Modigliani: Beyond the Myth at New York’s Jewish Museum is more ambitious than its title suggests. All exhibitions of the Italian modernist’s work must confront the cliché of Amedeo Modigliani—unusually handsome, promiscuous, often drunk and stoned—as the paradigmatic Left Bank artist. As his generation’s Jim Morrison, he’s been transformed in popular legend into a misunderstood genius whose 35 years have come to exemplify the tragic-romantic vie de bohème.

'Jeanne Hebuterne,' 1919
Jeanne Hebuterne, 1919

The Jewish Museum’s retrospective does go beyond this cliché, but its real target is another: what a skeptic like curator Mason Klein might call the Myth of Modigliani, Jew. In previous exhibitions, Modigliani’s Jewishness has been discussed in terms of his easy assimilation. Montparnasse was home to many Jewish émigrés. Nearly all of these artists—his companions included Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine, and Jacques Lipchitz—struggled to overcome their Eastern European provincialism, but Modigliani, who spoke fluent French and came from an educated family that claimed descent from Spinoza, seemed at home. Without disputing this characterization, Klein questions its usefulness in understanding Modigliani’s relationship to his Jewish identity. “Instead of considering the artist as the exemplary cosmopolitan of the School of Paris,” he writes in the exhibition catalogue, “I will examine Modigliani’s work as an expression of his unique identity within the foreign ranks of the School.” In other words, the current retrospective focuses on what made Modigliani stand apart.

Klein’s revisionist tale goes as follows: Modigliani arrived in Paris in 1906, the year Colonel Alfred Dreyfus was cleared of all charges. For émigrés of this period, France represented a more tolerant and modern society than they had known, an ideal place to be a Jew as well as an artist. But Modigliani saw things differently, because pluralist Italy did not demand that its Jews abandon or hide their religion. Italy was not as tolerant as Klein suggests—Rome, for instance, did not abolish its ghetto until 1870—but the international port of Livorno, where Modigliani was born and raised, never had a ghetto. Throughout the 19th century, its great Sephardic mystical leader, Elia Benamozegh, encouraged Italian patriotism while stressing “the indelibility of [one’s] Jewishness, regardless of acculturation.”

To support his argument, Klein cites Modigliani’s daughter’s claim that her father encountered anti-Semitism for the first time in France, in the journalism of Edouard Drumont. Modigliani’s ability to mask his Judaism, despite its “indelibility,” went “against the grain of emancipatory secularism that characterizes the lack of Jewish self-consciousness in most Jewish émigré artists in Paris,” Klein writes. “Rather than assimilate, Modigliani ‘unmasked’ his Jewishness by assuming the ideological position of the pariah.”

Klein returns to the Modigliani legend to explain the artist’s bohemianism in terms of his self-conception as pariah. That he never joined a movement—not the Futurists, not the Cubists—is used as further proof. His almost exclusive focus on portraiture when still-lifes and cityscapes were dominant testifies to his obsession with questions of identity and a sense of apartness. And the highly stylized, idealized faces of his portraits, the distinctive style for which the artist is best known, become, in Klein’s interpretation, the masks behind which true identity lies.

There is something to the notion that Modigliani was concerned with unmasking hidden, indelible Judaism. One of the first paintings he showed in France was a portrait of an ethnically ambiguous woman titled La Juive (1908); and he is reported to have frequently introduced himself with the words “I am Modigliani, Jew.” But to find a sublimated version of this overt, immature expression of concern with identity in his later work—and to view it as the key interpretive framework with which to approach his career overall—is a stretch.

The masklike face is everywhere in Modigliani’s mature portraits. In the stately Lunia Czechowska (The Woman with a Fan) of 1919, it gives an elevated elegance; in the unusually casual and natural portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne (1919), it allows the artist’s emotional relationship with his lover to rise to the surface. Elsewhere, as in the Young Seated Boy with Cap (1918), the degree of stylization can be so great that the subject’s personality is lost. Yet there is something haunting about this depersonalized image, as if it represents a new sort of being that Modigliani created.

The Young Seated Boy with Cap is one of the finest examples of Modigliani’s use of sculptural elements in his painted portraits, and it is this mixing of media that provides the formalist explanation for the artist’s signature style. When he arrived in Paris, Modigliani considered himself primarily a sculptor. From 1909 to 1915 he worked almost exclusively in that medium, often under the influence of Constantin Brancusi, and sculpted heads in primitive styles from Archaic Greek to Egyptian. When Modigliani returned to painting in 1915, his faces increasingly resembled these sculptures. The origin of Young Seated Boy with Cap‘s stony expression seems obvious when it is compared to one of Modigliani’s sculpted Heads.

That the statue rather than the mask is the better metaphor for understanding Modigliani’s mature painting is evident in his nudes, which caused a scandal when displayed in the artist’s first and only solo exhibition. Of the five on display at the Jewish Museum, Reclining Nude with Loose Hair (1917) is perhaps the most overtly erotic, but when compared to a contemporary work like Picasso’s groundbreaking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), it feels rather tame. Picasso’s faces resemble African masks, meant to suggest that when unmasked they will unleash a terrifying sexuality. Modigliani’s nude has a stylized face, though hardly a mask, and she has nothing to hide. Presented to us in full body, the woman is available, but she responds to the viewer’s look with a thoughtful, rather than suggestive, gaze. The impression she gives is less that of something hidden, waiting to be unmasked, than a still, inner calm of indefinite duration, her stony body the corporeal equivalent of the depersonalized face of the Young Seated Boy with Cap.

The Jewish Museum’s desire to emphasize the artist’s Jewishness is certainly understandable, as is the desire to distill from his work some notion of a Jewish tradition or sensibility. In this sense, the Modigliani retrospective fits a larger project pursued in recent exhibitions of Soutine and Chagall and in New York: Capital of Photography. But the museum risks diminishing the accomplishments of the artists they are trying to promote. Had the exhibition explored Modigliani in the context of Sephardic Italian visual culture, the argument might have been more convincing, but Klein’s suggestion of an invisible sensibility or spirit is suspect.

Klein’s argument also leads to an uncomfortable paradox: Modigliani is said to belong in the Jewish Museum precisely because of his profound sense of not belonging. In the Fifties and Sixties, the Jewish Museum gave solo exhibitions to Philip Guston and Adolph Gottlieb as well as select non-Jewish artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, thereby helping to establish their reputation. Rather than promoting a notion of the Jew as outsider, the museum showcased the centrality of Jews in the art world—an important project, but one that risks playing into stereotypes of the Jew as eternal exile. Such an interpretation of Modigliani ignores one important strand of the Jewish tradition of artmaking of which his work is a prime example: the well-established practice of making art that looks like art by everyone else.