‘I went through graduate school never hearing his name,” recalled Mason Klein, the curator of “Modigliani: Beyond the Myth,” a show of some 100 works by the original peintre maudit, which opened at New York’s Jewish Museum. The installation of the city’s first major Modigliani exhibition in more than 50 years was in full swing early last week, when I arrived there. East 92nd Street was closed to traffic as two canvas-sized crates were delicately trundled through the museum’s service entrance; upstairs in the galleries, amid a whir of activity, Klein took a moment to talk about this most beloved — and yet strangely neglected — of Modernists.
“The myth of the creative genius consoled by wine and drugs, while partly true, has eclipsed so much of the content of Modigliani’s work,” Klein said. “In fact, he was a very serious artist trying to grapple with issues of identity, which were founded in his acknowledgement of his Jewishness.”
We were sitting beneath a limestone head, one of several of which legend has the impecunious artist carving from construction blocks and paving stones stolen on the streets of Paris, where he arrived in 1906 from his native Italy. The head’s hieratic, oblong features suggest a culture far removed from the dimly lit Montparnasse ateliers in which he worked through the night; they summon up visions of Etruscan, Chinese, Khmer and Egyptian sculpture. “A third eye,” as Klein called it — a chunk of inset stone — lay nestled in the bust’s headdress. Leaning against a nearby wall was an early, ghostly watercolor, “Portrait of a Woman Taking Part in a Spiritualist Séance” (c.1905-6), beneath a space reserved for a painting entitled “The Jewess” (1908) — both images of sensual but melancholy femme fatales in the Symbolist tradition.
Klein links the multifaceted spirituality of these and other works with the cosmopolite milieu of fin-de-siecle Livorno, the port city where Amedeo Modigliani was born in 1884, into a proud — if soon to be bankrupt — Sephardic family that traced its roots back to the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. The popular writings of the Livornese Rabbi Elia Benamozegh, for example, advocated a universalist conception of Judaism as an umbrella religion, spawning both Christianity and Islam. Modigliani, too, conceived of religious differences as part of a continuum, Klein insists. He finds in Modigliani’s fixation with caryatids — anonymous female figures shouldering obscure burdens, which recur in his work — both a Judeo-Christian religious symbolism and the tensions of an artist struggling against the restricted nature of identity.
Poor Modigliani. It wasn’t enough to have lived in penury, his single solo exhibition (at Berthe Weil’s Parisian gallery in 1917) temporarily closed down by the police because of the scandal sparked by a nude in the gallery’s window. It wasn’t enough to have died tragically three years later, of tuberculosis aggravated by years of alcoholism and drug use, at the age of 35. (His last great love, Jeanne Hebuterne, pregnant with their second child, committed suicide the next day by jumping out a window.) Almost immediately — and as his prices began to rise — art historians began embroidering his legend, transforming the dark-eyed Southerner with the swaggering good looks into the ultimate Bohemian. Now they’ve resurrected his bar mitzvah.
Does a consideration of Modigliani’s specific Sephardic heritage radically illuminate his art? I’ll reserve judgment, at least until I see the completed exhibition. But even the few works on view the day I visited were enough to suggest the intellectual vigor and the startling mixture of spirituality and earthiness, transcendent form and irreducible human particularity, emanating from an oeuvre that continues to compel us. Put simply, this show is not to be missed.
Eight of Modigliani’s sculpted busts, for example, arranged in a semicircle as if at an altar, viscerally evoke the religious underpinnings of sculpture, its origins in occult practices that also fascinated the artist, who is rumored to have embraced their strange geometries by candlelight. His drawings — the Egyptianate nudes of his early lover, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, or the innumerable sketches of drinking companions and artist contemporaries such as Picasso, Moise Kisling, Chana Orloff and Diego Rivera — vividly bring to life the rich cultural stew of Montparnasse café society, where each evening on the terrace of La Rotonde Modigliani dashed off these and other likenesses in exchange for a few francs, or for nothing.
His painted portraits, often of isolated individuals with strangely blank eyes — the writer Beatrice Hastings (with whom he shared yet another tempestuous liaison), disguised as Madame Pompadour; the poet Jean Cocteau, a pinched dandy in his little black bowtie; regal Eastern European aristocrats, such as Anna Zborowska (the wife of his great patron); and numerous Cezannesque peasant folk — are complex distillations of mask and personality. And the forthright, modernized eroticism of his nude canvases continues to shock us. With these and other works, Modigliani (who, in his lifetime, refused to join the ranks of Cubists, Futurists or any other movement) reveals himself yet again as a singular artist, irreducible to theory.