Alejandra de Argos by Elena Cué

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian






Grand Canal, Venice


Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, Venice now finds itself at death's door, not drowning in the Adriatic's high tides but suffocated by mass tourism. UNESCO has extended until December 2018 its deadline for Venice to meet twelve criteria, to the letter, that might spare it being added to the World Heritage in Danger List alongside Aleppo, Damascus and the historic centre of Vienna.

Around 9.30 in the morning, crossing the Campo Santa Maria Formosa towards San Zaccaria, there is still a real feel of authentic Vienna with children on their way to school, kiosks piled high with bundles of Corriere della Sera and Il Gazzettino and the local dialect of young Venetians stepping off gondolas and vaporettos en route to the Plaza's fresh vegetable stalls piled high with basil, chicory, vine tomatoes and aubergines. A short distance away, a woman in her 70s sticks up for one of the few bookshops still trading: "We are afraid our city will become the Las Vegas of the Adriatic" she says, pointing to a single book that seems to be crying out from the window display ~ If Venice Dies by Salvatore Settis. It's to the voice of this former professor and director of the Getty Centre of Arts in the 90's that Venetians cling. Settis implores and challenges us with the urgent question: "How much longer can La Serenissima survive tourism?"  



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Campo Santa Maria Formosa, Canaletto (1735)


Three ways to fall

Cities, according to Settis, die in one of three ways. By enemy destruction (see Carthage, razed to the ground by Rome in 146 BC); by an invader force ousting the indigenous people and their gods (see Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, annihilated by the Spanish in 1521); or because the inhabitants of that city gradually lose their memory and their dignity and abandon themselves to a slow amnesia (as happened in Athens). After the glory of the classical polis, that of Pericles, Phidias, Sophocles and Aeschylus, Athens first lost its political autonomy, then its cultural initiative and then, little by little, having sleepwalked through centuries in its marble whiteness, saw itself devoured by darkness until nothing at all remained of its identity. Only in 1827 did it awaken again by dint of a coup of independence. 


The facts should mobilise us against such oblivion. Venice hosts 28 million tourists a year. That's four visitors per day per resident. The toll of this has been the systematic depopulation of the city. Only once before has Venice suffered a decline comparable to the current one and that was during the bubonic plague of 1630. The number of inhabitants has gone down from 174,808 in 1951 to 55,000 today. Compare that to the 66,000 tourists per day.  


 Venecia 2 
Riva degli Schiavoni promenade, Venice


Venetians no longer want to live in Venice. Around 1,000 residents a year leave the city, a city with "the finest parlour in the world" according to Stendhal but which is becoming increasingly wilted and stagnant. Houses have become hotels. The proliferation of AirBnBs has meant a steep rise in rents. WiFi hotspots now outnumber the delicatessens that once sold prosciutto; the trattorias on the lively banks of the Zattere have closed down while young tourists in shorts and a rucksack crowd the bridges eating take-away spaghetti carbonara with chopsticks. Twenty years ago in the Rialto district, Venetians made their living selling each other fresh fish and artichokes. There was also a plethora of workshops making and selling Murano glass and masks to travellers who knew what they were buying and what it was worth. That Venice no longer exists. Nowadays, Chinese merchants sell Venetian masks made in China to Chinese tourists for one euro a pop.   

Also now, while tourists queue for hours to go sightseeing at the Doge's Palace, the fascinating gallery exhibitions rekindling the glory of the city sit empty of visitors. John Ruskin's The Stones of Venice (Doge's Palace), Bellini/Mantenga (Querini Stampalia Foundation), Dancing With Myself (Punta della Dorada) and the 16th Architecture Biennial, to name but a few. 


Monsters Of Steel 

Venice, once the seat of great maritime and trading power, is in grave danger of being inundated by sea monsters weighing over 55,000 tonnes making their way up the Giudecca channel spewing out 1,500,000 passengers each and every year. The MSC Divina cruiser, for instance, is 67 metres high, twice that of the Doge's Palace. Every time one of these floating cities squeezes itself between the river banks, darkness obscures the alleyways and bridges of the Dorsoduro district, as if they were under a total eclipse of the sun. In June, some 25,000 residents took part in a local referendum, albeit without legal import, calling for a ban on these ships entering the waterways. Something quite unthinkable for the powerful lobby group of hotels, shops and rental agencies. In Venice, tourism essentially provides a living to 30,000 Venetians.

The debate has intensified since Prague, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Dubrovnik, Seville and Granada were likewise invaded by hordes of tourists. “Tourism-phobia is a cry of desperation by residents" insists the journalist Pedro Bravo in his 2018 book Excess Baggage. "We assume that the sum total of all tourist expenditure goes straight to the city in question but this is not the case. The tour operators keep between 40% and 50% of the money involved so the destinations hardly benefit at all but it is these latter who, nevertheless, are lumbered with the extra costs of policing, cleaning, hospitals and infrastructures". In the case of Venice, the situation is exacerbated by its island status and its size. 



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Dorsoduro, Venice


Head-to-head confrontation

The Venetian lagoon is the result of fifteen centuries of human intervention in the search for a balance between its needs and those of nature. It is forced to defend itself against the tides that flood through the three entry points and sink it lower time and time again. Venice has been at times Byzantine, Austrian and Napoleonic. The Doge's betrothals were played out from the sea in a procession of gondolas and sailboats to the Lido on the Feast of the Assumption. He brought the body of St Mark all the way from Alexandria, buried it under the Pala d'Oro of the Basilica and established the lion as state symbol.



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View of St Mark's Basilica from the Doge's Palace, Venice


“The city that baffles the world" is an interdependent, organic set of buildings, communication systems and structures. A tapestry of logical threads connecting art, history and tradition and that is how we should view it.  


In his famous Plan of Venice of 1500, Jacopo De' Barbari was already mapping the latticework of secrets under the current of canals and the division of the city into six sestieri neighbourhoods, representing the six teeth of the "ferro", the iron fixtures adorning the black prow of gondolas. But La Serenissima is not just synonymous with beauty. Behind the so-called "Glory of Venice", there was a power without which we Europeans would not be the same people we are today. Venice is the syncretism of East and West, it's Marco Polo, it's the island that ignored feudalism, it's commerce, music, the Arsenal heart of the naval industry, the boats and ships, the saviour of the classics since the time of Plato and Aristotle. It's Petrarch, the Marciana Library, the Aldo Manucio press. It's also the Battle of Lepanto, the architecture of the Palladium, the paintings of Carpaccio and of Bellini and Titian, the San Rocco monastery decorated with Tintoretto's most celebrated pictorial cycle of paintings.

And so, Venice appears to us as an insistent set of reflections. Marcel Brion wrote of it ~ "Beauty doesn't make its entrance until that moment when one has nothing left to fear in one's life".


