I recently started an online course that focuses its discussion on the representation of women on the canvas throughout the centuries. As a result, I have found myself reflecting quite often on Modigliani's works exhibited at the Tate Modern, which I first had the chance to go and see a couple of months ago; in the interest of context, Modigliani was an Italian painter born in 1883. He created a lot of his oeuvre in France, and like many painters, achieved popularity posthumously, following his death from tubercular meningitis in 1920 at the age of 35.

I have read a lot of criticism on Modigliani's works (specifically those exhibited at the Tate) that attempts to determine just how striking and subversive his works – his nudes in specific – when first exhibited at the beginning of the 20th century actually were. I have found articles that support his artistic genius and others that question how much inspiration he took from the work of his peers. Nevertheless – and taking into the account that I certainly am no expert in Modigliani and didn't know a single thing about his background until I visited the Tate – I wanted to share some of the observations I made there.

The thing that I found the most disappointing about the exhibition, aside from the large, chatty groups of people walking from one room to the other (I much prefer visiting galleries that are quieter and not as busy as Tate Modern) was the archetypical representation of the female subject: eyes gazing to whoever is admiring the painting, sitting or lying down in a passive pose, whereas the representation of male subject was the opposite - mostly engaging in some activity or another – physically doing something. Sadly, this was unsurprising, considering the time in which he was creating his works was an incredibly sexist one – not that I consider things to have improved all that much.

Despite this, I still found some value in his oeuvre; some of his nudes have been praised for scandalising the public when first exhibited, due to the depiction of visible pubic hair, something that was then and continues now to be controversial. Women today are often considered by the opposite sex to be at their most beautiful when hairless - there is an existing expectation to shave and wax and pluck every existing hair on the body. Although in Modigliani's time, women were likely to have pubic hair, the representation of it caused some offence. Modigliani and his female subjects are not phased by these expectations; the women confidently boast their magnificent bushes, posing languidly, appearing to know their own beauty. 

Another aspect of the exhibition that captured my attention was the artist's brief dabbling in sculpture. Having access to the Louvre, he is written to have spent hours upon hours sat in that building, drawing out inspiration for his new creations. He was very much interested in Caryatids and Middle Eastern sculptures, and ended up creating sketches and carvings of women with clean lines and elongated forms (inspired by Egyptian carving style), and almond-shaped eyes (inspired by Eastern art). This collision of cultural and sculptural styles shaped his later works, and, in maybe not the most obvious way, reminds me of today’s society: composed of individuals from very different cultural backgrounds, some of them in process of migration, some of them having migrated years ago, some of them being second-generation immigrants, some of them straddling various cultural identities and not knowing where they belong or if they do belong at all. 

At first glance, Modigliani's works seemed to me very much unsurprising and compliant to the canon. However, after a closer look, I found some nuances that could be interpreted as a challenge of or subversive to the archetypical and classical representations of the female body.