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Modigliani: Beyond The Myth

The Jewish Museum

1109  Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street

May 21 to September 19, 2004

Art Gallery of Ontario

October 23, 2004 to January 23, 2005

The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

February 10 to May 29, 2005

"...the tensions between the generic and the specific"

"Caryatid" by Amedeo Modigliani

“Caryatid,” by Amedeo Modigliani, gouache, brush, and ink on paper, 22 ¾ by 18 ½ inches, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Mrs. Harriet H. Jonas Bequest, 1914

By Carter B. Horsley

Famous for his stylized portraits and female nudes, Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) was also notorious for his bohemian lifestyle in early 20th Century Paris.  When he died of tubucular meningitis at the age of 35, his funeral was attended by Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Gino Severini, Chaim Soutine, Jacques Lipchitz, Constantin Brancusi and Fernand Léger.

The elongated necks and sloe eyes of his subjects became formulaic, making Modigliani an artist whose works are instantly recognizable by his skewed style leading some to see him as simplistic and not very experimental.

The influence of tribal and archaic Greek art on his work is very clear as is his considerable debt to Constantin Brancusi, the great miminalist modern sculptor. 

A major Modigliani retrospective at The Jewish Museum at 1109 Fifth Avenue demonstrates, however, that the artist had a great talent for nuance and an adventurous palette in many of his portraits that rise above caricatures of his work.  The show contains 8 sculptures, 44 drawings and 47 paintings. 

"Head" by Amedeo Modigliani

“Head,” by Amedeo Modigliani, limestone, 28 ¼ by 7 ¼ by 8 1/8 inches, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1911-3

The sculptures hold up well on their own, although better examples exist.  They pale by comparison with Brancusi’s oeuvre and while they are celebrated they also pale by comparison with many tribal art masterpieces.  The drawings, in contrast, have a lightness of line and an organic energy that is reminiscent of the preceding flamboyance of the Art Nouveau era.  They are generally excellent, especially his many carytid studies, such as the one shown at the top of this article.  The paintings are mostly portraits but include five of his female nudes that caused something of a sensation because of their depiction of public hair.  The nudes are surprisingly voluptuous, but also surprisingly disappointing.  These are not Rubensesque goddesses of frivolity and excess but rather demure and sad women who never attain the elegance of Ingres’s odalisques, or Botticelli’s graces, or the perfection of Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus, or the abandon of Delacroix’s nudes, or the statuesque qualities of Michelangelo’s women.  They also do not have the delicious and delirious abandon of Alexandre Cabanel’s reclining and adrift nudes.  Modigliani’s nudes are serious, if not somber.  They are neither inviting, nor stand-off-ish.  If anything, they are a bit condescending: perhaps their experience has shown them the folly of romance. 

The nudes are not very painterly and there is little difference in most of their poses.  The better ones actually are turned on their side with their backs to the viewers.  (One such example was sold at Christie’s November 4, 2004 for $26.8 million and Carol Vogel of The New York Times reported that art experts noted that it was sold by Stephen A. Wynn, the Las Vegas casino owner, who had paid “nearly $10 million more for the painting when he bought it privately in the mid-1990s.”)

It has often been observed that Modigliani had little to do with the major movements of “modern” art at the beginning of the 20th Century such as Neo-Impressionism, Fauvism, Futurism and Cubism.  That is due to a great extent, but it should also be noted that he and Egon Schiele, an artist with whom he shared considerable stylistic affinities but not temperaments, produced remarkable bodies of work that take no back seat in the caravan of 20th Century art.  Schiele’s oeuvre, of course, is broader and more tortured and disturbing.  The work of both artists, however, is haunting and memorable.  Schiele’s is daunting and agitated.  Modigliani’s is calm and composed.  Schiele’s is blatant.  Modigliani’s is subtle.  Schiele’s is passionate.  Modigliani’s is impassive.  Schiele’s is expressionist.  Modigliani’s is mannered.