(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)



- And if Venice dies? -                                   - Alejandra de Argos -

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian





The Rape Of Proserpina (detail), 1621-22, Borghese Gallery, Rome


The ending of Paolo Sorrentino's film The Great Beauty is one long, slow take over the River Tiber. The aerial camera rolls, at bird's eye height, from one bank to the other, flying over couples out for a summer stroll, or sometimes at one with the channel of water, crossing through the dark eyes underneath bridges or resting on streetlamps lit for a Roman sunrise. The very last scene in this serene finale takes us up close to the Sant’Angelo Bridge. Before the screen fades to black, Sorrentino abandons us on one of the angels that Bernini ideated to decorate this bridge connecting the Vatican with the Tiber. And from there, we call to mind what this city of popes, this epicentre of the 17th century world means for us as we marvel at the works of a unique man with the Eternal City always on his mind. 


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 Sant’Angelo Bridge, Rome


Rome is currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of the re-opening of the Borghese Gallery with an exhibition dedicated to Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), the last of the great, universal masters who made Italy the artistic heart of Europe for over 300 years. Not only was he the greatest sculptor of the 17th century, he was also an arquitect, painter, dramatic author, and, above all, the director general of papal Rome, a Rome that would be required to endure until the present day and to remain the most grandiose show of urbanism ever attempted. Bernini served under eight popes in this most Baroque of cities, a style that grew out of the triumphal catholicism of the Counter-Reformation. By 1600, Italy had already gone through many uneventful centuries when suddenly, in the space of a hundred years, it becomes more active than ever before. But why and how does Italy embody such artistic genius in its most absolute form time and time again? What is the mystery surrounding this small Mediterranean peninsula located between Spain and Turkey? What is its secret recipe for churning out artists of calibre from Giotto to Modigliani? What is the link between politics, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation?

Let's take a closer look at the ten angels sculpted by Bernini between 1668 and 1669 when his entire oeuvre was dedicated exclusively to works that were full of emotion. The windswept Sant'Angelo Bridge angels are disconsolate between the clouds above and the solid, cylindrical Sant'Angelo Castle, with a black angel at its pinnacle, as a backdrop. In his latter years, Bernini, more than ever before, used the movement of robes such as theirs as a language with which to convey feeling.


The Sant’Angelo Bridge was built to connect the two banks of the River Tiber in the 1st century AD. In the Middle Ages, it gave access to the Vatican City. Since the 17th century, Bernini's sculptures have left the pilgrims crossing it open-mouthed with wonder. It is a matchless means of approach into the oval arms and colonnades of St Peter's Square, the bronze Baldechin ceiling, the spiritually-awakening Roman centurian Saint Longinus who had speared the crucified Jesus, the Throne of St Peter symbolic of the new Ecclesia Triumphans (Church Triumphant)  and so on.


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St Peter's Basilica and Square, Vatican City, Rome


In the 17th century, the power of Rome and its popes was unbounded. The Catholic Church, despite having lost some of its territories, gained a renewed sense of triumph after saving itself and its dogma from herecy. The new popes converted their desire for power into a spiritual empire, believing themselves the heirs of Roman emperors. St Peter's was their work and Bernini their right-hand master artist for 57 uninterrupted years. When our young sculptor, not yet 30 years of age, received and accepted Pope Urban VIII's commission to complete St Peter's, it was a challenge and a feat that, one could say, surpassed that of replacing the Twin Towers in New York after 9/11.



 Bernini 3 

  David (detail), 1623-24, Borghese Gallery, Rome


Bernini at the Borghese Gallery

Adding to Cardinal Scipione Borghese's already unrivalled collection, his eponymous gallery, set amongst gardens, lemon trees and fountains between Popolo Square and Mount Pinzio, is currently exhibiting almost all the paintings ever attributed to Bernini. Also on display and facing each other are his two bronze Crucifixions which are both normally housed outside Italy, one in Madrid's Escorial Palace and the other in Toronto.  But, more especially, there are his greatest busts ~ the first and second versions of Scipione Borghese and that of Constanza Bonarelli.


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Bust of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, 1632, Borghese Gallery, Rome


Bernini brought about a total transformation in the sculpted portrait, taking it out of Renaissance immortality and breathing new life back into it. He was a prodigious craftsman who learnt the trade from his sculptor father. He never attended school, never studied Latin and, since childhood, had escaped from his chores and work in Santa Maria Maggiore to what was his one true place of learning ~ the Vatican Museums. There, he would study works such as the Belvedere Torso  or the Apollo and draw out his first sketches. However, in addition to his talent as a draughtsman and his technical mastery, Bernini's head also harboured the "concetto", the idea or the concept. It did not matter whether it was for an opera set or a village square. One of the "concetti" that obsessed him was to challenge his materials and make them exceed their limitations. To work at the whiteness of the marble until it appeared coloured. To invent unruly manes of hair speckled with shadows or deep beards like foam on the ocean waves, trepanning and chiselling away at his pale materials, the hands of Gods sinking into the flesh of a nymph or tears running down a cheek ... in such a way that he aspired to imbue cold, inert stone with movement and life.  



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Apollo and Daphne (detail), 1622-25, Borghese Gallery, Rome


Letting the city yield its mysteries

In Alejo Carpentier's preface to Love For the City, he writes: “To roam a city is to retrace it, deconstruct it and look at it until it yields up its mysteries." This exhibition also offers us an exciting second dimension whereby we discover Bernini's signature stamp throughout the rest of Rome via the ecstasies of his sculpted saints in church chapels, in the bronze stolen from the facade of the Pantheon to construct the Baldequin ceiling, in the heraldic bees from the Barberini family's coat of arms that embellish gods of mythology and funeral monuments alike, in his fountains with naked Neptunes stepping out of shells or his elephants carrying obelisks ....  



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The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Cornaro Chapel, Santa María della Vittoria Church, Rome


And finally, in the Piazza Navona, still as it ever was today, is the palatial home where Cardinal Giambattista Pamphili was living in 1644 when he was elected Pope Innocent X. There was much commentary at the time about his wish not to move into the Vatican, a remote place on the opposite banks of the Tiber that horrified him with its identikit salons and sacred museums. He wanted to stay here in Rome proper, in this square that had welcomed carriages and horses and the whole Roman spectacle for 16 centuries. The Piazza Navona rose out of the Circus Agonalis, Domitian's stadium built in AD 85 and changed name from Agone, to Navone and eventually Navona. Innocent X decided to advance the prestige of his already powerful family by enlarging their palace and revamping the square. After many a trial, tribulation and false start, Bernini was chosen and began his modelling of the Fountain Of The Four Rivers. Often, when strolling through this piazza by night, one might imagine the Innocent X of Velazquez's portrait, with his critical, calculating eyes looking down from a high window, at the end of the long gallery frescoed by Pietro da Cortona and which, at night, even today, remains lit, as if forcing us to remember him. From here, the pope would supervise Bernini, watching as his work took shape ~ the palm tree bent double by the wind, the Statue of the Moor wrestling with a dolphin, the rock that a stubborn Bernini wanted removing from the ground in order to then somehow drill into it and, as if by magic, make it anchor an obelisk in place. There also, in this night of reminiscences, are Francis Bacon's 40 plus versions of Velazquez's portrait and the video in which Jeremy Iron's inimitable voice reads the Irish-born artist's words: "I feel hungry for life and that hunger has enabled me to live. I eat, I drink ... until the emotion of creation surges. I believe art is an obsession for living."



