New York

Amedeo Modigliani

After decades of revisionist art history, with its accompanying tendency to downplay the significance of biography, it’s hard to believe that the oeuvre of Amedeo Modigliani remains colored by accounts of personal tragedy. Perhaps the most famous of the Montparnasse peintres maudits, Modigliani’s life story is familiar enough: Impoverished, itinerant, tubercular but handsome, the artist was frequently under the influence of alcohol and drugs, sketched café clients for money, and died at the age of thirty-five (an event immediately followed by the suicide of his pregnant girlfriend and last muse, Jeanne Hébuterne). All this is true, but reveals little about the art or even the man. This retrospective, curated by Mason Klein, aimed to steer us away from the debauched vie de boheme and back toward Modigliani’s art.

In order to do this, the pointedly titled “Modigliani: Beyond the Myth” needed to retain some elements of narrative, but its focus was readjusted toward a consideration of Modigliani’s intellectual life and the cultural context of fin de siècle Italy. It is essential, argues Klein, that we see him as a Sephardic Jew whose identity as such contributed a great deal to his art, as did the particular conditions of his upbringing. Modigliani was raised in a politically liberal and intellectually precocious household: He grew up reading Dante and Spinoza, and the strains of classical Italian humanism and Hebraic tradition mingle easily in his art.

After the relatively utopian republicanism of post-risorgimento Italy, the anti-Semitism of Paris came as a shock. Arriving in the capital in 1906, Modigliani already spoke French fluently and unlike other Jewish émigré artists in Montparnasse like Chagall and Soutine he was not primarily identified as a Jew. Although he never tried to hide it—he often introduced himself with the announcement “I am Modigliani, Jew”—his identity was suddenly uncertain. Herein, Klein contends, lay both Modigliani’s dilemma and his artistic opportunity: He articulated difference and otherness in aesthetic terms. He began exploring “primitive” objects and may have turned toward abstraction to accentuate difference and play up ambiguity in his painted portraits. He also befriended Brancusi, whose influence is evident in the finely carved idol-like heads and caryatids that Modigliani produced between 1909 and 1915.

Although he ceased making sculpture at this point, Modigliani always thought of himself as a sculptor, and the concerns of that practice inform his portraits, with their stylized, masklike features, blank eyes, elongated faces, and trunklike necks. Some, such as La Juive (The Jewess), 1908, are typological and anonymous; most, however, depict friends, lovers, and patrons. But these likenesses are far from pure. Row after row shows subjects flatly and frontally in hieratic poses with their eyes distorted or rendered as dark almonds or gray pools. This democratizing formalism was driven in part by modernist and abstract influences and in part by the artist’s belief that all people could be rendered as equally important regardless of social position. This combination of individuality and anonymity informs his poignant 1916 rendering of Max Jacob, a Jew who converted to Catholicism, was later persecuted, and died in a Nazi camp. The painting perfectly articulates Modigliani’s egalitarian sympathies.

Such intention does not diminish the beauty of many of these works. When the pictures break out of their formal rigidity it feels like a release, as in Anna Zborowska, 1917, who is depicted wearing a sweeping black skirt and sitting against a background of the rusty brown-red that the artist used again and again. Sometimes there is lightness to the paintings; a 1919 picture of Hébuterne presents her as both an intimate of the artist’s and a modern allegory of love. In his catalogue essay Maurice Berger considers Modigliani’s commitment to a relatively realistic style as a contributing factor to the profusion of biographically centered interpretations of his art. His devotion so exclusively to portraiture is also seen as a marker of artistic difference, at least within the avant-garde. In the context of the concerns with individual identity that are so astutely foregrounded in this exhibition it seems inarguable that Modigliani found within portraiture’s limits the perfect philosophical and even political style.

Meghan Dailey