Reassessing Modigliani; Phillips Seeks to Delve 'Beyond the Myth'

Article excerpt

Byline: Joanna Shaw-Eagle, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

"Modigliani: Beyond the Myth," the traveling show that packed visitors into New York's Jewish Museum last summer, is packing Washingtonians into the Phillips Collection.

With nearly 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures, the exhibit offers the first major look back in 50 years at the tumultuous art and life of the modernist artist Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920). The show is mostly successful, albeit smallish for a retrospective, thanks to the artist's brief career - just about 14 years - and the difficulty of getting Modigliani loan-outs.

What is the source of Modigliani's evident popular appeal? Is it the romanticized "myth" of Modigliani as the handsome, starving bohemian artist who died at 35 of tuberculosis? Or maybe the artist's legendary drinking and womanizing? Is it his struggle as a foreign-born Jew in the Parisian avant-garde of the early 1900s? All have been suggested.

On a recent afternoon, visitors lingered over the works, examining them carefully. Many used Acoustiguides. They seemed spellbound by the hypnotic, magical qualities of Modigliani's art, especially the sculptures.

The artist found a new visual language in the aesthetic stylizations of African art and those from Cycladic, Greek, Egyptian, early Christian and Cambodian cultures, to which he was first exposed in Paris. Arriving from his native Livorno, Italy in 1906, he was especially fascinated by the powerful supernatural associations of the African art he encountered in Parisian shops, studios and museums.

The geometric forms - rectangles, cubes, circles and globes - and distillation of human and animal forms characteristic of African art quickly invaded Modigliani's work. These haunting African rhythms became the hallmark of the artist's style, whether in his sculpture, his appealing crayon and watercolor studies on paper of stone caryatids, his well-known portraits or the lilting curves of his erotic nudes.

The five direct-carved stone heads that introduce the show anticipate the almond-shaped heads and eyes and elongated necks of his masklike later portraits. Unfortunately, Modigliani's sculpture, the linchpin of his style, is little known and rarely seen. He always considered himself a sculptor, but poor health and lack of funds kept him from pursuing that form after 1915.

The 1909 to 1914 caryatid studies featured in the following gallery - usually combinations of graphite, crayon and watercolor on paper - look forward to the later nudes. …