There couldn’t have been a more tragic finale in 1920 Bohemian Paris than the end of Amadeo Modigliani’s life. Modigliani was 35 years old and had already memorialized the thick mane of his lover Jeanne Hébuterne’s waist-long hair in numerous paintings and drawings in his mannered and elegant late style. Hébuterne was 21 and about to give birth to their second child. Suffering from acute kidney pain, coughing and spitting blood, Modigliani lay in bed and an already grieving Hébuterne huddled by his side on the narrow wooden pallet at their atelier on Rue de la Grande Chaumière. The sculptor Jacques Lipchitz described the pre-Raphaelite beauty as “a strange girl, slender, with a long oval face which seemed almost white rather than flesh color.” They had run out of coal for the stove, and winter air streamed through the decrepit white-washed windows. Empty sardine cans, liquor bottles, and debris littered the floor. When he finally fell into a coma, Modigliani was carried to Hôpital de la Charité and tended by nuns while friends surrounded him like the chorus in an opera. Soon after he died from tubercular meningitis, Hébuterne would lean backward out the fifth-story open window of her parents’ home and topple to the pavement.
The indignities didn’t end there. The painters Moïse Kisling and Conrad Moricand applied plaster to Modigliani’s face for a death mask, which they ineptly lifted too quickly, pulling off pieces of his skin and hair. The artist’s brother, unable to attain a visa to travel from Livorno, paid expenses for a lavish funeral, where a crush of people gathered behind a horse-drawn carriage bearing his casket covered with fresh flowers and two wreaths. At Cimetière du Père Lachaise, a rabbi dressed in traditional French robes and hat chanted prayers for the deceased, a nonbeliever, raised in a liberal home where boys would have a bar mitzvah but socialism and populism were welded to Dante and Emerson. Hébuterne’s Catholic parents, who had never approved of “Jewish Modigliani” arranged their daughter’s funeral for 8 in the morning the next day. Their modest procession included just two taxis behind the hearse that passed with little notice from Paris to the cemetery at Bagneux.
The irony of Modigliani’s years of poverty is well-known. Lipchitz put it this way: “He knew what it was to suffer, too. He was sick with tuberculosis, which killed him; he was hungry and poor,” and yet two years ago Christie’s auctioned off his Nu couché for $170.4 million. The consequences of his short and disordered life have resulted in confusion and chaos for scholars, museums, dealers, auction houses, and collectors. His official catalog raisonné is out of date, which has caused feuds, forgeries, lawsuits, death threats, and a burgeoning industry of forensic studies. This past summer, an exhibit in Genoa closed three days early because Italian prosecutors considered that as many as 21 works in the show may have been fakes. On top of that, many Modigliani drawings and paintings ended up in the hands of Jewish collectors and dealers before World War II and experienced destinies that were different from that of their owners.
Now, heading into the centennial of his death, two complementary exhibitions, one at the Jewish Museum in New York, running through this weekend, and the other at Tate Modern in London, on view through April 2, bring together about 250 drawings, paintings, and carved stone pieces by Modigliani. In combination, they broaden our understanding of his fleeting career, dating from his arrival in Paris, when his subjects included figures from the demimonde—circus performers, and stock characters from commedia dell’arte—to his last scrawled pencil sketch of the left-leaning Greek composer Marios Varvoglis in 1920. Modigliani was the incarnation of early 20th-century Bohemia; he was the painter, poet, philosopher, the debauched and profligate son, the lover, and the loved one dying of consumption conflated into one.
It’s been said by historians that Bohemia is a state of mind with different points of entry and boundaries for everyone. Denizens of certain parts of gentrified Bushwick or Bed-Stuy can attest. When Modigliani arrived in Paris in 1906 with money in his pocket from his mother, he was not unlike Puccini’s Rodolfo:
In my carefree poverty…
When it comes to dreams and visions
and castles in the air,
I’ve the soul of a millionaire.
But during the 13 years that followed, Bohemia’s dark side tested his limits and, conversely, strengthened his art. Why did it have such a hold on him? His daughter, who was only 14 months old when he died but was raised in Livorno by her paternal grandmother and adopted by her father’s sister, placed special emphasis on his Sephardic heritage, his “Spanish-Italian Jewish family living the life of middle-class Tuscan intellectuals.”
