Hands up all those who know Modigliani’s first name. I’m sure many of you do, but the point is that the style is so recognisable that he/she no longer has need of a first name. In the commercial world such a degree of recognition would be regarded as successful branding, but in the sphere of creative arts that term is probably too crass to be acceptable – assuming, that is, that the artist’s adoption of a unique style is not a cynical marketing ploy but a result of genuinely artistic exploration. In any case, being in London for a few days, I wanted to take advantage of some of the cultural goodies on offer, and the Modigliani exhibition at Tate Modern was one of them.
Some of his (Amedeo’s) works are so familiar that I assumed I knew what to expect, but I was surprised by something I had not previously noticed: many of his faces have no eyeballs. I became obsessed with this for a while, thinking it odd that an artist could disregard the “windows to the soul” yet still convey soulfulness. Eventually I made the connection between the paintings and his earlier sculptures – stylised stone busts with blank eyeballs – and the fact that artists have never really needed to treat eyeballs – or anything else – realistically in order to express the subtleties of human experience. Perhaps I should scrutinise art more closely in future, I thought, and by the time I got to the Courtauld Gallery to see Chaim (I really did not know his first name) Soutine’s portraits, my attention was focused a little too intently on his treatment of the eyes.
However, my cultural outings included more than painting: I popped into the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road, attracted by a morbid curiosity to see the exhibition of medical paraphernalia and the special display Ayurvedic Man comprising Oriental medicinal tracts, artefacts and illustrations acquired by Mr. Wellcome at the turn of the 20th century. There, I expected merely to be amused by the trappings and mumbo-jumbo of faith-based cures devoid of empirical proof of efficacy and, to some extent, that was my experience. However, as well as the snake oil, there were long-standing traditions of plant-based remedies which, considering modern drugs are similarly derived, have to be convincing. Moreover, there was an 18th century engraving of a patient with a new nose, evidence that Indians had by then mastered reconstructive surgery, having reportedly practised it for hundreds of years. I stood corrected, once more, on my preconceptions – though not convinced that I need to realign or cleanse my chakras.
And so to music – or, rather, to Wilton’s in the East End, the 1850’s Music Hall that has been rescued from oblivion in the nick of time. Any excuse to attend this charming and evocative venue should be grasped so, when encouraged to meet a small party of friends and relatives there, I bought a ticket for an event titled The Voice of the Violin – despite my aversion to the instrument. (I secretly hoped that the unique acoustic of the venue might flatter its sound.) The programme was ambitious: it comprised 18 pieces for solo violin, each of which was played on an instrument contemporary to the era of its composition. In the event, despite the unquestionable virtuosity of the performer, I did find the concert quite testing. The experience was rather like listening to a collection of emblematic guitar solos taken out of the context of the tunes they were intended to enhance. Not only was the prolonged jumble of showy, over-excited pieces too much for my senses, but my hopes for acoustic enhancement went unrealised and I was quietly relieved when it ground to an end. Some prejudices, it seems, are insurmountable.