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Fountain of the Four Rivers (detail), Piazza Navona, Rome 



 Dialogue in a Vatican room

It is also said that “Art follows money” so questions about patrons and power are bound to come up. What is happening today in the realms of the art market? Perhaps even asking would be like putting one's foot in the serpentine hair of Bernini's Medusa. While waiting to enter the Vatican Museums, we remember Damien Hirst's 2017 behemoth of an exhibition in Venice that threatened to raise the roof of the Grassi Palace, home of the Pinault Collections. It all left one a little cold. Today, however, Laocoon and His Sons  awaits, as do works by Michelangelo and Raphael ... and a room in which we will be mesmerised by Caravaggio's Deposition of Christ, that vertical painting descending from the crown of Mary Magdalen's head in a straight line direct to Jesus' lifeless hand. Under the cornerstone of the tomb there is only darkness and abyss.    



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A Bernini angel in front of Caravaggio's Deposition of Christ, Vatican Museum, Rome


What is a Masterpiece?  wondered Kenneth Clark in his barely 40-page booklet of lecture transcriptions. The answer? It is art that, having entered the mind of a genius in a moment of enlightenment, is capable of giving us either or both butterflies and a punch to the stomach. Caravaggio, from his space on the wall, establishes a dialogue with the Bernini angel in the middle of the room. A kneeling angel, it was once the mold for a Vatican alterpiece and the iron rods that form his wings are exposed to view, having lost the plaster that used to cover them. Likewise, the tightly-packed bundles of straw that shaped his arms under a layer of clay. He is one angel prefiguring another. And a butterfly punch to the stomach. 



(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin) 



- Bernini's Rome: For Love Of The Eternal City -                                   - Alejandra de Argos -

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian




  Frida Kalho 


In 2004, 50 years after Frida Kahlo's death (Mexico 1907-1954), thousands of her personal belongings and artefacts saw the light of day again. Photographs, diaries, drawings, books ... along with pillboxes of her painkillers, orthopaedic corsets, hospital gowns, half-used nail varnishes, combs, a bottle of Shalimar - the perfume she wore to try and camouflage "[her] body's smell of dead dog" - clothes, a Revlon eyebrow pencil and pink silk ribbons for her braided up-do hairstyle. Today, all of these dresses and objects, as if characters in her own life story, have left their home (The Blue House in Coyoacan) for the first time ever, en route to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London for the exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up.


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Corset and skirt from Frida Khalo's collection. Photograph from Frida by Ishiuchi (RM Editorial)


It's a story straight out of a Fake News headline. On Frida's death, the painter Diego Rivera, in an attempt to preserve their intimacy as a couple, ordered two rooms in their Blue House home to be sealed with all of possessions and documents locked inside. The moment the little ensuite bathroom adjoining her studio was re-opened and its contents revealed, so too was the message that Frida was transmitting through her clothes. Both Frida and Diego were intense characters, poetically terrible at times and touchingly tender at others. On the centenary of her birth, the press announced the emergence of some 22,105 documents, 5,387 photographs, 168 outfits, 11 corsets, 212 drawings by Diego, 102 by Frida, 3,874 magazines or publications and 2,170 books. These can be found in various compilations, for instance, Frida: Her Photographs and Frida by Ishiuchi (both RM Editorial).



Frida Kahlo 2

Frida Kahlo's make-up. Photograph from Frida by Ishiuchi (RM Editorial)


The discord in Kahlo's body began when she was just six years old with a bout of polio which left her bed-bound for nine months. Doctors, pain and sedatives made their first appearance in her life. When she recovered, she did so with one atrophied leg and a complex born of being nicknamed "peg-leg" by the neighbourhood children. She, however, enjoyed climbing trees and learned to overcome somewhat but one of her legs remained shorter and thinner than the other. She disguised this by layering pair after pair of thick socks and wearing knee-high boots. From this tender age, she was already beginning to speak through her clothing. 


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Frida Kahlo's boots. Photograph from Frida by Ishiuchi (RM Editorial)


17th of September 1925: the accident

Frida was 18 that morning she left home with her school books and her boyfriend. “I got on the bus with Alejandro and sat next to the rail with him beside me. A few moments later, the bus crashed into a tram. It was a strange bang, dull rather than violent. The impact sent us flying forward and the rail pierced my body as a sword pierces a bull. A gentleman, seeing my wound bleeding profusely, laid me on a billiard table."

Alejandro described his vision of the incident as: "Frida was left completely naked. Her clothes had been ripped off in the accident. A passenger, no doubt a painter by trade, had got on the bus with a packet of gold-coloured powder. The packet split in half and the gold dust went swirling around her bleeding body." Frida lay there covered with a dew-like sprinkling of gold. The diagnosis: triple fracture to her spinal column, fractured collarbone, fractured third and fourth ribs, dislocated left shoulder, thigh fractured in three places, perforated stomach and vagina, eleven fractures to her right leg, dislocated right foot. The medics of the Red Cross gathered up the pieces of her body under no illusions that she would survive the operating table. Her human capacity to withstand such horrific pain would have seemed impossible to them. As would her indomitable will to live.


On leaving the hospital, her mother settled her in a four-poster bed with a mirror attached above and ordered a custom-made easel. Frida remained locked inside her own world, focused on a mirror the size of a picture portrait. During the day, she read avidly between visits from her schoolmates. Chinese poetry by Li Po, Bergson, Proust, Zola and also articles about the Russian revolution and stamp books by Cranach, Durero, Botticelli and Bronzino. But as night fell, so did the images that devoured her, isolated her and terrified her. “Death dances around me all night long", she wrote to Alejandro.


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Frida Kahlo sitting on her bed. The Blue House, Coyoacan, Mexico



Diego Rivera recalls how Frida first made her appearance in his life: “One day, I was working on frescos at the Ministry Of Education when I heard a young woman's voice shouting up at me saying, Diego, please come down from there. There's something important I have to talk to you about ... and standing below me was a girl of about 18, nice figure, a bit agitated. She was wearing her hair down and she had these thick, dark eyebrows that met in the middle. They looked like the wings of a blackbird." Rivera ~ then 42, nearly 6 foot tall, 16 stone, already married to Lupe Marín and one of the "Three Great" Mexican muralists of that time ~ accepted the role of Frida's boyfriend. Her family commented that it was "the union of an elephant and a dove".

