Why has the myth of Modigliani as a cursed artist proven more compelling than the reality? Legend has it that he was a drunken, womanising, drug-addicted painter, who died in penury, his genius as yet unrecognised. As Raymond Chandler might have written, trouble was his business.
But was it? Certainly Modigliani had enough tragedy in his short life to qualify as the ultimate cult artist, which pop culture guru Peter York points out. He lived fast and died young, leaving behind a finite body of work, suicidal mistresses and archival photos that have preserved his brooding good looks. To correspond to York’s article, artist Adam Dant charts the cult universe, from Chatterton to Che, Caravaggio to Kurt Cobain – radiating from Modigliani.
According to Modigliani scholar Kenneth Wayne however, the artist was actually far more serious, ambitious and successful than he is given credit for: he worked hard, was admired by peers such as Picasso, sold paintings and was supported by loyal dealers and collectors. He quotes Modigliani’s friend, the artist Jacob Epstein: ‘The legend of the debauched artist is just a legend. What legend gives us is an implausible caricature of a man . . . Modigliani left behind a life’s work in art.’
Perhaps we believe in the myths to gloss over the uncomfortable fact that a creative calling can mean a life of hard graft and sacrifice. For young artists struggling to make their mark, it can be difficult to find the space and resources to show their work. The RA Schools degree show, celebrated in a photo essay, provides graduating students with an important opportunity to exhibit their art. As Keeper of the RA Schools Maurice Cockrill RA points out, the Schools makes an effort to help its students get a foot on the art world ladder and has opened the new RA Schools Gallery, where recent alumni exhibit with more established artists.
This intermingling of prominent and unknown artists can be seen as a microcosm of the Summer Exhibition spirit. Sculptor David Mach RA, one of this year’s co-ordinators, describes the event as ‘a big, wild hoary mess’. He applauds its all-inclusive and eclectic mix of styles and media and the fact that this is the world’s biggest open-submission exhibition.
For the first time, the entire show has been filmed – from the selection to the opening – in a fly-on-the-wall television documentary. As BBC2 Controller Roly Keating explains, ‘The cameras have been allowed everywhere in Burlington House.’ Will this reality TV treatment diminish the mystique of the RA? Perhaps, but looking behind the scenes gives us a sense of the real life of the exhibition, capturing the urgency and immediacy that artists put into their creative endeavour. This no myth can rival.
Sarah Greenberg, Editor