Taking Off the Mask

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Modigliani’s early drawings are the centerpiece of an exquisite new show at the Jewish Museum


  • Amedeo Modigliani. "The Jewess," 1908. Oil on canvas. 21 x 18 in. Laure Denier Collection, Paul Alexandre Family, courtesy of Richard Nathanson, London

  • Amedeo Modigliani. Head, 1911-1913. Limestone 28 x 7 x 8 in. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift, Solomon R. Guggenheim

  • Amedeo Modigliani. "Caryatid," 1914. Gouache and ink on paper. 22 x 18½ in. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Bequest of Mrs. Harriet H. Jonas

  • Installation view of the exhibition "Modigliani Unmasked." On view through February 4, 2018. The Jewish Museum, New York.

  • Amedeo Modigliani, c. 1912. Image provided by PVDE / Bridgeman Images, New York

  • Amedeo Modigliani. "Head," c. 1911. Black crayon on paper, 16 x 10 in. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen. Gift of Blaise Alexandre, 2001

It’s been more than a decade since the Jewish Museum played host to a Modigliani exhibit. In 2004, “Modigliani: Beyond the Myth” showcased the later paintings and other items by the early 20th century Italian artist, a Sephardic Jew, and sought to transcend the myth of a boozing, drug addled, skirt-chasing artiste and focus on the work.

Today, the museum goes back in time to his early career, between 1906 and 1914, when the focus was mainly on drawing and sculpture. The show highlights the collection of Modigliani’s first patron and treasured friend, Dr. Paul Alexandre, who amassed some 450 drawings, which remained unpublished until 1993. A generous helping from this vast trove is on view for the first time in the U.S., along with drawings, paintings and sculpture gathered from institutions and private collectors around the world.

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) was born in Livorno, in Tuscany, and raised in an intellectual environment by a family that claimed to be descended from Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher. He moved to Paris in 1906 and joined the Circle of Montparnasse, a community of Jewish émigré artists that included Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz and Chaim Soutine.

But he arrived in Paris when France was still feeling the effects of the Dreyfus affair and anti-Semitism and xenophobia were rife. His Latin appearance and fluency in French (his mother was born in Marseilles) enabled him to “pass” as gentile, senior curator Mason Klein said at a preview, but Modigliani chose instead to embrace his Jewishness and the role of outsider, a decision that informs the art.

“Even within his [Jewish émigré] group, Modigliani was an anomaly. He didn’t come from a ghetto in Eastern Europe, he had never been ostracized for being Jewish,” Klein said. “It was the very invisibility of his outsider status that often compelled him to introduce himself with the words: ‘I’m Modigliani. I’m Jewish.’ As a form of protest, he refused to assimilate, declaring himself ‘other.’ ... He unmasked his Jewishness, assuming the role of pariah.”

The artist’s daughter, Jeanne, whose pregnant mother, Jeanne Hébuterne, jumped out a window the night after Modigliani died at 35 of tubercular meningitis, wrote in a biography of her father: “Just remember: Amedeo Modigliani was a Sephardic Jew.” Hence the preoccupation with noses, especially in the sculpture.

He was a modern artist, who depicted his subjects subjectively, but he was never closely aligned with a particular movement within the avant-garde, like cubism or expressionism. Portraiture was his exclusive domain — he is believed to have produced only four landscapes and no still lifes — more evidence of his singularity.

“He doubled down on the human face and form,” Klein said, which was his way of promoting his egalitarian vision.

His embrace of difference led him to borrow from a wide range of sources, Western and non-Western alike. One of his lovers, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, recalled his obsessive desire to roam the Egyptian rooms of the Louvre: “At the Louvre, he showed me the Egyptian collection and told me there was no point in my looking at anything else.”

He borrowed liberally from African tribal art, Cycladic art, classical Greek art, Asian art, Byzantine icons, Picasso’s Blue Period, the Symbolists and more. African masks and tiny sculptures of Egyptian royals and Buddhist deities are exhibited alongside the oeuvre to illustrate “respectful” appropriation.

The works on paper are testament to Modigliani’s endless fascination with physiognomy and the “universal condition of both sameness and otherness among people,” Klein said. In the many stylized drawings that are part of the Alexandre collection and that link to the sculpture, we see him hashing out ideas — hairstyles, eyes, eye-brows, noses, lips and ears — in a succession of sketches that explore ethnicity.

Among the later painted portraits sprinkled throughout the show is the image of Spanish landscape artist, Manuel Humbert (1916). Per the exhibit text, “he renders the sitter’s head as masklike, with a narrow, triangular face and stylized arched brows connected to a thin, straight nose. But he distinguishes personal features as well — pursed lips, parted hair — constantly altering the counterpoise of individuality and formal abstraction.”

He slowly distilled facial features and developed more abstract, depersonalized visages that became his trademark, while at the same time leaving room for individual traits, which he was known to exaggerate.

In 1911, he added the caryatid to his quiver, adopting the motif from ancient Greek architecture. Caryatids were columns bearing weight that were shaped like female figures, though in Modigliani’s universe they are male, female and androgynous, and, according to Klein, they are not burdened.

“His caryatids are not victims, downtrodden or crushed, nor are they beholden to classical European aesthetics,” the curator said, alluding to decorative add-ons derived from non-Western cultures, like tattoos and jewelry. “Commensurate with their multicultural and Asian sources, they are depicted as ascendant, generous and gracious — graceful as well.”

The reinvented motif, which he sculpted, sketched and painted in red, blue and brown, “speaks to a new paradigm of freedom, to be what one wants to be.”

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