Diego was her God, her father, her son, her "second accident". Every morning, as if in a ritual, Frida would dress herself up like an idol, designing her costume and jewellery so as to hide the wounds on her body. She adorned herself for him as the women of Tehuana did, seeing in their indigenous clothing a political statement and a vindication of her Mexican heritage. Those outfits comprised 3 pieces: the petticoat, the Huilpil (a square-cut blouse that made her look taller) and her updo of braids and flowers which drew the onlooker's gaze upwards to her head and upper torso and away from the lower part of her body.



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Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera


The Blue House

The building that today houses the Frida Kahlo Museum was built by her father 3 years before she was born and painted a bright cobalt blue to ward off evil spirits. It was then extended by Diego and decorated by Frida to resemble a microcosm of tropical vegetation with cacti, orange trees and Aztec idols perched on a small pyramid where a coterie of animals held court, all humanised by their names.


In 2004, one of the most exciting moments at the opening of the sealed rooms was the discovery of a drawing entitled "Appearances can be deceiving". In it, Frida's broken, naked body appears as if X-rayed, with blue butterflies painted over her leg fractures and a slender pillar in place of her spine. She then, in purple pencil, drew a sheer gown over herself leaving her battle-scarred body visible. It is curious in that Kahlo, who would dress in real life with a view to disguising her disabilities, allowed those very disabilities to be viewed under stark scrutiny in this and other paintings.


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Poster for the exhibition based on Frida Kahlo's drawing "Appearances can be deceiving", Coyoacan, 2013


In 1937, Leon Trotsky moves into the Blue House and stays there for two years, making it his revolutionary fortress. It didn't take long for the author of The Permanent Revolution to succumb to the charms of his beautiful hostess. They would speak to each other in English, a language Trotsky's wife Natalia couldn't understand, and Frida would pass him love notes she had hidden in her clothes.



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Frida Kahlo with Leon Trotsky


Pablo Picasso, too, would adorn Frida. On a visit to Paris, he gifted her a pair of earrings shaped like hands that dangled and twinkled below her braided hair of bougainvillaea and bows. She was forcing us to look at her face. Her lips, painted bright red, always appeared tightly closed in photographs and paintings alike. She never showed her teeth, hiding the invisible jewels that were her gold incisors and which, for special occasions, she would set with little pink diamonds.



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Frida Kahlo wearing the earrings Picasso made for her

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Frida Kahlo painting her corsets


“I am disintegration”

In early 1950, Frida was admitted as an in-patient for a year in Mexico City. Diego moved into the room next to hers and the hospital stay became a party: "I always kept my spirits up. I spent a lot of time painting because they kept me dosed up on Demerol. That substance made me happy."


A year before her death, the gallery owner Lola Alvarez Bravo organised an exhibition. It's now April 1953. Diego arranged the transfer of her 4-poster bed into the middle of the space. Frida made her triumphal entrance accompanied by the wail of ambulance sirens. The guests gathered around her as she persevered with the aid of painkillers. She was the embodiment of triumph over pain. Then after this homage came the verdict on her right leg. It would have to be amputated. Frida wrote in her diary: "I am disintegration."


From then on, Frida devoted herself and her time to fine-tuning the new parts of her broken body. Her red boots, the finishing touch to her false leg, she decorated with Chinese embroidery, gold thread and little bells. These are, without doubt, the  most enigmatic of all the objects in this exhibition. As are the corsets she had to wear, a stark reminder of her torture. Her relationship with them was one not just of necessity and support but also of rebellion. From then on, we would only ever again see Frida approaching in her wheelchair, preceded by the murmuring jangle of her jewellery.


Meanwhile, death was inching nearer, on tiptoes.  She dressed, now, for days and nights in bed painting and this was how she prepared for her departure from life to heaven. She realised she was killing herself. The drugs and alcohol that gave her relief and release were likewise a death sentence. At the age of 47, Frida is cremated. It is said that, on the exit of her remains from the crematorium, Diego swallowed a handful of her ashes.  



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Frida Kahlo's orthopaedic boot. Photograph from Frida by Ishiuchi (RM Editorial)


Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

Victoria and Albert Museum

Cromwell Road, London

Curators: Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa

From 16 June until 4 November 2018


(Translated for the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)




- Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving -                                   - Alejandra de Argos -

Contributor: Dr. Diego Sánchez Meca,
Lecturer in History of Contemporary Philosophy,
Universidad de Madrid (UNED), Spain

Diego Sanchez Meca small 







Both among those who, by reason of their religion and culture, consider themselves to be Jews and for those living as Jews whilst also considering themselves an integral part of the secular and cosmoplitan mindset prevalent today, the question of a Jewish identity and the main issues involved in defining it is a recurrent one: for instance, the Jewish take on history and time, Jewish persepectives as regards individuality and collectivity, and, of course, anti-Semitism to name but a few. With the sole aim of contributing to the dialogue this type of reflection invites, I would dare to posit the two-way character, at once ambiguous and conflictual, of the Jewish estate that this conversation, broadly speaking, might well end up concluding.


I am referring, in particular, to that indeterminate oscillation, as yet unresolved but still so characteristic of the Jewish people, between the temptations of sectarianism and the impulse to participate in the dynamics of society on equal terms with the rest of its members. This seeming duplicity, this conflict or ambiguity in their position would be incomprehensible were we not to take into account the tenets of Judaism as a religion and the vicissitudes of concrete Jewish history up to the present. It will be a lay understanding of the specificity of religious tendencies and the mystical orientations of Judaism - which rewrite Judaistic history from a deep understanding of the reciprocal influences of religious, social and political factors - which can, to a large extent, shed light on the problems surrounding the situation of Jews in today's world.


Gershom Scholem, one of the greatest scholars of Abrahamic spirituality, pointed to messianism and redemption at the core of earliest Jewish belief as its defining elements, albeit as undertood very differently to the Christian view of them. Christianity sees redemption as an event that happens within the spiritual domain, invisible, inside the soul, in an individual's personal universe and one that refers, essentially, to an inner transformation that doesn't necessarily change the course of history, while for Judaism, the coming of the Messiah and the ultimate redemption are, essentially, an historic event that must needs take place both in the public arena and within the bosom of Jewish society. In other words, it is a visible, temporal happening that would be inconceivable without that outward manifestation. An internalised redemption interpretation has always seemed to Judaism a get-out clause, a loophole, an escape from the scrutiny and challenge that Messianism represents in terms of actively hoping for and, therefore, contributing to the restoration of creation to its original perfection.    


But this state of active hoping and waiting is often at odds with a centuries-long evolution that spans everything from an optimism that fomented even large-scale socio-political revolutionary movements to an attitude of disillusionment - in no small measure determined by the failure of those very movements - in the midst of which the merely spiritual tends to prevail over the need for social and political action. It is at this moment that "the Hebraic political body stops functioning and its people withdraw from public life and history".


