x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 14 December 2017

Tate Modern retrospective offers visitors the chance to experience Modigliani’s Paris studio

VR headsets enable art fans to live and breathe the artist’s life and work, in a pioneering show

The Little Peasant (1918) by Amedeo Modigliani. Courtesy Tate
The Little Peasant (1918) by Amedeo Modigliani. Courtesy Tate

When 21-year-old Amedeo Modigliani decided to leave Italy to develop his fledgling artistic career, there was only one place to go – it was 1906, and the thrilling possibilities of the modernist avant-garde drew him to Paris. Paul Cézanne passed away that same year, but the young Italian was joining a cast of contemporaries in Montmartre – with the Moulin Rouge as a backdrop – who would expand his mind beyond the opulent renaissance painting that had he had grown up with, and trained in.

Modigliani worshipped Pablo Picasso, one of many great artists in the neighbourhood, and working there among such peers – so many of them poor, dissolute and maverick in their creativity – was like one long creative epiphany. “My Italian eyes cannot get used to the light of Paris,” he wrote: “Such an all-embracing light... You cannot imagine what new themes I have thought up in violet, deep orange and ochre.”

In the next 14 years, Modigliani would thrive off the work of his contemporaries, scramble around for rent money, switch between patrons, and fall in and out of love, while war and revolution blazed across Europe. He packed an extraordinary amount of both work and life into his 35 years: quickly becoming half-ruined by alcoholism, drug abuse and tuberculosis, before dying tragically young from the latter, a quintessential romantic in the age of the modernists.

It’s context like this that guides us through an understanding of any major art exhibition – that helps us scratch away at the meaning, pain and desire layered on the canvas, and to feel the atmosphere around every brushstroke. In addition to extensive bodies of art criticism, and the standard information plaques and exhibition catalogues, most major international art galleries now provide audio-guided tours, and a calendar of supplementary events inspired by the exhibition. It’s an expanding field of curatorial activity in all but the most traditional art museums and galleries: how do you help visitors peer behind the easel, to get more from works – how do you make the paintings leap off the wall?

A huge and comprehensive Modigliani career retrospective has opened at the Tate Modern in London, featuring more than 100 works – most of them portrait paintings, with one room of sculpture – but with one eye-catching supplement: a virtual reality room.

In partnership with virtual reality (VR) studio Preloaded and the manufacturers of the VR headsets, HTC, the Tate are trumpeting a groundbreaking recreation of Modigliani’s final studio in Paris – in the gallery itself. It is very easy to be sceptical, especially if you are also ignorant about what VR is like in practice (which I was): the word “gimmick” seems to hover around this idea like an ochre halo around one of Modigliani’s subjects. But the Tate’s decision is certainly a harbinger of things to come, as this technology both advances in sophistication and becomes cheaper to employ.

Amedeo Modigliani in his studio, photograph by Paul Guillaume (circa 1915). Courtesy Archives Alain Bouret
Amedeo Modigliani in his studio, photograph by Paul Guillaume (circa 1915). Courtesy Archives Alain Bouret

They did not go about it half-heartedly: spending five months researching the precise details of the interior of the artist’s studio, and the nature of his day-to-day practice and behaviour. Was he messy or tidy? (Very messy.) How did he work? (Quickly, with great focus, often while drinking and smoking.) What else did he do in the studio? (Collapse on a mattress in the corner, after one of his intense sessions.) The Tate also had 3-D modellers research the specifics of the 60 objects that fill the virtual room: from the packet of cigarettes on the table next to his easel, to the way the windows would have opened.

My scepticism disappeared immediately: rain drips from the ceiling, smoke rises from the ashtray, you can peer out of the window into Paris, and feel the light cascading through the whitewashed windows. The windows are key to understanding his “new themes”, and run down an entire side of the room – the studio itself is small and humble, sparsely furnished; but you can immediately comprehend how the warm colour palette he was using at the end of his career came alive in that space.

It also helps to explain the confidence underlining the classic Modigliani self-portrait you are sat in front of: a confidence informed by age, travel and experience, but maybe the studio itself. Having effectively sat in his chair – there are three stages to the six-minute VR experience, three positions from which you can view the room in 360 degrees – you are closer to his psyche than you could ever be reading a paragraph on a wall.

You gaze around the studio at will while the Tate’s curators explain parts of his process in voice-over, and actors read out commentary from Modigliani’s contemporaries on his psyche, and his priorities. It is like living inside a particularly well-rendered documentary – if you’ve never experienced VR, it is quite existentially disturbing, on a level beyond 3-D cinema or even the most advanced computer games. Taking the headset off and realising you’re in a fairly plain room in an art gallery takes a moment of adjustment.

Head (circa 1911). Courtesy Harvard Art Museums / Fogg Museum
Head (circa 1911). Courtesy Harvard Art Museums / Fogg Museum

The excitement of this new frontier is not to diminish the value of other, rather more old-fashioned curatorial techniques, less flashy types of multimedia – indeed the Modigliani exhibition is greatly enlivened by a montage of archival footage of “the boheme of Montmartre”, along with clips from silent films of the era that inspired him, as well as photos of the artist relaxing with his friends, and even something as simple as a map of Montmartre. These all help to give us the contours of his milieu. Should it need to be said, nothing could ever trump the importance of the basics of a good retrospective: procuring a good selection of works, presenting them in a coherent fashion which balances themes and chronology, and hanging them in the right way – but if the brave new world also means gimmicks like interactive VR studios, then bring them on.

Modigliani, Tate Modern, Bankside, London, until April 2. For more, see www.tate.org.uk

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