In her tartly insightful book, Modigliani: Man and Myth written in the 1950s, she described a gallery of passionate, brilliant, impractical, disorganized dreamers, some with persecution complexes, others as Don Juans, deserters, suicides, improvident businessmen, deists, followers of Spinoza as well as enthusiasts of Da Costa, d’Annunzio, and the “Anarchist Prince” Kropotkin. Their inability to compromise and their convoluted attitude toward money—which they were loath to mention but admired intellectually as they might “chess or philosophic speculation”—would naturally have set Modigliani against bourgeois values. As the pampered and indulged youngest son in this eccentric family (his birth coincided with the bankruptcy of his father’s family, while his mother said he was joli comme un coeur, “pretty as a heart”), he came close to death, both from pleurisy and typhoid, during his childhood. Perhaps by choosing the life of a Bohemian artist, he was constructing a manner, a way to toughen himself up, discarding the old tender relationships but saving his poetic soul, maintaining grandiose ambition in order to set things right for, as he put it, une vie brève mais intense: a brief life, but an intense one.
The exhibition at the Jewish Museum, to a great extent a drawing show, is centered around the collection of Paul Alexandre, Modigliani’s first patron, an idealistic doctor and founder of a meeting place for artists in Montparnasse, which he called a “sort of guardian angel hostel,” where there was ample opportunity for drugs and drink. The exhibit focuses primarily on work executed before World War I and is constrained by the curator Mason Klein’s thesis linking Modigliani’s mask-like figures to his identity as an outsider, a Sephardic Jew from Italy living in Paris. I will say upfront: I don’t buy this.
While there are several memoirs that describe Modigliani’s passionate response to anti-Semitism, there’s simply no evidence that he felt himself an outsider. As was often the case in Sephardic families, his was deeply cosmopolitan. His mother was born in Marseilles and, generations back, her family had lived in Tunisia, Livorno, and even Algeria. His father’s family’s business had been in Rome but his father spent most of his time in Sardinia. National boundaries or the distinction between Sephardic and Ashkanazi Jews would have meant nothing to him. In Paris, his friends included many Jews—Lipchitz, Sutine, Max Jacob, Chagall, Zadkine, Nadelman, Diego Rivera, and Kisling—as well as non-Jews like Picasso, Henri Laurens, Juan Gris, and Jean Cocteau. If he was recognized for his Italianism, it was because of his dashing style. Lipchitz said, “he looked aristocratic even in his worn-out corduroys.” Modigliani fused the idealized forms of Classical sculpture and Renaissance masters to Post Expressionism, Cubism, Egyptian art, and African art and he was deeply influenced by Brancusi’s ideas concerning sculpture, but his interest in the personality of his subjects kept him at arm’s length from abstraction.
Nonetheless, the Jewish Museum’s large array of works on paper, sculpture, and a small selection of paintings presents an opportunity to consider how the modernist project of filtering out excesses was reflexive for Modigliani from the start, as he explained in his only surviving sketchbook from 1906-7: “What I am searching for is neither the real nor the unreal, but the Subconscious, the mystery of what is Instinctive in the human Race.” He was pitiless as he pursued his subjects for their inner truths and you see it even in the earliest drawings, for the most part delineated with swift, uninterrupted arcs, often shaded at the outside edges with impatient, dark and heavy lines. Faces, torsos, legs, and arms are subdivided and reconstructed as starkly empty spaces.
Several drawings and paintings of the femme fatale Maud Abrantès stand out in the exhibit. Abrantès may have been the mistress of both Modigliani and his patron Alexandre, who referred to her as “a most elegant woman,” but little is known except that she was married to an art dealer and became pregnant while living in France. In 1908, she sailed to America and sent Alexandre a card from the ocean liner La Lorraine: “We arrive tomorrow. Are you still reading Mallarmé? I can’t tell you how much I miss all those charming evenings we all spent together around your warm fire. Oh, what a wonderful time!” In one of his most tender and intimate sketches, Modigliani presents Abrantès sitting in bed, drawing with a pen in her hand.
Abrantès was likely the model for The Jewess, a painting that was prized by both men; you see it in the background of photos of Alexandre in his apartment and in several of the portraits Modigliani made of his friend. Inspired by the Fauves, The Jewess represented a breakthrough for Modigliani. He placed it in the 1908 Salon des Indépendants where it must have appeared scandalous with the thick white-lavender patches and heavy impasto swipes of green paint creating a half-mask around the mysterious woman’s black and green eyes. Her sensuous mouth is painted with brilliant streaks of orange and red and her white arm disappears in an evanescence. The portrait may be the closest Modigliani came to Expressionism.