Scholem himself recognised, in this deep disillusionment with messianic hope, one of the major causes of the Jewish community's retreat inside itself, of its tendency to cloister and isolate and limit itself to just the conservation of its threatened identity and, perforce, of its political dismemberment. It is this situation that makes the Jew - and not just in the metaphysical sense of the clichéd "Wandering Jew" - a true symbol of the condition of every modern man and woman, as an individual deprived of community bonds, oblivious to true solidarity and dispossessed of a common homeland, as explained a few years ago by the French scholar and philosopher André Neher. According to Neher, the Jew is a voluntarily disenfranchised pariah who does not consent to being subjected to the worldly conventions that constitute a collective identity, but rather accepts their condition of marginality and becomes a conscientious pariah, even though this means renouncing the advantages of social success.


It is, perhaps, from this point of view of social marginalisation that one might best understand the Jewish approach to history, their exodus, their wandering, displacement and diasphora over the centuries. Judaism, according to Franz Rosenzweig, in so far as it positions itself outside both the course of history and the modern concept of history, imposes itself as the voice advocating the notion of itself as the measure and judge of all things. This does not mean to say that, in order to judge history, one has to be Jewish. However, it is the Jewish people who have demonstrated how it is possible to liberate not only themselves but Gentiles also from the weight of history, in as much as they do not wish to be part of it but, rather, to look at it in its entirety from the outside.  


But if social marginalisation can result in an aptitude for historical critique, it can likewise induce behavioural patterns dominated by a desire to distinguish itself or to display qualities that speak to a, supposed or actual, Jewish superiority. This is what led figures such as Benjamin Disraeli to claim it a strategic virtuosity or an almost occult power over non-Jewish society which, both effectively and lamentably, served in its day to reinforce an anti-Jewish sentiment and anti-semitic prejudice. Instead of an objective judgement on the difference between Jew and Gentile, this attitude paved the way for simplistic, mytho-religious counterpositions and a manichaeism of good and evil. According to Hannah Arendt's detailed analysis of the social situation of Jews in pre-Nazi Europe in the first section of her The Origins Of Totalitarianism, it is the apoliticalism of Hebrew communities, together with the depoliticisation of the bourgeois masses, that contributed most to the rise of anti-semitism. Following on from Scholem, Arendt explains this illusory pretension to superiority felt by some emancipated Jews as one of the consequences of the bankruptcy of Messianic hopes and the Jewish secularisation that ensued. Judaism, once its spiritual and religious essence is diluted down, tends to transform itself into the mere fact of ethnic and linguistic belonging. Too "enlightened" to show any religious convictions, the emancipated Jew maintains, nonetheless, their links to the claim of belonging to the "chosen people" which places them outside both Jewish society proper and that of the Gentiles.  The condition of this European Jew, within the vanishing framework of a bourgeoisie increasingly distant from its revolutionary origins, becomes almost elusive.


One way or another, the Jewish condition then takes on the aspect of a worldlessness or uprootedness. Lost in the secularised dream of heaven on earth, European Jews allow their political history to depend on external, casual and even sinister factors. And so ... does this not come to confirm the failure of the notion of politics not just in the Jewish world but in the modern world in general?  Social particularism, obsession with prestige and the dissociation between citizenry and institutions are taken-as-read characteristics of contemporary Western society. However, all things considered, something positive has also come out of this failure, namely, that the distinction between a community's religious and political practices be built on the defence of a necessary distinction between the private and public spheres. Cultural traditions, ethnic and linguistic belonging or religious faith are what constitute the uniqueness of the actors on the world stage. But the chance for each of them to act freely in this world common to us all, whilst maintaining their differences from it, require an ability to transcend their unicity and singularity. 


That is why a nation state like Israel, founded after the Holocaust in order for Jews to have their own political space, may seem regressive in the light of these modern world achievements and to the extent that it is based on strong confessional connotations. Perhaps the right direction to go in is not that of a search for a strictly nationalistic solution but rather, conversely, one that attempts to reconcile the specifically Jewish situation with that of society as a whole, one that tries to unite Jewish aspirations to emancipation with the right of all peoples to self-determination.  In order for Jews to be liberated form their status as excluded and persecuted, it is necessary that they be themselves, in any public sphere, and that they be equal to non-Jews, assuming and themselves demanding equality with all others. They will, of course, still need to maintain their own historical, religious and cultural identity. As Emmanuel Levinas rightly observed, Judaism is the face of an exteriority that cannot be engulfed in an undifferentiated entirety. But they must also transcend this identity and move towards a structure of universal relations. Only by acting independently of their ethnic origin or religious faith can Jews acquire the right of access to that common public domain in which the status of plurality becomes reality, or, in other words, where they can live as distinct and unique beings among their equals.


In a nutshell, the Jewish condition, having now become a symbol of modern exile and rootlessness, would then assume the fundamental significance of a struggle for the conquest not just of a physical or a social space but, more importantly, of a political one. A space where the irreductable, entrenched differences between people based on their origins no longer constitute a factor in discrimination but become, rather, the foundation for the equal and pluralistic participation of all in the practice of politics.


(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)



- But just who are the Jewish people? -                        - Alejandra de Argos -

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian





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  Francis Bacon Three Figures and Portrait, (1975) and Lucian Freud, Leigh Bowery (1991)


It might seem these days that even the Thames is struggling to keep to its course given the exhibition currently making waves at the Tate Britain sitting on its banks. It tells the story of British art before and after Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Lucian Freud (1922-2011), welling up from a hot spring of works by Stanley Spencer, Chaïm Soutine, David Bomberg, Walter Sickert and Giacometti, settling in the delta of thirty or so paintings by the eponymous rivals and ending with a small retrospective of contemporary painters such as Slade graduate Paula Rego and Jenny Saville.

All too human: Bacon, Freud and a century of painting life is the title borrowed from Nietzche's  book by Tate Britain for its exhibit bringing together 20th and 21st century British artists who sought a new way of capturing the physical and psychological essence of human beings through the medium of paint. After WWII, British painters made one of their greatest contributions to the art world by reinventing the European tradition of figurative painting. By 1950, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Freud, R.B. Kitaj, Leon Kosso and Bacon were banded together under the label "London School" at a time in the lives of this group of artists and friends when they all pledged allegiance to past artistic traditions and orthodoxy whilst sharing a rejection of the abstract.

But, how does one paint life? Is it possible to capture the human experience on canvas? These were the questions that concerned and fascinated the artists showcased here with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, trapped in their world of solitude and torment, as the centrepiece.



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Jenny Saville, Reverse (2002-2003)


Two Lucian Freuds?

Until the 1960's, Freud appeared to be painting with a magnifying glass. In an anteroom, separate from the main gallery dedicated to his later work, is Girl with a White Dog (1950). Kitty Garman, his then wife, is depicted sitting with a dog leaning on her legs, her naked body wrapped in a yellow bathrobe left deliberately open to reveal her right breast, the left one covered and her hand cradling it as if feeling for a heartbeat. The detail with which Freud studies the various surfaces is reminiscent of the Flemish Primitives. Kitty's thick, wavy hair as compared to the dog's rough coat, from the fluffy pile of the towelling dressing gown to the tassles that braid its belt.  Those were the years of Freud's fascination with Ingres so Kitty's gleaming gold wedding band could even be deemed a dedication to the French Neoclassisist.  

