John Westbrooke discovers a doomed artist and his languid nudes

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Tate Modern’s exhibition of the works of Amedeo Modigliani brings together the biggest group of his nude paintings ever shown in this country. A dozen hang in a big central room, and they’re quite stunning.

At a quick glance they look samey – elongated figures, in not-quite-naturalistic shades of yellowish and orangeish. Look more closely, though, and you start to notice the individuality of the sitters; the Italian painter certainly wasn’t just producing the same picture 12 times.

Perhaps the most striking, “Reclining Nude”, lies on her back, eyes shut, one arm stretched behind her head, her body half-rotated toward the viewer. Others are more assertive, or provocative, according to your taste. “Nude” (1917) is turned away but looks back at us over her shoulder, her eyes open but expressionless. “Seated Nude” is sitting on the floor, investigating us slightly more quizzically. “Reclining Nude on a White Cushion” is smiling – but not at us.

These, the gallery reckons, are markers of social change – early depictions of the New Woman who came into being around the time of World War 1, winning autonomy their Victorian mothers never knew, stepping out of the home to take up jobs left vacant by men at war. Though they’re hardly the first models to stare back (think of Manet’s “Olympia” 50 years earlier), they do have a serene uninterest in seducing onlookers. They were controversial, all the same; the police wanted the painter’s only solo exhibition closed down because of the pubic hair on show.

Then again, the Tate points out that we don’t know who many of them were (when he painted his mistresses they kept their clothes on), and that they were quite likely sex workers making some extra money: they could earn five francs a day, twice what a female factory worker would make and not much less than Modigliani himself got from his dealer. So the women might be from the oldest profession, not new ones.

Born in Livorno in 1884, Modigliani moved to Paris, the centre of the art world, in 1906, and promptly started imitating others to see how it was done – standard practice for young artists. Some of his paintings look like Cézanne. The 1917 “Nude” may owe something to Ingres’ “Odalisque”. The elongated figures hint at Botticelli.

The long faces with long noses recall Picasso’s work after seeing African masks – though Modigliani probably came on the masks independently. He knew Picasso and painted him (the one here isn’t his best), and acknowledged that he was always 10 years ahead of everyone else, though he dressed untidily. Picasso, in return, said Modigliani was the best dressed man in Paris (this didn’t last; he became a bohemian slob).

But for all the influences he soaked up, he was always his own man; you’d never mistake a Modigliani for a work by anyone else. His portraits are in some ways like great caricature, without the humorous intent: he developed his own style, with oval faces and sometimes greyed-out or blacked-out eyes (the hands, strangely, often look like bunches of bananas), and yet you feel you’d recognise them if you saw them in the street, so well has he caught their likeness.

A portrait of his early dealer Paul Guillaume is a case in point: angular, mannered, and yet photos suggest he did look like that. One sitter, for “Boy in Short Pants”, has now been identified as the son of a friend: an existing photo of him was long thought to have shown a girl, but block out his long hair and you can see that, yes, Modigliani got him right

He briefly worked on sculpture, apparently with limestone he liberated from building sites. He produced only 28 works; nine accomplished heads are on display here, each longer than the last. But it appears he decided two dimensions were enough for what he wanted to achieve, and the dust can’t have done his lungs any good.

Toward the end of the war, after painting the nudes hung here, he moved to the south of France with his latest and last lover, Jeanne Hébuterne. They had a daughter; but he was already sick – he’d never got over childhood pleurisy – and addicted to absinthe and hashish. They returned to Paris in 1919 and he died of tubercular meningitis the following year, aged 35. Jeanne, eight months pregnant, killed herself a few days later.

Retrospectively, he became the template for the enfant terrible artist, starving in a garret, working feverishly at the mercy of his illness and addictions, unrecognised while alive and adored when dead (shades of Van Gogh), a Svengali with women (at least partly unfair: two of his lovers were well known authors in their right). Paint fast, die young, leave a raddled corpse.

And yet this isn’t what you see on the walls at all: as intensely as he worked, his relaxed, recumbent nudes seem to have all the time in the world.

The exhibition features not only a slide show of photos of the artist and his friends and film of the raffish prewar Paris where they lived, but also a virtual reality show: sit with a headset on and you’re surrounded by a recreation of Modigliani’s last studio; turn your head back and forth to see the smoke wafting up from a cigarette on the table and the rain dripping from the ceiling. This is something new and ingenious, but first come first served – ask about tickets as soon as you arrive.

Modigliani runs at Tate Modern until 2 April 2018. Adults from £17.70, seniors £16.70; family tickets available.