These underlying fragments are not always easy to make out. The most complex case is certainly the portrait of Antonia, from the Guillaume collection at the Orangerie Museum in Paris, where lab images have revealed no fewer than six sketches underneath. Under the X-rays, a ghostly head appears, similar to the Nudo dolente of 1908, painted when Modigliani was still influenced by Edvard Munch. But we can also see faces, a cross, cryptic figures, arms, legs and bodies, and even a caryatid outlined in vermilion, reminiscent of the Khmer figures he drew and sculpted in the 1910s. This reveals motifs that could be dated to between 1908 and 1915, i.e. most of the painter's period in Paris. Marie-Amélie Senot underlines the importance of such examinations in refining the dating, and in revising the speculative opinions of art historians, who can now comment authoritatively on oddities in the colors that are explained by deterioration in the materials. As Michel Menu points out, summarizing the purpose of all this research, "the history of art is interested in the image, but science can provide information on how a work was created and contribute to clarifying its purpose."

Viking Eggeling, 1916, oil on canvas, 65 x 46 cm/25.59 x 18.11 in (detail). Centre Pompidou, deposit at LaM.Photo: Philip Bernard

Viking Eggeling, 1916, oil on canvas, 65 x 46 cm/25.59 x 18.11 in (detail). Centre Pompidou, deposit at LaM.
Photo: Philip Bernard

A Little-Appreciated Colorist
Anaïs Genty-Vincent also considers that pigment analysis could dispel his reputation as an artist with repetitive modules and a simplistic chromatic range. She assures us that he is an "outstanding colorist", who used "a palette that is far more complex than it seems". Lingering on details in the mouth and eyes, he mixed pigments and proved capable of playing on "a wide variety of tones within the same color." In this construction of his work, Diederik Bakhuÿs, Director of the Graphic Arts Department at the Musée de Rouen, also stresses "the extreme importance of drawing at a certain period," pointing out "considerable consistency" in the artist's quest between this practice, painting and sculpture. He bases his findings in particular on the "sudden appearance of 93 drawings in the family of Paul Alexandre (one of the very first Modigliani collectors), who have been particularly generous towards the Rouen museum. Also highlighted are the to-ings and fro-ings between paintings and sculptures, when the artist seems to repeat the same gestures—to trace incisions in the paint, for example.

Warp and Weft
Another facet of the study lay in scrutinizing the texture of the canvases. This process was developed by a researcher at Rice University in Houston. Don Johnson designed algorithms that measure variations in the warp and weft across the surface of a painting. Because these variations are specific to large pieces or rolls before they were cut by the suppliers, by comparing the measurements, he can determine if painted canvases come from the same large piece of textile or, even more precisely, from the same roll in a store. Since 2009, he has examined 1,500 paintings of 100-odd artists. In collaboration with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, he has performed this operation on 550 of his works. He examined 70 compositions attributed to Modigliani, some of which are contested. With those in French museums, eight works were found to have links with compositions in European and especially American collections. When brought together, they can help more accurate dating, which sometimes means a few surprises and fresh questions. Another enigma: during the symposium, Anaïs Genty-Vincent pointed out the presence of certain paintings of small holes left by thumbtacks, whose use intrigues her because they were pinned to canvases mounted on their frames and painted. LaM restorer David Cueco then plucked from a drawer some double-tipped tacks that were used to protect the painting when two paintings were transported side by side. This information could pave the way to further connections, if the position of the tacks revealed that two paintings were brought together in this way—for an exhibition, for example. But Anaïs Genty-Vincent is not yet convinced because, in some cases, the shape of the holes does not match these flat thumbtacks. This dialogue alone showed how important exchanges between scientists are in moving reflection forward on an artist who still has his share of mystery.

"The secrets of Modigliani", LaM,
Lille Métropole Musée d’Art Moderne, d’Art Contemporain et d’Art Brut,
Villeneuve-d'Ascq (Northern France)
Until February 20, 2022.
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