Freud had always had an obsession with painting eyes. They seemed to him to be the source of presence and power. They could, and even moreso their movements, express everything from desire to hatred, trust to mistrust and whether they decide to look us back in the eye or not. Pupils and the enigma of their dilation on observing an object of interest or fear intrigued him. Kitty's sad eyes are like two pools full of glints and contained tears. The dog's eyes, however, are the ones that, as if a mirror in a van Eyck painting, reflect the window in Freud's studio.   


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Lucian Freud, Girl with a White Dog (1950)


Towards the end of the 50's, Freud left drawing behind to focus on painting. He changed paintbrushes, replacing the fine, marten-hair ones with thicker, boar-bristle ones that facilitated  his evolution towards those denser and more expressive brushstrokes characteristic of the later stages of his painting and displayed in the next room. There, man and beast return to centre stage in the form of David and Eli (2003-2004), his assistant and his dog exposed on a narrow bed. It is a striking nude study of epic, no-holds-barred proportions. The model in all his rawness, nothing more. It's as if Freud had invented a brand new style of nude and shone a violently bright light on it, subjecting that mysterious layer that is human skin to merciless analysis. Its thickness, its flaccidity and the inherently matte colours of pale skin, inseparable from a painfully lived reality. 


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Lucian Freud, David and Eli (2003-2004)


Bacon and Freud: not a marriage made in heaven

In his book Man In The Blue Scarf, in which he relates his conversations with Freud while having his portrait painted, Martin Gayford recounts how, one day between poses, they were looking through a book on Van Gogh. Freud chose an Arles landscape saying: "Many people would say this is inspired by Japanese art but I would much rather this one than all Japanese landscapes of the 19th century put together. The most difficult thing is being able to draw well" and, mentioning Bacon: “Francis scribbled away constantly. His best work came solely from his own inspiration, I mean, when it wasn't based on drawing well."

Despite their differences, Bacon and Freud will be together forever in the minds of art historians. Gayford explains that the same thing happens with British artists as with the proverbial London bus delays ~ you wait for hours with no sign of one and then two arrive at the same time. In the 1880's, J.M.W. Turner and John Constable were seen as a pair and then there was nobody else until Bacon and Freud after the Second World War. Like Turner and Constable, Bacon and Freud made a bad marriage of artists, with as much dividing them as uniting them.

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Francis Bacon, Study after Velázquez (1950) 


Bacon, for his part, was obsessed with painting mouths: terrifying jaws at the end of eel-like necks that suck and swallow nightmares, lovers, pain, boardgames, alcohol, war and screams. It's life as a taut twine between birth, skinned flesh, violence, the great and the deep in human feeling and, ultimately, death. And, simultaneously, the most breathtaking beauty based on his innate taste for the serene monumentality of the Old Masters such as  Rembrandt, Velázquez and Goya. But it was Picasso who really kickstarted his career, as did the literature of writers from Aeschylus to T.S. Eliot. This whole palimpsest comprising layer upon layer of Venetian colours, the oranges and pinks absorbed by black he daubed on the walls of his studio, transforming it into a giant 3-D palette, is what enabled him to do something that was only possible after the first Freudian generation ~ to paint trauma.


Rarely did he paint life models, prefering instead to work from photographs and movie stills. His painting came straight from his own imagination, capitalizing on every thought that entered his head "as if they were transparencies". He rejected the image as imitation. For him, it was all about that instantaneous piece of evidence transmitted directly to the brain and without the  need for verbal intervention or "what happens in that instant to the nervous system". From there ,and not needing the logic of resemblance, his work would take off from his own aesthetic vision and from the beauty and energy of the strokes that, for him, represented a struggle and an intimate relationship between a painting and its painter.


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Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud (1964)

Standing in front of Bacon's Study after Velázquez (1950), we are reminded of this Irish-born artist's love of the Prado Museum in Madrid. His frequent visits from 1956 onwards are described by Manuela Mena as his eyes devouring the paintings of Velázquez: “He would study the brushstrokes, which is where it's all at, right up close and with deep concentration". He would go from painting to painting, "observing his subject much like someone examining the skin of their lover." The Prado exhibited Bacon in 2009 which, in its way, forever united him with Spanish painting of the 17th century.


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Lucian Freud, detail from Man's Head (Self Portrait 1), (1963)


Finally, the heat in this boxing ring of Tate Britain's creation rises as we approach the face-off between two canvases. In the red corner, Bacon's Study for a Portrait of Lucian Freud (1964), a painting unseen by the public since 1965, and in the blue corner, Freud's self-portrait Man's Head (1963). Freud painted Bacon twice. Bacon painted Freud over 40 times.


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Francis Bacon (left) and Lucian Freud photographed by Harry Diamond, 1974



All too human: Bacon, Freud and a century of painting life

Tate Britain

Millbank, London

Curators: Elena Crippa and Laura Castagnini

Until 27 August 2018


(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)



- Bacon versus Freud, a battle history -                                   - Alejandra de Argos -

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian





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Egon Schiele, Seated Woman with Bent Knee, 1917. Narodni Gallery, Prague


Vienna is this year commemorating the centenary of the deaths of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Otto Wagner and Koloman Moser. The celebrations kick off with a Schiele retrospective at the Leopold Museum: oils, watercolours, drawings and gouaches alongside photographs and poems. In all, over 200 breathtaking works of art divided up by theme.

Egon Schiele died at the age of 28. The Leopold Museum in Vienna, which houses the largest collection of his work in the world, is now honouring the 100th anniversay of his death with an unforgettable exhibition. In one glass display case, there is a photograph of the artist, lying on his deathbed in a white shirt, his left arm bent lazily to support his head. He would look every bit the young man snoozing in the sun were it not for the wild flowers scattered over his body. Just a few hours earlier, Schiele had finished a sketch of his wife as he watched her from this bed. Edith, pregnant with their child, has her heavy head resting on a pillow, her eyelids drooping. None of them would live. Edith was to die of Spanish flu, whilst being painted by her husband, on the 18th of October 1918. Schiele, who had also already contracted the disease, would die three days later.


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Marta Fein, Egon Schiele's Deathbed, 1918. Leopold Museum, Vienna


As a child, Schiele (born 1890) started out drawing the trains he watched in Tulln, a small city on the Danube, where his father was station master. He entered the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts at 16 and from then on, he remained inseparably tied to Austria's capital.  Between 1898 and 1918, Vienna was both the finale and the prelude to many things. During the second half of the 19th century, this opulent hub of the Austro-Hungarian Empire saw the building of the Ring Road palaces while life pulsed and revolved around the operas and infectious waltzes of Johann Strauss II. At cafe tables all over the city, people read and wrote about themselves, much like characters out of a Joseph Roth novel, in the twilight of their empire. And still, slowly, Vienna was declining and falling all around them.


