Modigliani: Beyond the Myth The Jewish Museum July 2004by Valery Oisteanu
Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) was born in Livorno, Italy to a well to do family of Italian Sephardic Jews that went bankrupt shortly after his birth. Amedeo’s maternal grandfather Isaac Garson moved to Livorno and looked after Amedeo’s schooling. He taught him French and was the first one to take Amedeo to museums. Unfortunately, Amedeo’s grandfather died in 1895 and Amedeo fell seriously ill. This illness, later diagnosed as TB, haunted him all his life.
In 1906, Amedeo took the train from Livorno to Paris where he enrolled in a classical curriculum at the Académie Colarossi. Modigliani soon abandoned his studies for the Montparnasse taverns, where he met Picabia, Derain, Vlaminck, and Max Jacob. The next year he rented a studio and began working in a modernist style. He felt frustration about his art. Modigliani took to alcohol and drugs, excesses that gravely damaged his already weak constitution.
In 1914, his first important art dealer was introduced to him by Max Jacob. Paul Guillaume bought some of Amedeo’s paintings and rented him a studio. He also had an intense affair with Beatrice Hastings and moved with her to an apartment on rue de Montparnasse, where he made a number of drawings and portraits of her. Although he continued to indulge his usual excesses, the artist steadily painted many of his friends, including Kisling, Picasso, and Lawrence. In August 1915, Modigliani collapsed and was found unconscious and malnourished in his studio. Soutine, despite his own poverty, took him in for a time and nursed him back to health.
During Carnival in 1918, Modigliani met Jeanne Hebuterne, a nineteen-year-old art student. Her adoration of the painter sets her apart from his other lovers; friends believed that this young woman would succeed in straightening out his life. In fact, his art became clear and more serene, and soon the artist had a home of his own where he could paint. But in March, Paris was bombed, Jeanne became pregnant, and Modigliani’s health took a turn for the worse. Zborowski, Modigliani, Soutine, and Foujita moved to the south of France. Robbed of his money and his documents and thus unable to leave Nice, and with a newborn baby girl, Modigliani was pressed by a new sense of responsibility, and he painted four landscapes—the only landscapes in his entire body of work.
Although English critics praised Modigliani’s portraits, it did nothing for his image in Paris. Four of his paintings were exhibited at the Salon but they received neither attention nor mention. During the winter of 1919, Modigliani wandered drunkenly from bistro to bistro in the cold city. He was hospitalized, unconscious on January 22, 1920, while Jeanne was about to give birth to their second child. In less than two days he expired, and the following morning, Jeanne jumped out of a fifth story window to her death. At his funeral at Pere Lachaise cemetery were Picasso, Max Jacob, Kisling, Soutine, Brancusi, van Dongen, Severini, Derain, Lipchitz, Leger, Vlaminck, Foujita and many other artists.
The exhibition at The Jewish Museum (the first since 1951) reexamines the full range of Modigliani’s art as a painter and sculptor. It features over 100 paintings, sculptures, and drawings on loan from major museums. Known for reclining nudes and portraits with elegantly elongated features, Modigliani was an anomaly among the artists of the avant-garde and remained independent of the era’s many artistic movements. His bohemian way of life and untimely death made him a legendary figure whose reputation obscured the meanings of his works.<
The Jewish Museum’s exhibit Modigliani: Beyond the Myth is divided into six sections—Caryatids, Sculpture, Return to Painting, Portraiture, Montparnasse, and The Nudes. Sculpture is definitely the key to understanding the interrelationships between his work. By the time he met Brancusi in 1909, Modigliani had begun to develop his own style, absorbing influences from Munch to Cézanne, and translating painterly qualities into a synthesis of stone. He investigated an abstract, depersonalized face, and he produced a series of carved heads with Archaic Greek and Cycladic influences, African and Egyptian lines.
From 1915 to the end of his life, Modigliani ceased making sculpture and returned to painting. The artist focused on the nature and ambiguity of identity as expressed in faces. Because he had no Eastern European accent and spoke perfect French, he was identified as Italian so he often introduced himself as Modigliani the Jew. His identity was rooted in his family claim of descent from the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Spinoza.
Some of the faces in Portraiture are of the unrecognized geniuses of his time, others of assorted Parisians, all enigmatic in their ethnic anonymity, a hybridization of European characteristics. In cafés, to supplement his income, he drew customers often unknown to him for cash or drinks. In many instances, those sketches became preparatory drawings for his paintings. During the First World War, when most of the taverns of the city closed down, Café de la Rotonde became a center for intellectuals. It was there he met artist émigrés whom he painted: Matisse, Picasso, Cocteau, Rivera, Lipchitz, and Kisling.
The room of The Nudes is where his lovers gaze directly at us without fear or sin. His best works are five female nudes produced between 1916 and 1919, which persuaded gallery owner Berthe Weill to give the artist his first and only one-person show in December 1917. The exhibit created a scandal that lingered well after the artist’s death. What shocked the contemporary viewers was the way Modigliani reduced the female body to erotic sculptural details, presenting the female as voluptuous and distant, sexualized and paradoxical, with detailed nipples, pubic hair, and sensual breasts. Modigliani stylized his subjects to a geometrical abstraction, especially their faces, and in the process created an unmistakable signature style—an elongated facemask.
Mason Klein, the curator of Modigliani: Beyond the Myth, is honoring the artist with just that—the myth of Amedeo Modigliani, the lonely prophet deliberately in a trance is remembered as a true artist and visionary beyond interpretations, beyond explanations. His painted surfaces mysteriously glow through the human skin.