If you’re tempted to ask what it meant for him to refer to the subject of his painting as Jewish in post-Dreyfus Paris, don’t bother. This is precisely the kind of question Modigliani and his paintings don’t answer. Resolutely closed off, even in this rare instance where you can halfway meet a beautiful woman’s haunting but icy glance, the specific and concrete elements of the portrait remain the artist’s. This steadfast isolation is what gives his work its defiant backbone. We don’t know whether that defiance was resistance to the hardships of Bohemian life, a swagger that developed out of homesickness, or the unspoken understanding that he was carrying the germ of tuberculosis that would cause his early death.
Among the other treasures in the show are the caryatids, which he worked on between 1911 and 1914, the period when he was almost single-mindedly dedicated to sculpture. Ever since his early travels as a teenager, Modigliani had been searching for a way to capture ideal forms of the human body and the human face, linking back to his beloved Spinoza’s philosophical ideas about the order and connection of things and thoughts. The preparation drawings with long stems for their necks and the beautiful rose and blue gouache studies, bending, lifting, and bowing to imagined weight, show them as icons of compliance who simultaneously defy the pressures of their burden. The single, monumental half-kneeling sculpted caryatid, folding out of limestone, is one of the artist’s greatest accomplishments.
The Tate exhibit consists primarily of paintings and carved stone sculpture but it also includes virtual-reality headsets in which visitors can see “The Ochre Atelier,” recreated as a sanitized version of Modigliani’s final apartment at Rue de la Grande Chaumière, leaving out the unruly disarray of papers and rubbish on the floor. Wearing the headset, you can look at facsimile images of his two-drawer table and rush seat chair, the narrow bed with two tiny pillows like the one Modigliani and Jeanne Hébuterne slept in, rum bottles, a coal stove and ash bucket, a guttering candle, and matches, as well as a paint palette and rag for spreading colors with turpentine. Unfortunately, the staging does not include books we know Modigliani continued to accumulate and cart from studio to studio during his vagabond years in Paris where he was famous for his recitations from poets Dante, Villon, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé. This would have personalized the setting and reminded viewers of the cultural tradition that had been planted in him by his family in Livorno, drawing attention to the painful separation he had staked out in his chaotic, artistic life in Paris.
For the most part, the paintings are beautifully hung in the galleries at Tate Modern. With their burnt umbers, dark greens, ochres, and the later lighter tones and luminous, gray-blues; so many works by Modigliani shown together create a radiance. They also allow you to take in the fact that the artist worked simultaneously in what his daughter called “contradictory tendencies,” rather than progressing in logical steps from one style to another. In 1909, he painted the brilliantly handsome portrait of his friend Jean Alexandre with layers of almost Turneresque brushwork. That same year he depicted the youth he referred to as a young gypsy with a stylized geometric angularity, posing him with legs spread apart and hands loosely resting in his lap. In 1918, Modigliani painted the Little Peasant with a simplified classicism but situated him with the same rounded hands and arms, building up his portrait with meticulous layers of tonality, similar in many ways to the style he had used when painting Jean Alexandre but working in a lighter palette.
The curators decided to install all 12 of their Modigliani nudes in the same section of the show, commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the only solo exhibition during the artist’s lifetime. Notoriously, that exhibit, which included four nudes and opened at Gallerie Berthe Weill, was closed by police on its first day because, as the commissioner said, “Those nudes, they have pubic hair!” Although there’s a unique sexual honesty in Modigliani’s nudes, to my mind, the result of displaying them all together is rather monotonous, whereas the nine stone sculptures that are arranged as an ensemble in a finely lit alcove are transcendent. Some were roughly chiseled into a low, broad, triangular format and the faces are almost completely flat, while others are highly polished, razor thin and streamlined or rise vertically from thick cylindrical necks like totems. A few of the busts appear battered, as though they themselves are ruined survivors of history. Modigliani acquired his blocks of stone from municipal street projects and building sites but he transformed them to exude an exotic dignity.
Tate was lucky to be able to borrow the 1919 Self-Portrait owned by Museu de Arte in São Paulo. It produces a marvelous closure to the show, crystallizing everything Modigliani saw in his idol Cezanne, but bringing it forward into a form that was authentic and personal. Was the meticulously painted, somber, and mask-like countenance with scarf at his throat an emblem of tuberculosis, perhaps the interior hidden face of the disease? But the image is also a testament to what the poet Akhmatova described in her memoir after her brief love affair with Modigliani in 1910 and 1911: “He seemed to me encircled with a dense ring of loneliness.”
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