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Egon Schiele, Small Tree In Autumn, 1911. Leopold Museum, Vienna


Sex and death  

It was against this backdrop of an empire on the verge of collapse that the precursor to a new century was ushered in.  It entailed an explosive surge in intellectual pursuit and artistic creativity throughout all  fields.  See the architecture of Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos. Hear Mahler's symphonies seemingly marking out the rhythm of a different spiritual beat. It was the time of writers like Kraus, Trakl and Schönberg and of philosophers like Wittgenstein. As regards painting, Gustav Klimt, the first president of the Secession movement, had started out as a conventional history painter but was now on the lookout for new horizons. Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele were to represent the second generation of this artistic renovation and become the exponents of Austrian Expressionism.  


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Egon Schiele, Sitting Semi Nude With Blue Hairband, 1914. Leopold Museum, Vienna


The decadence of 1900's Vienna was an emotive catalyst that veered between two obsessions: sex and death. Old Austria was not just a void but a constancy that dissimulated the void. Nihilism made way for a new state of mind and a new bravado. Sigmund Freud discovered that pain created specific problems and conflicts that would not resolve themselves. He wrote The Interpretation Of Dreams and Studies On Hysteria which Schiele became obsessed with. Exploration of the "I" and sexual identity were all that interested him and this spilled over onto his canvasses.

Between 1910 and 1918, Schiele addressed various psychological topics. He left traditional portraiture behind, having pushed it to its absolute limits and, as Richard Avedon said, " he broke the mould and turned up the volume to scream pitch". Schiele's scream came from inside haggard, twisted, satanic bodies that terrified the society of his day. He was often his own model, gesticulating, mouthing words, his hair bristling and a menacing look in his eye, painting hands sharpened like spiders and which rarely depicted a thumb. He cut off his compositions to look almost mutilated, pushing the bodies of his subjects right into the corners of the canvas. His approach was radiacally "flat", like American art of the 1940's. Backgrounds didn't exist and bodies were suspended in the void, alone. Even the paper he used, from 1910 onwards, had something of the past-its-sell-by-date about it, a high concentration of lignin giving it a particular pale brown quality that could not withstand exposure to light. He sometimes outlined them with a white border, as if they had an aura around them. For Schiele, bodies emanated light: "I draw the light that comes from bodies."


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Egon Schiele, Self-portrait With Splayed Fingers, 1911. Leopold Museum, Vienna


Egon Schiele was all but forgotten during the 1930's but not so much so that the Nazi regime would neglect to include him on their list of degenerate artists. He was, however, rediscovered after WWII as a fundamental figure in modern art. His mutant, narcissistic persona would go on to attract other like-minded egos while later contemporary personalities such as James Dean and David Bowie would fall under his spell.


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Egon Schiele, Self-portrait, 1912. Leopold Museum, Vienna


In the vast majority of his over 2000 drawings and 300 paintings, Schiele transforms the body - particularly the female one - into a chilling merchandise of desire. Skirts wide open, exposed genitals, prostitutes, his 14 year old sister, lesbian couples, priests, nuns, postures and bodies as if from an extermination camp. None of them has a real face. They are, rather, stunned masks with a look of the lost about them.


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Egon Schiele, Lovemaking, 1915. Leopold Museum, Vienna


The aesthetics of the grotesque

One might say that Schiele was a master of the aesthetics of the grotesque. Up until then, in works such as Courbet's The Origin Of The World (1866) or Japanese prints, sex had never been treated in such a sordid manner. Why then do Schiele's paintings move us with their beauty? Why do his stray faces, enraptured gestures and anxious hands seem, at times, to possess the serenity of a Russian ballerina frozen mid-performance?


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Egon Schiele, Preacher (Nude With Teal Shirt), 1913. Leopold Museum, Vienna.


The answer lies, arguably, in the virtuosity of Schiele's technique. Few artists have managed to convey so much with just one stroke, or even at times, a scribbled line. They ranged from sharp to caressing and from tense to delicate, whether hastily sketched or profoundly deliberate, broken or fluid. But above all, Schiele was prodigious in his use of colours, wholly independent of Nature's own. He used greens and purples, lilac, mauve and reds for human skin. His bodies looked ill but the colourways were sublime. 


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Albrecht Durer, Wing Of A European Roller, 1512.  Albertina Museum, Vienna.


A short distance away from this exhibition in the Museums District is the Hofburg Palace with its still snow-covered gardens, Habsburg library and imperial steel filigree glasshouse and so we arrive at the Albertina Museum. In the rooms containing this collection, Albrecht Durer's watercolours rub shoulders on the walls with those of Schiele. 400 years may separate them but, regardless, they are both stitched from the same cloth of infinite blues, oranges or greens and the same mastery of line that edges each feather on the wing of Durer's birds or the body of Schiele's figures. In these days of strange and seemingly random censorship when photographs of prisoners are taken down at a Madrid art fair or posters for Schiele exhibitions are banned for obscenity in London, Cologne and Hamburg, it's well worth coming to Vienna. Sometimes, it takes raw, naked beauty to make sense of things. As Schiele himself wrote at the bottom of one of his watercolours, "I don't think there's such a thing as modern art. It's just art and it's eternal." 


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Egon Schiele, The Embrace (Lovers II), 1917. Belvedere Gallery, Vienna


EGON SCHIELE ~ The Jubilee Show

Leopold Museum 

Museumsplatz 1, Vienna

Curator: Diethard Leopold

Until 4 November 2018


                                      (Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)



- Egon Schiele, beauty and the chasm between -                                   - Alejandra de Argos -

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian






Nude, 1917


In the winter of 1910, Amedeo Modigliani was accompanied by Anna Akhmatova on his strolls around Paris where, together, they discovered the Louvre's Greek and Egyptian art collections, moulds from Angkor in the Trocadero's Indochinese pavillion and black masks brought from the Ivory Coast. Modigliani would later draw Akhmatova's Slavic silhouette with sparse outlines borrowing on the Egyption art he so wanted to immerse himself in. The sketch portrays her as solemn, serene, regal even, her posture only softened by a slight inclination of the head.   

Later still, this pair of young expat lovers in pre-WWII Paris, would recite Verlaine's poetry together duet-style. Akhmatova described their relationship thus in 1911: “We both read Mallarmé and Baudelaire. But he never read me Dante because at that time I couldn't speak Italian”. She was 21 and just starting to write her very first poems in Russian. He was a 26 year old Bohemian artist and still a complete unknown. Modigliani is often remembered as an addict of alcohol and marijuana but, almost never, as a poetry or bookaholic.

