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Courtauld Connection: Modigliani masterpiece travels to Belfast

An exciting partnership with the Ulster Museum explored the relationship between artist and model

Dr Barnaby Wright, Deputy Head of The Courtauld Gallery and Daniel Katz Curator of 20th Century Art, spoke to Anne Stewart, Senior Curator of Art at the National Museums NI, about an exciting partnership between The Courtauld and the Ulster Museum. As part of this collaboration, The Courtauld’s Female Nude, 1916 by Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) was loaned to the Ulster Museum between 8 June and 28 October 2018, where it was displayed with a small group of works from the Ulster Museum collection exploring the intense relationship between the artist and model.

When Modigliani’s Female Nude, 1916 was first displayed to the public in Paris, over a century ago, contemporaries were scandalised. What has the reception to the painting been like in Belfast? Do you think that this painting can still be considered controversial?

For many visitors the response was one of familiarity rather than shock. Modigliani’s work is well-known through reproduction, and there was a sense of anticipation and excitement. In gallery texts we described the atmosphere of freedom and experimentation Modigliani experienced in Paris, and I think many visitors sensed that what is natural in an artist’s studio can become shocking in the public domain. Visitors commented that the model’s closed eyes suggest an inner life that is unreachable, giving the work a sense of vulnerability and humanity rather than shock.

The Female Nude, 1916 is widely considered to be one of the most powerful works of the early 20th century. What does the painting mean to you and what are your thoughts on its enduring appeal?

I am always surprised by the contrast between the physicality of Modigliani’s technique, and the sense of remoteness in the young woman’s face. For me the painting is made exciting by the tension between these two very different aspects. It is reminiscent of Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus or Velázquez’s The Toilet of Venus, as in both paintings the viewer is enthralled by the artist’s technique, but can know nothing of the model’s thoughts.

Modigliani’s depiction of the sitter, who appears to have retreated into her own world, poses interesting questions about the relationship between artist and sitter and I am delighted to see the painting taking on new life at the Ulster Museum. What themes did you explore in preparation for the display and in the context of the National Museum NI’s own rich collections?

Many of Modigliani’s paintings depict his friends and lovers, and I selected a display from the Ulster Museum collection which explored the relationship between artist and sitter. I began with two pencil drawings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of Elizabeth Siddall, Preparatory studies for Tibullus and Delia (1851). Siddall, modelling for Delia, sits with her eyes closed as if day-dreaming, and as she waits for Tibullus absently draws a thread of hair though her lips.

More forensic were Dermod O’Brien The Painting Room at the Fine Art Academy, Antwerp (1890), Suspense, (1916), by Walter Sickert and Female Nude (1928) by Mark Gertler. The influence of Manet is present in Resting (1905) by Sir William Orpen, a study of one of his favourite models, Lottie Stafford. Family relationships were explored in a charcoal drawing by Frank Auerbach of his wife, Head of Julia (1992) and Stanley Spencer’s portrait of his niece Daphne (1951). The final work was a new acquisition, Untitled (2015) by Belfast born photographer Hannah Starkey, which includes a self-portrait in a series of fractured urban images.

As part of an ongoing programme of national loans and partnerships, The Courtauld is re-connecting with many communities which were once manufacturing hubs for Courtaulds Ltd. What are your views on the importance of honouring this longstanding Belfast – Courtauld connection and its legacy?

The Modigliani loan forms part of Courtauld Connects, a project which aims to share The Courtauld’s collection with audiences across the United Kingdom, especially in areas where it once had a significant industrial presence. In 1951 Courtaulds Ltd opened a factory in Carrickfergus, County Antrim of which and many local people have memories, although before the Modigliani loan to the Ulster Museum few connected it with The Courtauld Gallery in London.

What are your hopes for the longer-term impact of the partnership?

Visitor responses displayed a real appetite to see remarkable works of art in Belfast. Overall 63% of visitors had never seen an original work by Modigliani, 82% had never visited The Courtauld Gallery and 33% were new visitors to the Ulster Museum. Future loans from The Courtauld will enable a generation of visitors to the Ulster Museum to become familiar with one of the greatest art collections in the world, and one which has an important local connection to Northern Ireland.

Originally published in the 2017/18 edition of In Focus. Click here to view.

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