Modigliani’s Moment: “Unmasked” and Contextualized

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Modigliani’s Moment: “Unmasked” and Contextualized
We are having a “Modigliani Moment” once again, as the popular modernist Italian artist Amedeo Clemente Modigliani, born in Livorno, Italy on July 12, 1884, stars in two major exhibitions in two major museums in two major cities at the same time. The Jewish Museum in New York organized an exhibition dedicated the artist’s early years in Paris, focusing on Dr. Paul Alexandre’s private collection of drawings and paintings amassed from 1909 to 1914. The Tate Modern in London has curated a more comprehensive retrospective of Modigliani’s paintings, drawings, and sculpture, along with a “virtual” tour of the artist’s last studio in Paris. Coincidently, the Modigliani Project recently announced its official location in midtown Manhattan. Launched and directed by Modigliani scholar Dr. Kenneth Wayne, this impressive group specializes in the authentication of the artworks (as it is often joked, there may be more fake Modiglianis than real ones). Wayne is also working on a 2020 Modigliani centennial retrospective for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Whether you know the tragic story of Modigliani’s too brief life (1884-1920) or not is of little importance. You may not even remember his name. He is “that guy who paints long faces, long necks and little almond eyes.”  Yes, that’s the one: Amedeo Modigliani, pronounced mow-dill-lee-on-ee (without the “dig” that most people say). Art historians and critics might sound chummy by calling him “Modi,” his nickname, which sounds like “maudit,” the French word for “cursed one,” an apt description for this sickly fellow.  However, his real friends addressed him by his full surname and his beloved mother Eugénie Garsin, a Jewish Frenchwoman from Marseille, wrote to her “Dedo,” her fourth, last and favorite child. Comfortably middle-class when she met Amedeo’s father Flaminio Modigliani, a small businessman and friend of Eugénie’s family, she ended up supporting both her own Garsin family and her children in Livorno through private lessons and then her private school, where she taught, with her sister Laura, English and French. Naturally, her Dedo was bilingual in Italian and French. After several years of study in his native Livorno and Venice (interrupted occasionally by ill health brought on by tuberculosis), he set his sights on living in Paris, home of the emerging avant-garde.  In 1906, he took the plunge, settling in Montmartre.  Picasso, Max Jacob, André Salmon, and Guillaume Apollinaire brought him into their fold. This is where the Jewish Museum’s story begins. From Montmartre, Modigliani found the artists living in La Ruche and then migrated with them to Montparnasse. Labelled the School of Paris, it was never an official movement, but rather a modernist sensibility inspired by Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and non-Western art. Among them was the colorful Fantaisiste and fellow Jewish immigrant Marc Chagall, whose work conveys a romanticized dreamy nostalgia for his Russian past. Aside from exaggeration, Modigliani’s work communicates the opposite. It exudes an almost melancholy mystery that some art historians describe as an impenetrable “mask.” The Jewish Museum tries to convince us that this is Modigliani’s Jewishness, a self-imposed shield that dealt with the anti-Semitism of the Post-Dreyfus Affair atmosphere in France. Was Modigliani’s work a summary of this ethnic identity or a summary of his personal pain, as André Salmon indicates in his poem (below)? The two exhibitions answer this question differently, and yet neither manages to answer it definitively. Modigliani: Unmasked, curated by associate curator Mason Klein, who contributed to the 2004 exhibition Modigliani: Beyond the Myth also at the Jewish Museum in New York, seems to continue a thesis he laid claim to in his catalogue essay for the first show: “In being subsumed within a monolithic reading of the period a leveling of artistic practices such as Modigliani’s only masks the discursive practice that art history has tended to resist.” (Beyond the Myth, pp. 22 – 23). Armed with 150 drawings from Dr. Paul Alexandre’s Collection of over 450, 14 paintings, 10 sculptures, letters, notebooks and other documentation, Klein argues for an interpretation informed by Modigliani’s “common salutation… ‘Je suis Juif (I am Jewish)’.” (p. 6). A cosmopolitan Italian, he grew up in a humanistic, secularized household, quite different from the East European Jews within his artistic circle. Klein builds his case on testimonials and inferences that speak to Modigliani’s “otherness,” an exoticism all his own: “Modigliani’s unique sense of being different—during a critical period when Europe was on the brink of war and racial difference and its associations with the Jewish question were being politicized—underlay his study of ‘types.’ For Modigliani alone, among the many Jewish émigrés in Paris, was not seen as Jewish, and thus, even among his cohort, was perhaps the sole figure who felt misread.” (Unmasked, p. 22). This assured pronouncement smacks of more myth-making, rather than getting “beyond” it, but who cares… the show itself is magnificent, plus a rare opportunity to study artworks from a private collection. Beautifully arranged in the elegant Warburg Mansion, which became New York’s Jewish Museum, Modigliani’s quick sketches and flat geometric studies on creamy paper loom out from the dark walls, like ghostly forms. These drawings and Modigliani’s richly colorful paintings come alive with an undercurrent of fragile vulnerability, especially in…

Lead photo credit : Image provided by PVDE/Bridgeman Images, New York

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Beth S. Gersh-Nešić, Ph.D. is an art historian and the director of the New York Arts Exchange, an arts education service that offers tours and lectures in the New York tristate area. She specializes in the study of Cubism and has published on the art criticism of Apollinaire’s close friend, poet/art critic/journalist André Salmon. She teaches art history at Mercy College in Westchester, New York. She published a book with French poet/literary critic Jean-Luc Pouliquen called "Transatlantic Conversation: About Poetry and Art." Her most recent book is a translation and annotation of "Pablo Picasso, André Salmon and 'Young French Painting,'" with an introduction by Jacqueline Gojard.


  • Marianne Watson
    2020-08-02 11:39:42
    Marianne Watson
    What a wonderful tribute to Modigliani. It makes my skin tingle. I wish I had seen these exhibitions but your descriptions and photos of Modi's work and life have enriched me.


  • Bernhelm Bonk
    2020-01-10 13:13:11
    Bernhelm Bonk
    Hi, I have read the article with great interest. Working on Modigliani for more than 25 years I have to tell the story of the discovery of lost early self-potrait by the artist stemming from his first creative period in Paris. Please let me know if you are intersted to publish .


  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2018-02-11 22:48:11
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Hi Krista, Where do you see 1929? Many thanks, Beth


  • Krista Wells
    2018-02-08 13:20:13
    Krista Wells
    Thanks for the article. I hope to see the exhibition in London. A correction though: Modigliani died in 1920, not 1929.