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Woman reclining on a bed (Akhmatova), 1911


Born in Livorno in 1884, he had been steeped, during his study years in Florence and Venice, in Classical Art and this immersion left an indelible mark on him. He arrived in Paris in 1906 and devoted what remained of his life to art. In Montmartre, he was just another immigrant along with the likes of Apollinaire, Picasso, Derain and Diego Rivera but, in his case, an Italian Jew suffering from tuberculosis and an exotic pariah amongst many other pariahs in that small, cosmopolitan republic of artists and writers. He may have been living in Paris but he was Italian through and through: in his dress (corduroy or velvet suits with knotted scarves), in his seduction techniques, in his understanding of beauty, in his wandering freely ... in his reading and reciting of Dante's Divine Comedy and Inferno until the day he died.  


In the early years and similarly to other young geniuses like Picasso or Braque, he began painting in the style of Cézanne. But while Picasso and Braque would retain the Post-Impressionist's simplification in volumes, Modigliani, also heavily influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec and Whistler, focused on portraits but still made use of Cézanne's concept, brushstrokes and very nearly monochrome palette.


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Head, 1911-1912


But it was in 1909 on meeting Brancusi that Modigliani left painting behind and between 1910 and 1914 he identified as a "sculptor". Together, he and Brancusi would scour the outskirts of Paris for materials to steal and bring back to the rented apartment they shared in Montparnasse. He began to chisel female heads directly from blocks of pilfered stone. He wanted to liberate sculpture from the dead end down which Rodin had lead him: so much modelling, so much clay. He thought chiselling should be done "live" the way the Ancient Greeks had done it, by breaking into a slab of stone in order to draw from it deities with African or Cambodian features. In the evenings, he would illuminate these heads with candles, turning his studio into a sort of primitive temple of the occult. In the Tate's current Retrospective, there is one room dedicated solely to his sculptures and it is a room that takes your breath away. In it, nine of his 29 sculpted heads rise like totem poles enclosed in their glass cases and arranged in a slantwise dance. The last time these heads were displayed together was at the 1912 Autumn Salon and Modigliani was then still alive. Lipchitz said of them: "He conceived them as a whole and set them up one in front of the other like the pipes of an organ in order that they produce exactly the music he wanted to convey."  

The influence of non-Western sculpture in the Paris of Modigliani's day was radical. In 1906, Gaugin's Retrospective at the Autumn Salon shocked the Parisian avant-garde, especially the wood reliefs carved during his latter years in Polynesia, with their marked primitive and feral imprint. That same year, artists such as Derain, Vlaminck, Matisse and Picasso started to buy African art. All of this signified a turning point in Modigliani's career and, around 1914, he suddenly stopped sculpting. The dust particles released into the air he inhaled while chiselling were only exacerbating his disease and perhaps, also, it was occasioned by war being declared that year and his permanently dire financial straits.


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Juan Gris, 1915


Painter of artists' portraits 

Between 1914 and 1920, the year of his death, Modigliano did only paintings and he did so profusely. In cafés such as La Rotonde, Le Dôme and La Cloiserie des Lilas he chose artists and writers as his models. This is also the time of his complex and serious relationship with the South African journalist Beatrice Hastings. Both were great readers, travellers and socialites. Both shared an addiction to alcohol - whiskey for her, red wine for him - and to hash. At the beginning of the 20th century, Montparnasse had become a ghetto for artists on the fringe of many things and beyond the reach, perhaps, even of the war that was wreaking profound changes on Parisian life. Choosing to be a painter in the artistic community of Paris was his way of trying to integrate his own lifestyle into his art.

This body of portraits, among which are those of Juan Gris, Celso Lagar, Picasso, Diego Rivera, Chaïm Soutine, Derain, Matisse, Cocteau and Max Jacob has many common denominators: subject matter tight to the frame, face-frontal poses and a fixed gaze. Nothing about them allows the spectator to escape the stare of those eyes except, perhaps, their recurrent lack of irises and pupils. Léopold Survage asked, on viewing the portrait that Modigliani had just finished of him: “Why did you only give me one eye?" Modigliano replied: “Because we look at the world with one eye and with the other, we look inside ourselves."


 Modigliani 4 

Marie, 1918


With Cubism now an emerging new art movement, Modigliani tried to create a "synthetic" image of the human being: outlined faces with the bridge of the nose and the eyebrows accentuated. The palette was dense but limited and the surfaces luminous. It was painting that came from some spiritual and intimate place and also from a commitment to integrating multicultural sources. Jean Cocteau summed it up perfectly: “First, everything took shape in his heart. The way he drew us around a table at La Rotonde, incessantly: the way he judged us, sensed us, loved us, discussed and argued with us. His drawing was a silent conversation. A dialogue between his sketch and us."


Scandalous nudes 

Modigliani worked furiously, with no let-up, no holds barred. He painted by instinct, as dictated by his Italian genetic makeup and all whilst spitting out blood. Three years before his death, he painted his famous female nudes which were banned for indecency in 1917 - now a century ago - at the inauguration of the only solo exhibition of his work during his lifetime, at the Berthe Weill Gallery. They are, perhaps, the highlight of this Tate exhibit but why so? What produces this magnetic pull? Is it Modigliani's deep aesthetic imprint mixed with a blatant eagerness to provoke desire in the onlooker or was it the £113 million his "Reclining Nude" sold for at Christie's in 2015?  

By now, Modigliani was no longer portraying a distant, ideal kind of beauty but a concrete woman: prostitutes, lovers or women who earned their living by posing for him. His models now were modern women with short haircuts, fashionable jewelery and makeup mimicking that of the cinema starlets of the day; women who look at the viewer and accuse him of voyeurism. The distance that existed in the canvases of yesteryear - from Giorgione to Manet's Olympia - disappears. Their bodies are firmly in the foreground, giving the impression of intimacy, as if they would allow us to touch them.



 Modigliani 5 

Jeannette Hébuterne, 1919


And after this sublime room, the exhibition closes with soft colours, pale light and the sweetest of subjects. These are the paintings of the time Modigliano spent in Nice and Paris with Jeanne Hébuterne, his common-law wife and young mother of his daughter, who was with him throughout his final demise. Shut away in their workshop, surrounded by sardine cans and bottles of wine, Jeanne painted Modigliani while he was dying. He was 35. She was 21. In the last room there is a portrait of Jeanne wearing an ample smock blouse flowing over her nearly full-term pregnancy. It has an air of Parmigianino's Madonna With The Long Neck but nothing about it hints that, just a few weeks later, she would throw herself and her unborn child off the balcony of her parents' apartment. She could not bear to go on after Modigliano's death, her lover with the christian name Amedeo from the House of Savoy and who, the previous day, had been buried with all the honours of a prince by an entourage of painters, writers, actors and musicians in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.



 Modigliani 6 

Self Portrait, 1919



Tate Modern

Curators: Emma Lewis and Nancy Ireson

Bankside, London

Until 2nd April 2018


 Modigliani 7 

 Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne being viewed by an exhibition visitor. Modigliani, Tate Gallery


(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)



- Modigliani, a painter with one eye looking inwards -                        - Alejandra de Argos -



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