Photograph of Amedeo Modigliani

Photograph of the artist circa 1918 reproduced in the catalogue

Modigliani’s art, surprisingly, stands in stark contrast with his “mythic” life:  “he is the prototypical handsome, promiscuous, inebriated, pugnacious, misunderstood, tragically ill, impoverished, vulnerable, gifted and short-lived exemplar of la vie de bohème,” wrote Michael Kimmelman in his review of this exhibition in the May 20, 2004 edition of The New York Times.  “The cliché is that he was never without his box of hashish pills or a glass of absinthe.  When he wasn’t nursing a café-crème and a hangover at La Rotonde, he was trading portrait sketches for a few centimes; or dancing naked with a woman at the Place Jean-Baptiste Clément at 3 in the morning; or passing out at the Bateau-Lavoir; or picking fights; or swiping limestone from abandoned buildings for his sculptures because he was too poor to buy his materials,” Mr. Kimmelman added.

Mr. Kimmelman maintained that Modigliani’s popularity has depended on “his languid, pretty, easily digested and unmistakable brand of delicately abstracted modernism,” adding that “As with Chagall or Ben Shahn, it could frequently tip over into kitsch or parody.  But at its best, it was original and exquisite.”

Modigliani’s art strangely does not reflect the artist’s soul.  “Always speak out and keep forging ahead.  The man who cannot find new ambitions and even a new person within himself, who is always destined to wrestle with what has remained rotten and decadent in his own personality, is not a man,” Modigliani once wrote.

In a fine review of the show in the Village Voice, Jerry Saltz noted that “Modigliani looked like Antonio Banderas but acted like Courtney Love.  His only one-person exhibition caused a scandal because of his depiction of female public hair (and he is great at this).  He was touchy, conceited, and prone to rages and spousal abuse….he died of tubucular meningitis at the age of 35, destitute, in a garret.  Two days later, his girlfriend – the mother of his unregistered child, 19 years his junior, and nine months pregnant – threw herself from a window, killed herself and her unborn baby….Modigliani’s myth isn’t actually visible in his work.  There may be melancholy, but there’s no histrionics, suffering or anger.  His sculptures are elegant and poised, his drawings keen, and his portraits serene.  Ease and isolation emanate from Modigliani’s work, a geometry of stillness and composure….he consciously preserved his connection to the past.  He wanted newness without cubism.  This ties him to the more conservative wing of modernism, and makes him a better, more universal version of Oskar Kokoschka or Elie Nadelman – closer to Chagall, although Chagall’s colors, compositions, space, and surfaces are more adventurous.  Modigliani combined influences like Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, early Picasso, Fauvism and Brancusi, as well as archaic Greek and Renaissance sculpture and African and Cycladic carving to invent a race of long-necked, oval-faced, hollow-eyed beings who exist in shallow titled space….Modigliani’s art is neither rotten nor decadent.  It is filled with elegiac love and numinous longing….Perhaps Modigliani wasn’t confident or conscious enough to plumb the extraordinary implications of his art – the collapsing space, the frontality, his ideas of finish and elongation, or his striking mix of the primitive and classical.”

"Pierrot" by Amedeo Modigliani "Madam Pompadour" by Amedeo Modigliani

“Pierrot,” by Amedeo Modigliani, oil on cardborad, 16 7/8 by 10 5/8 inches, Statens Museums For Kunst, Copenhagen, Collection J. Rump, 1915, left; “Madam Pompadour,” by Amedeo Modigliani, oil on canvas, 23 7/8 by 19 ½ inches, The Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Winterbotham Collection, 1915, right

In his catalogue essay, "Making and Masking, Modigliani and the Problematic of Portraiture," Tamar Garb wrote that:

