There is a singular purity that runs through Modigliani: Unmasked, the stunning new exhibition at the Jewish Museum — a purity that either confirms or belies the intention of the curator, Mason Klein, depending on whether or not you buy his premise.
That is to say, Klein has chosen to plow a particular path into the work, focusing on the problem of identity, but with a twist that seeks to transform that buzzword into a set of Russian nesting dolls.
But to start at the beginning, Modigliani: Unmasked is unusual for two reasons: it showcases the artist’s achievements as a sculptor and draftsman while relegating his lushly colored paintings to the sidelines; and it is assembled mostly from a single collection, that of Paul Alexandre, who bought more than 400 drawings directly from the artist’s studio between the years 1906 and 1914.
The historical standing of the Alexandre collection is also unusual, again for two reasons: it presents an exhaustive record of the artist’s output before his deteriorating health forced him to abandon his chosen medium, sculpture, for the paintings of almond-eyed bohemians we know and love today; and, since Alexandre bought the works directly from Modigliani’s hands, we can be reasonably assured that what we are looking at is the actual legacy of an artist whose work is oh so easily faked.
Despite the large number of works on display (approximately 150, according to the press release), the exhibition succinctly fits into several living-room-sized galleries without feeling crowded, and there’s a real sense of movement from one space to the next, thanks to the succession of thematically related groups designed to underscore the evolution of Modigliani’s approach and, more importantly, the divergences within his famously consistent oeuvre.
We are greeted in the first room by a selection of paintings and drawings that Modigliani made before he was Modigliani — primarily portraits, including a number featuring his patron, Paul Alexandre, that swing wildly from the classically linear to the expressionistically brushy and back. What he mostly achieves here is a thorough absorption of the School of Paris look, with Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period as the dominant influence, alongside tributaries leading from Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and others.
Intriguingly, the curator has awarded the room’s pride of place to a Fang-Ntumu mask from Equatorial Guinea. The mask serves as an example of the spoils of French Sub-Saharan colonialism that Modigliani, Alexandre, and their Montmartre pals were then discovering at the Musée du Trocadéro. Surrounded by the artist’s derivative juvenilia, it also feels like engine pitching the work toward a decisive, almost preordained outcome.
While the Fang mask is a dead ringer for some of Modigliani’s later stylizations, his first non-Western passion was for Egyptian art, which was coupled to his affair with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who first met the artist while on her honeymoon in Paris.
It is with these drawings, some from 1908 but the majority done around 1911, that Modigliani began to integrate the lessons of Cubism into his work, sublimating the erotic into slices of curved and straight lines, ennobling the languid poses of his models (including the nude Akhmatova, in several images) with hieroglyphic grandeur.
The Egyptian-influenced drawings are accompanied by artifacts from the appropriated culture — a strategy that is followed throughout the other rooms, with ancient works presented as understated and nuanced entry points into the artist’s vision. And sometimes the antique and the modern briefly conjoin, as in a passageway that foregrounds a vitrine containing a silver Egyptian statuette from 610-595 BCE (borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art), while a cluster Modigliani’s carved limestone heads rises on pedestals behind it — one of the most sublime sights in the show.
These limestone sculptures, roughly hewn from blocks stolen from construction sites, are miracles of formal variety within strict, symmetrical constraints. Pitted, unpolished, and gleaming, with their elongated noses sharpened into scythes, they are African, Cycladic, Romanesque, and otherworldly all at once, relics from another dimension and caricatures of the gods. They also reside comfortably within the uncomfortable 21st-century discourse on cultural politics, as do most of the drawings in the show. Conversely, the works in the first room, with their vestiges of naturalism trailing behind them, seem inextricably bound to their own time.
The dozens of drawings surrounding the limestone sculptures offer object lessons in the peaks and valleys of stylization: some of the heads, in their obsessive repetition of forms — the arched eyebrows sheltering blank, almond eyes; the impossibly long noses and puckered, button mouths — seem simultaneously analytical and spiritual, a platonic ideal rendered in pan-cultural terms, while others, less deeply considered and more quickly rendered, descend almost into doodles.
