Modigliani Up Close
On ViewThe Barnes Foundation
Modigliani Up Close
October 16, 2022–January 29, 2023
As a child, I was intrigued by Amedeo Modigliani’s art. Looking back, I’m not surprised. After all, Modigliani was a modern painter who depicted stylized women, men, and children, a people person who executed few landscapes or still lifes. To make his portraits of mostly seated figures, he focused on heads and torsos as if he were an Italian Renaissance master. Besides their blank stares, long noses, rosy lips, and exaggerated necks, his models wore interesting frocks and suits. Adding to the fascination, the artist, from time to time, inscribed on his colored surfaces the names of his subjects, which readily identified them. His elongated, shapely nudes were twentieth century Venuses that stretched from one end of horizontal canvases to the other.
Later on, as a trained art historian, I was amazed that this short-lived artist who died of tubercular meningitis in 1920, when he was only thirty-five, had staked out such unique territory.
Modigliani Up Close, the impressive retrospective on display at the Barnes Foundation—its only venue—this autumn and winter rekindled my deep-rooted feelings for the artist. The scholarly, well-written exhibition catalogue, accessible to laymen, added further to my appreciation. Surprisingly, such a coherent project was curated by a team of co-organizers comprised of both art historians and conservators. They didn’t end up with the proverbial broken-backed camel. Paintings and sculptures were borrowed from American museums as well as institutions in far-flung locations in Italy, Israel, France, Brazil, England, and Denmark.
How did the Barnes, which famously does not lend art to other temporary exhibitions, end up with this remarkable show? That’s simple. Its collection houses twelve paintings, a sculpture, and three drawings by Modigliani. The Philadelphia-based foundation—along with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC—own more work by Modigliani than anyone else. Because of this, Up Close was essentially a bifurcated exhibition. What wasn’t on view among the borrowed canvases, which were grouped thematically as early works, portraits, carved stone heads, nudes, and later figures, was in the permanent installation in the second-floor galleries, mixed in among treasures by Picasso, Matisse, and other modernists.
Because conservation issues were a critical component of this show, the informative wall labels were must reads. They revealed that Modigliani often painted on top of previously used canvases. Sometimes they were his, other times, someone else’s. Even when he had a commission and could afford new materials, he’d use discarded work. It’s generally assumed that painters who do this are too poor to purchase their art supplies. But other factors were involved. It’s suggested that Modigliani liked how the varied hues he inherited served as base coats. As it was, he was much more of a colorist than had previously been assumed. Consider just the dark jacket his patron Paul Alexandre wears in a 1913 portrait. It’s comprised of a blend of bone black, emerald green, chromium oxide green, and Prussian blue.
When he used pre-painted canvases, Modigliani did not need to start from scratch. This practice kept his costs low and decision-making regarding color choices less intense. Related to this strategy is the matter of the models who posed for the Italian artist arriving in Paris from Livorno in 1906. He seldom needed to pay his sitters because they were friends, colleagues, lovers, and/or had commissioned portraits. Consider dermatologist Paul Alexandre once more. Modigliani painted him fourteen times and drew at least five works on paper between 1908 and 1914, when the doctor was sent to the front to fight during World War I.
The artists Modigliani depicted were not, at the time, boldface names. He painted, among others, Pablo Picasso, Jacques Lipchitz and his wife, Léon Bakst, Moisè Kisling and his wife, Suzanne Valadon, Maurice Utrillo, Max Jacob, Chaim Soutine, Diego Rivera, Juan Gris, and Jean Cocteau. Sometimes these canvases detract attention from Modigliani as we think about the art that these other Modernists executed themselves. That’s why I did not miss their absence in this focused retrospective.
Instead, the team of curators presented a wide-ranging array of personalities. Modigliani portrayed young and old, peasants and professionals, students and servants, close friends and new acquaintances. They were French, Polish, English, Catalonian, and Italian. Occasionally, the artist was inspired by the Fauves, Cubists, and Cézanne. A woman in a yellow dress from 1918 is seated in front of a wall covered with Matisse-like arabesques.
The portraits of two of Modigliani’s companions, Beatrice Hastings and Jeanne Hébuterne, were stand-outs. Up Close featured eight paintings of Hebuterne executed between 1917 and 1919, with several more illustrated in the catalogue. Her clothes vary; her hairstyles change. She’s seen seated on a wooden chair, another that’s more elegant, and on a bed. In some canvases, she seems quite sophisticated; in others, she’s more casual. Think of Audrey Hepburn in roles ranging from My Fair Lady to Roman Holiday, Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Two for the Road.
Though Modigliani stylized the people he represented, his portraits remain true-to-life. Back in the day, someone could have recognized a man the artist depicted when they passed him on the street. Details mattered. The jawline of the figure in Black Hair (Young Dark-Haired Girl Seated) was a give-away. Painted in 1918 in the South of France, the picture was once owned by Picasso. The young woman resembles Lorette, someone Matisse painted repeatedly throughout 1917. Modigliani’s attractive “unknown” sitter shares features with the former Fauve’s elusive Lorette. The two women have the same lips, nose, eyes, and eyebrows. Anyone who ventured to the second floor in the Barnes to regard Matisse’s Three Sisters Triptych (1917) would have noticed the resemblance.
Modigliani Up Close celebrates the centennial of the Barnes Foundation. At a time when many artists are again painting figures, it also reminds us that we reevaluate the past based on the present.