"Acutely aware of the artifice of external appearance, the artist represented himself in the guise of the popular clown Pierrot, a character from old French pantomine, in the same year that he dressed up his anglophone lover, Beatrice Hastings, in the trappings of Madame de Pompadour, the legendary eighteenth-century mistress of Louis XV often painted by François Boucher....In Modigliani's own self-image, with the familiar ruffled collar and skullcap of the comic character, the word 'Pierrot' is brushed in hestitantly in childlike capitals across the bottom of the picture, as if to label the figure and affirm the identity. The identification of Madam Pompadour, too, is secured through writing, the words pointedly emblazoned in English on the left, behind the head of the figure, who seems visibly weighed down by her stylish feathered hat, a sign of her showy feminity. Omitting the 'de' and leaving out the e from 'Madame,' in effect anglicizing the word, Modigliani subtly implied both his own foreignness and that of his model, and perhaps pointed to the presumption of her parading as a sophisticated Parisienne. In neither of these paintings do the inscribed words name the sitters themselves. Instead they label the masks they adopt (the maudlin mask of masculinity or the fashionable face of French feminity), subsuming the generalized features, drawn in black line and simplified contours, and the unseeing eyes of the models into the roles they are called on to play. In both cases, words disrupt the illusionism of the pictures, exposing the artifice of painting and the arbitrariness of language. During the years 1915-16, Modigliani frequently surrounded his sitters with words, sometimes, as in the case of Portrait of Pablo Picasso..., using the proper name as a decorative, curvilinear design while including a descriptive word, in this case 'savoir,' scratched , perhaps ironically, in pencil on paint and canvas....It is the integration of words into the project of portraiture that characterizes one of Modigliani's most ambitious protrayals, that of the art dealer and collector of African art Paul Guillaume....Here the sitter's specificity is assured, both iconically and linguistically. Occupying the cnter of the canvas, the authoritative and declamatory figure, dressed in typical bourgeois day-garb - dark suit, white collar, knotted tie, and black hat - is shown casually smoking a cigarete, his head tilted slightly to one side. Somewhat top-heavy, Guillaume's slightly enlarged head, with its square jawline and spread-out face, sits rather heavily on his slender body and sloping shoulders while his features are crowded ito the center of his face, leaving a large expanse of painted flesh on either side of his narrowed eyes....While capturing a likeness was the conventional function of portraiture, the inclusion of letters to name sitters rather than provide illusionistic or trompe l'oeil analogues or witty references....was not so common. The placing of words on the painted surface disrupts the impression of spatial depth central to Renaissance and subsequent European painting and asserts the fabricated, synthetic nature of picture making. It was not until the late nineteeth century that a Symbolist artist like Paul Gauguin used letters in his canvases to counter pictorial illusionism (and mimic the hieratic and decorative flatness of medieval icons), but it was the later Cubists who exploited the potential of letters to function as independent pictorial elements and linguistic signifiers. Where the Cubists used letters, though, as cryptic clues and allusions, decontextualized fragments in need of deciphering and unraveling, much like the parts of the body itself, Modigliani retained the integrity of words, employing them as a source of information or direct reference to the subject portrayed."

“Paul Guillaume,” by Amedeo Modigliani, oil on board, 29 ½ by 20 ½ inches, Toledo Museum of Art,Gift of Mrs. C. Lockhart McKelvy, 1915, left; “Portrait of Paul Guillaume (Novo Pilota),” by Amedeo Modigliani, oil on cardboard mounted on plywood, 41 3/8 by 29 ½ inches, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, Walter-Guillaume Collection, 1915, right

