Magazine article Artforum International

Amedeo Modigliani: The Jewish Museum

Magazine article Artforum International

Amedeo Modigliani: The Jewish Museum

Article excerpt

After decades of revisionist art history, with its accompanying tendency to downplay the significance of biography, it's hard to believe that the oeuvre of Amedeo Modigliani remains colored by accounts of personal tragedy. Perhaps the most famous of the Montparnasse peintres maudits, Modigliani's life story is familiar enough: Impoverished, itinerant, tubercular but handsome, the artist was frequently under the influence of alcohol and drugs, sketched cafe clients for money, and died at the age of thirty-five (an event immediately followed by the suicide of his pregnant girlfriend and last muse, Jeanne Heburerne). All this is true, but reveals little about the art or even the man. This retrospective, curated by Mason Klein, aimed to steer us away from the debauched vie de boheme and back toward Modigliani's art.

In order to do this, the pointedly titled "Modigliani: Beyond the Myth" needed to retain some elements of narrative, but its focus was readjusted toward a consideration of Modigliani's intellectual life and the cultural context of fin de siecle Italy. It is essential, argues Klein, that we see him as a Sephardic Jew whose identity as such contributed a great deal to his art, as did the particular conditions of his upbringing. Modigliani was raised in a politically liberal and intellectually precocious household: He grew up reading Dante and Spinoza, and the strains of classical Italian humanism and Hebraic tradition mingle easily in his art.

After the relatively utopian republicanism of post-risorgimento Italy, the anti-Semitism of Paris came as a shock. Arriving in the capital in 1906, Modigliani already spoke French fluently and unlike other Jewish emigre artists in Montparnasse like Chagall and Soutine he was not primarily identified as a Jew. Although he never tried to hide it--he often introduced himself with the announcement "I am Modigliani, Jew"--his identity was suddenly uncertain. Herein, Klein contends, lay both Modigliani's dilemma and his artistic opportunity: He articulated difference and otherness in aesthetic terms. He began exploring "primitive" objects and may have turned toward abstraction to accentuate difference and play up ambiguity in his painted portraits. He also befriended Brancusi, whose influence is evident in the finely carved idol-like heads and caryatids that Modigliani produced between 1909 and 1915. …

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