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Portraits of Bohemia

The Jewish Museum brings Modigliani back to New York for a solo exhibition, the first major show of the artist’s work in the city in more than 50 years

By Val Castronovo

 While the Guggenheim Museum on Fifth  Avenue and 89th Street is hosting the Constantin Brancusi show through the middle of September, one can take a short walk north along Museum Mile to The Jewish Museum on 92nd and Fifth to view the works of his close companion, Amedeo Modigliani.  The Italian artist is the subject of an extensive exhibition that seeks to evaluate his paintings and sculptures within the context of his heritage as a Sephardic Jew.

Modigliani: Beyond the Myth (through September 19, 2004), the first major showcase of the artist’s oeuvre in New York since the retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in 1951, doesn't settle for simple explanations of Modigliani the man and the painter.  Rather, it attempts to de-emphasize his sensational biography, putting aside the all-too familiar myth of Amedeo as the artiste maudit (cursed artist), a tragic victim of wine, women, hashish, the occult and, for most of his life, poverty and illness.  Instead, the show examines the influence of his Jewish identity and his sense of “otherness” as an émigré from Livorno living in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. 

As Curator Mason Klein explains in the lavishly illustrated catalogue, “[T]he fact that he was Jewish and frequently made a point of it is a surprise to many.  It was not as an observant Jew that Modigliani came to Paris from his seaport hometown in Tuscany, but as a young, philosophical idealist soon to confront an unprecedented urban artistic melting pot.  But in Paris he encountered a  society far less tolerant of cultural and religious pluralism than he had known in Livorno.”  He often introduced himself, we learn, with the declaration, "I am Modigliani, Jew."

Unlike fellow Jews Chaim Soutine or Jacques Lipchitz, whose works can be dubbed Expressionist or Cubist, Modigliani refused to be associated with a particular style or movement within the avant-garde.  He marched to the beat of a different  drummer, avoiding standard artistic conventions like landscapes and still-lifes in favor of his signature long-necked, oval-faced, almond-eyed, purse-lipped portraits, often highly stylized and devoid of individuality.  His sculpture consists almost entirely of heads, “multiple versions of a stylized bust,” Klein writes.

Modigliani may not have formally aligned himself with a particular school of art, but he certainly formed important alliances within the art world after he moved to Paris in 1906.  He met the Romanian sculptor Brancusi (read Val Castronovo's Brancusi article) in Montparnasse, for one, three years after his arrival in the City of Light.  Brancusi’s pure line and abstracted,  essential forms had a lasting influence on Amedeo, who derived important  inspiration as well from a wide range of sources — Cycladic, Egyptian and African sculpture, Cambodian art, Byzantine icons, Edvard Munch, Paul Gauguin, Picasso’s Blue Period and more. 

He liked  to paint his bohemian friends; they were sculptors, painters, poets, art  dealers, musicians, and models.  His lovers — Beatrice Hastings and Jeanne  Hébuterne, for example — were favored subjects and are well-represented in the show.  But despite the intensity of his relationship with Hébuterne, the exhibit makes only passing reference to her tragic suicide and no mention whatsoever of the couple's first child, or the circumstances surrounding Hébuterne’s death.  We need to consult the catalogue's detailed chronology to fill in the blanks:  twenty-one-year-old Jeanne, pregnant with the couple’s second child, threw herself out the fifth-floor window of her parents’ home the day after Modigliani’s premature death at 35 of tubercular meningitis; her remains are buried alongside his at Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.  The curators are insistent that we keep our focus on the cultural and religious traditions that informed Amedeo's work, and that we not be distracted by the messy details of his personal life.

Leaving these curiosities aside, Beyond the Myth packs a wallop.  More than 100 of the artist’s works are on display, gathered from collections in the U.S., Europe, South America and Australia.  It opens with a room devoted primarily to his women (Madam Pompadour, 1915; Beatrice Hastings in Front of a  Door, 1915; The Servant Girl, c. 1918), flanked by separate galleries for his elongated stone heads and painted caryatids (Caryatid, 1913-14), his men (Jean Cocteau, 1916-17; Portrait of Max Jacob, 1916; Seated Man with Orange Background, 1918), more of his women (Blue Eyes [Portrait of Madame Jeanne Hébuterne], 1917; The Italian Woman, 1917; Portrait of Thora Klinckowström, 1919) and, finally, his nudes (Reclining Nude on a Blue Cushion, 1916Reclining Nude with Loose Hair, 1917; Seated Nude, 1917).

Of the male portraits, Waldemar Januszczak of the London Sunday Times wrote, “Because of the fascinating groundwork the show has already put in before we reach them, it is easier here to sense the voodoo in these unsmiling masculine portraits. In all Modigliani's portraiture, an attempt is being made to transform the peripheral and the everyday into the immutable and the permanent. The louche art-world types have been granted the gravitas of ancient idols.”

In 1917, when one of Modigliani’s two-dozen nudes was mounted in the window of a Parisian gallery to lure visitors inside to his first and only one-man show, the police were called and the gallery was temporarily shut down.  Indeed, the five nudes on view at The Jewish Museum, languorous, curvaceous, and pink-toned, are quite seductive.  See the exhibit and be seduced by all of it.

Val Castronovo covers exhibitions and arts-related stories for the UN Chronicle and Secretariat News at the United Nations. She is a former reporter for TIME Magazine, where she worked for 21 years. A native New Yorker and Vassar grad, she lives in Manhattan with her husband and their daughter, Olivia.


©2004 Valenice Castronovo for SeniorWomenWeb
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