"In the case of 'Portrait of Paul Guillaume (Novo Pilota),'" Tamar Garb continued, "words, like the image of the sitter himself, are recognizable. Modigliani includes three inscriptions other than his signature on the canvas. At the top left, the sitter's name is inscribed in faltering capitals, the shaky handwriting of the artist serving as an index of his own authorial presence while naming the object of his attention. At the bottom left, the words 'Novo Pilota' are scrawled over the sitter's sleeve, disrupting any illusion that it might belong to a three-dimensional figure in space, while on the top right, the faintly written 'Stella Maris' is all but disguised in the dark brown and green background surrounding Guillaume. The inserted words are not arbitrary. Modigliani seems strategically to flatter his new patron and supporter by ascribing to him the role of guide or navigator. While 'Novo Pilota' (new pilot) suggest someone who steers a course through unknown territory, as the audacious dealer and collector was thought to do, 'Stella Maris' (sar of the sea) is a title usually conferred on theVigin Mary as protectress or guiding spirit. Picturing his patron as a benevolent ad beneficent supporter, Modigliani constructs a canvas in which the specificity of the model, his social status, and his physical appearance are consummately invoked. Yet at the same time, Guillaume's insubstantial, flat torso disappears at the bottom of the canvas, while his right hand, which might be expected where the inscription 'Novo Pilota' appears, is nowhere to be seen. Here the body is displaced into an indeterminate colored field in which drawing, like writing, amounts to so many marks on a flat surface, a matter of paint alone. Modigliani was at his most self-critical at this moment. In subsequent years he would relinguish the awkward verbal inscriptions of individual identity that characterize this portrait, and yet he would never succumb to pure illusionism. Precariously poised between description and disguise, making and masking, portraiture in early twentieth-century France had been stripped of its traditional function, but in Modigliani it found a protagonist who, while registering the rupture, nonetheless redeemed its role. The power of Modigliani's portaits lies in their capacity to render the tensions between the generic and the specific - indeed, to thematize the problematic of portraiture for this generation. Composed of the materials of history and the parts of the body, they leave all seams visible, awkward yet eloquent, on the painted surface."

"Portrait of Max Jacob" by Amedeo Modigliani

“Portrait of Max Jacob,” by Amedeo Modigliani, oil on canvas, 28 ¾ by 23 5/8 inches, Kunstammlung Nordrhrein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf, 1916

In his catalogue essay, "Modigliani Against the Grain," Mason Klein provides the following commentary about Max Jacob and Modigliani:

"Introduced to the study of the his close friend the poet and sometime painter Max Jacob, Modigliani shared this taste with his lover Beatrice Hastings, a journalist, Theosophist, and student of Helena P. Blavatsky. Many of the idealized notions of Theosophy...clearly intrigued Modigliani, whose penchant for holistic ideas, in accordance with Spinoza, coincided brilliantly with Blavatsky's reduction of the world's varied religious truths to one common denominator. Her writings employed a diagram of Hindu cosmology in which the six-pointed star, or hexagram, is emblematic of the macrosm, before its realization as the Star of David, or Solomon's seal....This predilection toward the occult was encouraged by both Jacob and Hastings....Jacob, who would die at the Drancy deportation camp in 1944, converted to Catholicism during World War I....Jacob was an intimate also of Pablo Picasso, André Salmon, and Guillaume Apollinaire, and his spiritual pursuit, sense of persecution, and status as jester within the Cubist camp aligned him with Modigliani, especially during the war. Their closeness and ideological solidarity is made vivid in Modigliani's famous portrait of the poet....While the painting acknowledges Jacob's role within the Cubist circle in its powerfully refracted planar composition, a naturalism shines through as, in top hat, crisp white shirt, and checkered tie, he assumes a dignity he often lacked in reality. This is in part due to the portrait's sculptural aspect, the massive, weighty and rough-cleaved face, with a nose that 'looks as if hewn from a plank with an ax.' No less trenchant are the eyes, one of which, crosshatched in green, sparkles, its luminous depths intense as embers, as though Modigliani wanted to convey the passion of one of Jacob's ecstatic visions of Christ (which had led him to convert). The other eye, blank and meditative, is a foil heightening the portrait's inner-directed is Jacob's conception of Christ and of Christianity in a pre-Christian, Hebraic context that is relevant to the religious (if not messianic) tradition in which the Livornese Sephardic Modigliani was schooled - and to the increasing identification in his work with Christ as martyr....While numerous circumstances contributed to Modigliani's cessation of sculpture (the war, the cost of stone, his failing health), Jacob claimed to have influenced the artist to return to painting in the course of introducing him to Paul Guillaume, who had opened a gallery in 1914....During this crucial transitional period, Modigliani was approaching a more reductive sculptural form in his painting, in which a less isolated figure occupies a more integrated, shallower space. But it was Jacob's admixture of the spiritual and the abject, together with Hastings's Theosophical beliefs, that helped propel Modigliani toward a greater symbolic investment in geometric simplicity and purity of form."

