New York

Modigliani

Modigliani was the first painter who turned me off. Suffice it to say that at whatever age I saw my first Modigliani I was artificially traumatized. I still think Modigliani weak, easy, shamelessly mannered, and irredeemably bourgeois. He seems to have the lowest IQ of any modern artist except Rousseau (who loved beauty) or Chagall (who at least looks like he enjoyed painting). The only thing by him I have ever liked or respected is a beautiful figure drawing owned by Columbia University, which is well-knit and done with verve. Otherwise I have so unwaveringly disliked Modigliani that whenever I encounter praise of his work I suspect a boondoggle.

I can’t say that I’ve been converted, although in some discrete cases I see more than I had expected, the oeuvre as a whole looks more inflated than ever. First, Modigliani seems to have tried everything—I mean really everything—before hitting on a viable style: from the Cézanne in the Portrait of Pedro (1908) to the Vienna Secession in the portrait of a lady called The Amazon (1909) to neo-Impressionism in the portrait of Frank Burty Haviland (ca. 1914) to De La Fresnaye in the portrait of Henri Laurens (1915), to—if this is possible—Maurer in The Married Couple (1915–16). In portraits like Marguerite (1917) or The Red Boy (1917) we might even suspect some exposure to a Washington Square art show.

And whatever does get tried, just gets sipped: Cubism means making a figure look like he has a cinder in one otherwise normal eye. Lettering, when it is included, is thin and arty, not like “real” print.

Modigliani is often astonishingly vulgar. This can mean either a high kitsch quotient in terms of affected amateurishness, or it can mean vulgarity the way the man in the street means it. This is the vulgarity of the reclining nudes which, when seen in quantity, seem like Wesselmanns lacking Wesselmann’s sense of humor. It is true that some of the nudes, like the one from 1918 in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus Perls, gain by a Matisse-like surface patternism: that example takes in a nice textile arabesque. But at bottom the interest is in the exaggeration of the sexual characteristics, so much so that “tit” and “ass” seem more apt terms than “breast” or “buttocks.” In one case—Reclining Nude with Arms Raised (1917)—the body is even Vargas-like, with an exaggerated ventral ridge running up the chest; you would swear it was air-brushed.

Not everything is altogether lousy. One portrait, The Handsome Major (Dr. Devaraigne; 1917) seems actually to embody a live personality; this picture is heavily responsible to Van Gogh. The Schiele-like lady in The Amazon (1909) is also alive, and mighty sassy too. The portrait of Henri Laurens (1915) is abnormally cheerful and appealing, despite the rather studied dislocation of the figure’s shoulder. And the interesting portrait of Jean Cocteau (1916) works because for once Modigliani’s own para-schlank happens to correspond with the mood of his sitter.

The parts of many Modigliani figures easily detach themselves as rounded component shapes. It is true that the rendering of these forms does take into account the resultant pattern of two-dimensional curves on the surface. That, however, is a small accomplishment which is itself the source of the painter’s worst clichés—the sloping shoulders, fused eyebrows-noses, and katty-cornered axes of heads and necks. Everything tends toward the oval, and since an egg is the same in plan as it is in elevation, no wonder a semblance of formal thought does seem in evidence. Except in his sometimes amazingly fine drawings (there is one here, Rose Caryatid, ca. 1914), the simplified volumes of the, limbs of figures can evoke the almost automotive body shapes of Oskar Schlemmer’s lovely but simpleminded sculpture, a comparison which is perhaps most to the point when you look at the truncated legs of the Reclining Nude with Blue Cushion (1917–18). This could be a fine thing, and it is in his drawings, but it makes Modiglianis perhaps even hollower still than they would otherwise seem.

I guess I am being a little hard on Modi. But what really gets me is that this show is a benefit for, of all institutions, the Museum of Modern Art, that tax-free Rockefeller arm which has the highest admission charge of any picture gallery in the world. So you have to pay even more just to see these unimpressive canvases, and if you still have six dollars to throw away you can buy a catalog containing something by Alfred Werner called “The Eternal Modigliani,” an essay which manages to mention Modigliani’s alcoholism thirteen times in twelve pages and which offers such gems as “Indeed, Modigliani was a first-rate psychologist.”

Joseph Masheck