Jenny Uglow at the NYRB:
A single Modigliani portrait or nude is strikingly beautiful—the elongated face, the tilted head, the lithe pose. Yet when a host of them crowds together, as they do in a major retrospective currently at the Tate Modern, the initial impact is oddly diluted. Surrounded by portraits from his first years in Paris, my first response was, “Surely they couldn’t all have had V-shaped eyebrows and sunken, oval eyes?” The mannerisms display a young man out to make a mark, to signal his presence in an immediately recognizable style. It’s irresistible to quote Jean Cocteau, who left Amedeo Modigliani’s portrait of him in the studio because, he claimed, he couldn’t afford the cab-fare to take it home. “It doesn’t look like me,” he said. “But it does look like Modigliani, which is better.”
To emphasize the sameness of the portraits, though, is to ignore the subtle modulations, the rough backgrounds that let the figure stand out, the urgent quest for expression, perhaps a striving to understand the nature of identity itself. Sometimes, Modigliani suggests the spirit of his subjects so acutely that we can almost hear them talking, as in the portraits of his dapper, nervy patron, Paul Guillaume. And in the Tate show, two people escape his formula altogether, as if their personalities were too large to fit the frame. One is an unrecognizable, bubble-faced Picasso, the other a marvelously forceful Diego Rivera, filling the canvas with rolling energy.