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Inside Modigliani’s studio — via virtual reality

As a comprehensive retrospective of the Modernist artist opens at Tate Modern in London, curators Nancy Ireson and Emma Lewis discuss their goals for the show — and the use of VR technology to transport us to the Paris of 1919

Tate Modern’s broad survey of the work of Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920), which is on until 2 April 2018, includes the largest group of nudes by the artist ever shown together in the UK. It also features a major twist: visitors to the exhibition will be able to experience the Paris studio in which the artist lived and worked in 1919-20, using wearable virtual-reality technology. As the show opened, we spoke to head curator Nancy Ireson and assistant curator Emma Lewis to find out more.

The retrospective marks the Tate’s first use of virtual reality technology in a major exhibition. Can you describe the VR experience, and how it came together?

Emma Lewis: ‘At Tate there’s always an appetite for new forms of storytelling, which is what we do as curators. A Modigliani survey, in particular, felt like the right context for VR, because he is so well known, his artwork is so loved. But people haven’t really had the opportunity to know what his personal circumstances looked like. So we decided to use VR to recreate his personal environment, which is really what VR does most successfully.’

Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Jeanne Hébuterne, 1919. Oil on canvas. 914 x 730 mm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Jeanne Hébuterne, 1919. Oil on canvas. 914 x 730 mm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

‘When you put the headset on, you’re transported to Modigliani’s studio at 8 rue de la Grande Chaumière in Paris’s Montparnasse neighbourhood [where he lived and worked in the final months of his life in 1919 and 1920]. It still exists today. You’ll be taken through a narrative in which you hear accounts from those who were closest to the artist; accounts from a journalist who was writing in 1919; and Tate conservators and creators explaining some of the canvases that may have been made in the studio.

‘Working with developers and producers at Preloaded, along with Tate’s digital, curatorial and conservation teams, we went to the real Paris space and measured every nook and cranny. Five months of meticulous research went into re-imaging the studio, and the objects in it, as faithfully as possible.’

In what ways do you hope the use of VR technology will enhance the exhibition experience?

EL: ‘The VR experience is the penultimate room in the exhibit, and we really encourage people who have never tried VR before to give this a go. The show stands without it, of course — we appreciate that it’s not for everybody. But it’s placed at a point in the exhibition that will make sense, and enhance visitors’ understanding of the works that come immediately after.

‘Today, Modigliani’s paintings sell for fabulous prices on the secondary market, and it can be easy to forget that they were created in very humble circumstances. Through VR, we hope that audiences will get a real sense of the studio as a place where Modigliani lived and worked. Because he died so young, Modigliani's biography became the stuff of anecdote and myth. The VR experience helps us better understand Modigliani as a man and as an artist.’

Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Nude, 1917. Oil on canvas. 890 x 1460 mm. Private Collection
Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Nude, 1917. Oil on canvas. 890 x 1460 mm. Private Collection

You’ve described this retrospective as a ‘re-evaluation’ of Modigliani. How so?

Nancy Ireson: ‘I think we’re trying to go beyond the stereotypes that people have about Modigliani. We have these images in mind of elongated faces and women with sloping shoulders, but one thing you really appreciate when looking at the works in this show is that his production is a lot more varied than people think. The works don’t all look the same, and there’s a lot of experimentation going on, in painting but also in sculpture and drawing. I think people will be surprised by the variety.’

This exhibition includes the largest group of nudes by Modigliani ever shown together in the UK. What made his nudes so shocking when they were first exhibited?

NI: ‘The thing that seems to have caused the most upset is the showing of pubic hair! The most famous anecdote comes from the art dealer Berthe Weill, who put on Modigliani’s only solo show in his lifetime. She lived opposite the police commissioner in Paris, and he seems to have complained when he saw the nudes on display across the street.

‘But it is quite telling that his models appear to be very modern women. They’re not Renaissance or 19th-century French nudes. They seem to be wearing make-up, to have potentially been influenced by stars of the cinema, presenting themselves as seductive or vampish. Showing them at Tate means that we can think afresh about who these women were, what kinds of things they might be thinking about. We don’t know much about their lives, but we can try to imagine what it might have been like to be a woman at that moment, and why somebody might have decided to model.’

Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Portrait of Paul Guillaume, Novo Pilota, 1915. Oil paint on card mounted on cradled plywood. 1235 x 925 x 100 mm. Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume
Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Portrait of Paul Guillaume, Novo Pilota, 1915. Oil paint on card mounted on cradled plywood. 1235 x 925 x 100 mm. Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume

How do you hope to re-examine the role of women in Modigliani’s practice?

NI: ‘We’re not trying to rewrite history. It’s certainly true that Modigliani lived in a time that was incredibly sexist compared to our own era, and women would not have had the same social status as men. But I think it’s really interesting to think about the ways in which women did  find empowerment at that period. The First World War meant that there were new and different jobs available, and they had a bit of financial independence. Women were moving away from home, they were trying to break free of stereotypes. And you see that in statistics from the time: there were more unmarried mothers, for instance — and that wasn’t simply due to bereavement. It’s a social change, as well: different kinds of lifestyles are becoming more acceptable.’


Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Woman’s Head (With Chignon), 1911-12. Sandstone. 572 x 219 x 235mm. Merzbacher Kunststiftung
Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Woman’s Head (With Chignon), 1911-12. Sandstone. 572 x 219 x 235mm. Merzbacher Kunststiftung

The retrospective includes several sculptures by Modigliani. How did sculpture affect his work, and has viewing his sculpture changed the way you see the paintings?

NI: ‘It does change the way you see the paintings: you really see a correlation between the work in two dimensions and three dimensions. It’s interesting to see that he doesn’t produce sculpture for very long — part of the process of putting this show together involved trying to explore why that might have been. But it’s clear that there are very direct formal links. That almost statuesque quality you get in some of the most recognisable Modigliani portraits, to my mind, really stems from that interest in sculpture.’