The final, and largest, room in the exhibition is devoted to the caryatid, the architectural motif depicting a crouching nude shouldering the weight of a building. This is where Modigliani is at his most carnal and hallucinatory, especially in the blue caryatid in gouache, watercolor, chalk, and graphite, dated c. 1914, borrowed from the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the grand limestone sculpture of the same date, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The latter work breaks entirely from the formal rigidity Modigliani had imposed on his heads, which conformed to the shape of the original block of stone through a frontal / profile orientation. The MoMA caryatid is fully rounded and flintily sculptural, but imbued with a surprisingly soft, fleshy warmth. Commanding the center of the room, it seems to absorb all of the artist’s influences, quirks, and discoveries, only to radiate them back into the surrounding artworks (including several truly strange drawings, such as “Head in the Shape of an Iconic Capital,” 1914).
All this is to say that it is clearly possible to enjoy this show on the merits of its visuals alone, but curator Klein’s thesis, which he outlines in his illuminating catalogue essay, “Unmasking Modigliani,” offers another stratum of meaning.
In order to provide sufficient context, however, a few biographical details are necessary:
Amedeo Modigliani was a Sephardic Jew born in the Ligurian port city of Livorno in 1884. A sickly child who experienced several brushes with death, Dedo, as he was called, was doted on by his French mother, Eugénie Garsin, along with her sister, Laura, and her father, Isaac, who believed that the Garsin clan had descended from Baruch Spinoza. Modigliani’s father, Flaminio, a bankrupt businessman 15 years older than his wife, was absent and otherwise ineffectual during much of Dedo’s upbringing, while the Garsins taught him French and versed him in poetry, art, and culture.
And so Modigliani, a half-Italian, half-French Jew growing up in a nation equated with Roman Catholicism (Vatican City wouldn’t become its own state until nine years after Modigliani’s death), was a cultural mixed bag from the get-go.
As Klein phrases it:
Part recluse, part extrovert; part Italian Jew, part French cosmopolitan; part sculptor, part painter; part bohemian, part aristocrat; part middle-class respectability, part tainted by family bankruptcy: Modigliani’s identity was more complex than is popularly thought.
What he makes plain is the extent to which Modigliani made a personal decision “to stand apart from the group, to not assimilate, to declare his Jewishness, to be ‘other’ — and at precisely the time when the French avant-garde was appropriating a different, very exoticized, ‘primitivist’ other.” Or, as Modigliani once shouted at a group of anti-Semitic hooligans, “Je suis Juif et je vous emmerde,” (“I am Jewish and to hell with you.”)
In an unexpected but convincing intellectual backflip, Klein interprets Modigliani’s refusal to assimilate as an “unmasking” of his Jewishness, while viewing the concept of the mask, as the artist had gleaned it from African, Asian, and Early Christian art, as a metaphor of modern identity:
In other words, Modigliani, having felt what it was to be the unknown foreigner, the invisible Jew, moved toward a conceptual portraiture, one that considered the very representation of identity to be problematic, even false. […] Although he chose to view certain people, friends mostly, more naturalistically and as more knowable than others, he nevertheless conveyed, in many of their portraits, a degree of masklike opacity. In the artist’s late paintings, there are those who see, those who do not see, and those who cannot be seen or known.
It can be argued, therefore, that Modigliani’s portraits continue to move us less for their appropriation of non-Western art and more for what they reveal about the opposing, and pointedly human, impulses of empathy and guardedness.
To my mind, this could explain the sense of purity running through Modigliani’s art, which stands in direct contradiction to the heterogeneity of his influences. It can be seen not as an abstract, formal distillation (as pursued by his friend Constantin Brancusi, which would belie Klein’s thesis), but rather, for lack of a better term, as the purity of thought — an almost visceral perception of emotional and intellectual purpose, a counterintuitive perspective that transforms formal devices into tools for self-disclosure, curiosity, and compassion.
To again quote Klein, the difference between Modigliani’s worldview and Picasso’s adaption of Baule masks in his groundbreaking work, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), is that the latter’s sources:
[…] led him to render the women in the brothel as African and, thus, in the prevailing view, as primitively sexual. Modigliani’s treatment of “primitive” art speaks to a different purpose, one bound up in his status as a Sephardic Jew. Indeed, among artists appropriating African art, it was Modigliani’s identification with his subject’s “otherness,” rather than a fascination with the exotic, that set him apart.
Modigliani never went the Cubist route of splitting his subjects into shards and facets; they were always whole and wholly human. He was an outsider who inhabited their interiors, who sought a common thread and found it.
Modigliani: Unmasked continues at the Jewish Museum (1109 5th Avenue at 92nd Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 4, 2018.