Amedeo Modigliani Continues to Remind Us of the Power of Art

Amedeo Modigliani, CC/Wikipedia

Even a year ago, “Modigliani: Unmasked,” an exhibition at New York City’s Jewish Museum, would not have been as timely, though its pleasures would have been just as assured. A showcase of Italian-Sephardic Jewish Amedeo Modigliani’s work as a sculptor and a craftsman suggests his defiant embrace of his outsider status informed his identity as well as his art. More than that, the show reminds us of the extraordinary creative work that can arise despite – and to spite – repressive political climates.

In 1906, when Modigliani emigrated from his native Livorno, an Italian port town known as a safe enclave for Jews, France was beset by nationalist anti-Semitism. Because of his fluency in French and his Latin good looks, he might have been able to assimilate as a Gentile. Instead, as the Museum’s curatorial notes report, he’d introduce himself as, “My name is Modigliani. I am Jewish.” This collection, amassed mostly from the collection of Paul Alexandre, a patron and dear friend, shows the “artist as a young outsider,” exploring non-Western art and unpacking accepted notions of beauty in rough drafts and sculpture as well as a handful of completed paintings, all made between 1906 and 1914.

It’s shocking at first to examine Modigliani’s work stripped of colors. His palette is rich and rakishly appealing, and we’re reminded of its impact in such signature paintings as “Jeanne Hébuterne with Yellow Sweater” (1918-19), which graces this show. A portrait of the art student, who would eventually become his wife, is as amused as it is erotic – all tilted angles and spheres burnished by the atonal primaries add flesh and blood to his hyper-stylization. The subject of “The Jewess (1908),” one of his first exhibited paintings, is most likely Maud Abrantès, his lover at the time, and its somber self-announcement is grounded out by shades of sea and sky on a wintery day.

Throughout his work, Modigliani fiddled with eyes and noses – often blanking out the former and elongating the latter. Here, his subject’s eyes are piercing and green, and her nasal bridge is blocked out in white, the one symbolist flourish in an otherwise uncharacteristically naturalist portrayal. It’s as if Modigliani is pointing out the elegance of her nose – the Jewish facial feature most often by lampooned by anti-Semites – and reminding us all that the objectified, the “outsider,” sees with an acute clarity. There’s something brilliantly subversive in his emphasis of the nose – often the most emphasized facial feature in his portraits – throughout his career.

The exhibition, which encompasses most of the museum’s second floor, is divided into living-room-sized spaces that glide us through stages of his burgeoning artistic consciousness (I hesitate to say radicalism, but only just). The first gallery highlights early sketches and paintings, many featuring such social outsiders as séance conductors and cabaret and circus performers. All are chiefly influenced by Picasso’s “blue period” – more mood than structure. But the very early 20th century was a time when such European artists as Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse, and Brancusi had began to recognize the value of non-Western work, and in subsequent galleries we see how Modigliani followed suit.

Interspersed with Modigliani’s increasingly abstracted drawings and limestone sculptures – carved heads, mostly – is a Fang-Ntumu mask from Equatorial Guinea, a mask of Gu from the Guro peoples in central Côte d’Ivoire, and an Egyptian statuette. The influence – the almond eyes, the symmetrical purity, the hyper-linear noses – are thus laid bare, often literally. And in his paintings and his caryatids – a unique take on the architectural motifs that often celebrated female divinitiy – we see how he build upon these influences, finding his way into telling as much by shape as by shade.

True, it can be argued that Modigliani was guilty of the same kind of cultural vampirism as his contemporaries – he reduced other people’s artistic output to a vehicle for exploring his own subjugation. But I sense more solidarity than fetishization in his work; as a Sephardic Jew, he may even have felt included in the African and Middle-Eastern diaspora so that he saw himself as drawing upon the work of ancestors merely farther afield.

Dead by 35, Modigliani may be best remembered for his languorous female subjects – all attitude, these broads, with their saucy moues, haughty noses, jutting hips and chins. Sculpting became less viable as his lifelong physical challenges progressed, so we’ll never know how much deeper he may have dove into non-Western traditions had he not ultimately been limited to painting. But that undercurrent of disease weaves into his work as well, deepening his identification with those living on the fringes of society, dislocating him further from traditional notions of beauty, and leading him to disembody his female forms as he himself felt disembodied. It seems no mistake that these ladies are ultimately defined by essences rather than flourishes, for in Modigliani’s work spirit forever tips its hand. The Jewish Museum is to be commended for this resurrection of his own unruly spirit – his whimsical, fervent resistance.