"Jean Cocteau" by Amedeo Modigliani

“Jean Cocteau,” by Amedeo Modigliani, oil on canvas, 39 ½ by 32 inches, The Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, Inc., 1916-7

In her catalogue essay, Tamar Garb discusses Modigliani's portrait of Jean Cocteau:

"A delicate balancing act between the generic and the specific, the abstracted and the naturalistic, is enacted in Modigliani's 1915 portrait of the elegant Jean Cocteau....The work was painted soon after Modigliani had abanoned sculpture....Modigliani used the abstracted, simplified shape of the face derived by African sources, but modeled and manipulated its surface to achieve a likeness, emphasizing Cocteau's chiseled features and hollowed cheeks, his distinctive bone structure and pinched mouth....Extended and stretched, the long chin forming an exaggerated triangle at its base, Cocteau's illuminated head is simplified and placed at an angle to the characteristically columnar neck, which acts as a plinth for his abstracted bony countenance, worn like a mask surmounting a pole. The separation of the face from the body by a demarcating line or shadow that makes an incision beneath the chin creates the impression of a puppet or doll, a barely animated human toy or paper cutout, twisted and turned to effect. A further slit appeas above the collar, produced by a heavy black line that signifies the separation of the neck from the torso and emphasizes the pole-like, cylindrical quality of the head's support. Possessing an illusory wholeness, the fissures and joins - the very seams of subjectivity - so obviously visible on the surface, the sitter resembles a ventriloquist's dummy, a doll that has no voice except that conferred on it by the puppeteer/artist who animates or depletes it at will. The body, in Modigliani's portraits, is invariably an accretion of parts, composed and constructed on the surface, the subject of a series of conjoined fragments....Commanding the picture space from the tip of his coifed head to the angular extremes of his jutting elbows and carefully crossed knees, Cocteau's refined masculinity is staged in a double-edged homage that radiates ambivalence. Cocteau is constructed as the sensitive aesthete, polished, punctilious, and effete, and his identity, although assembled in parts, reads as coherent, his own, of a piece."

In addition to reproducing all the works in the exhibition, the catalogue reproduces many great Modigliani works that were not included such as a magnificent limestone head from 1911-2 in the collection of the Tate Gallery in London, a superb 1916 portrait of Jacques and Berthe Lipchitz in The Art Institute of Chicago, Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection, a very fine seated female nude, circa 1916, in the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery in London, a very Cézannesque painting, circa 1918, of a seated peasant boy in the Tate Gallery, London, Presented by Miss Jenny Blaker in memory of Hugh Blaker, a very lovely 1909 painting of a cellist in a private collection, and a striking 1915 “Portrait of Pablo Picasso” shown courtesy of the Galerie Schmidt in Paris.  The last three mentioned paintings are atypical and wonderful as is a “Suffering Nude” oil on canvas from 1908 that is in a private collection in France and is a work of which Schiele would have been very proud.

It is a shame that these 7 works could not have been included in the public exhibition as they would have significantly bolstered Modigliani’s stature as a great artist and one much more complex than is generally assumed and one who might have been even greater had he lived longer.  It is interesting to note, however, that the vast majority of his finest works date from 1915 to 1918.

The catalogue also reproduces a black-and-white still from the 1958 movie, “Montparnasse,” directed by Jacques Becker, that shows Gérard Philipe as Modigliani.  Philipe was the leading male heart-throb of French movies before Alain Delon and Philipe is amazingly similar looking to Modigliani. Modigliani's neckname was "Modi," a pun on the French word "maudit" that means "cursed."

The exhibition was, according to the fine and sumptuous catalogue, “made possible” by the Jerome L. Greene Foundation.

"Modigliani" by Carter B. Horsley

"Modigliani," photograph by Carter B. Horsley


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