It can be argued that Modigliani demonstrated an instinctual modernist understanding of identity as heterogeneous, beyond national or cultural boundaries,” writes the curator Mason Klein regarding the subject of “Modigliani Unmasked,” an exhibition at the Jewish Museum. Indeed it can be argued, in just the way that many people argue that no man-made thing can be understood properly unless it is first interpreted as a product of identity. Whether it ought to be argued is another matter.
“Modigliani Unmasked” makes much of the fact that the artist, a Jew expatriated to Paris from Livorno, identified as such, rather than passing as a French gentile when pervasive anti-Semitism would have made it advantageous to do so. The first room is given over to the earliest and weakest works in order to make that point. Alas, the title of The Jewess (1908), among the first pictures Modigliani exhibited after his arrival in Paris in 1906, might be its most striking feature. Bars of acid green around the sitter’s face betray Modigliani’s anxiety about the possibility of beating Matisse at his own game, a well-founded worry in this case. Her protracted nose hints tantalizingly at his later sculptures, with noses elongated still further and straightened into rulers. But this picture and a contemporaneous one of the same model, Nude with a Hat, the latter an off-putting caricature, her face jaundiced and jagged and her cartoonish breasts askew, show an artist still struggling to find his voice. A defiant sense of identity was no help. It might have gotten in the way.
The Jewish works are not particularly notable, and the notable works are not particularly Jewish.
Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920) is known to have told off a neighboring table full of Frenchmen who were ranting rudely about his people, “Je suis juif et je vous emmerde.” His refusal to suffer the blithering of jingoes does not really amount to a “preoccupation with identity,” as Klein puts it, but this is the concept upon which he tries to hang the rest of the show. The sculptures, the painting to which he turned after the First World War deprived him of limestone and illness robbed him of the strength to carve it, and the drawings made along the way—Klein presents them as the expressions of an ethnic outsider. The result is an exhibition in which the Jewish works are not particularly notable, and the notable works are not particularly Jewish.
Via one path or another, Klein ultimately ascribes the artist’s interest in Kropotkin, Nietz- sche, occultism, Oceanic and African art, and Symbolism to Modigliani’s “Sephardic orientation,” despite the fact that those fascinations were shared by goyim all over Montmartre. That leads Klein to galling conclusions, for instance, that special Jewish powers of identity-awareness enabled Modigliani to derive imagery from African sources more respectfully than Picasso could. Under this conception, Modigliani’s whole project devolves into an effort to pollute the racial purity held dear by French nationalists, a notion that grows less offensive but not less absurd when presented as a good thing instead of a bad one. The argument then rolls into a ditch when the exhibition is found to include, as one of the inspirations for Modigliani’s reductive modernism, the marbles of the Cyclades. That is to say, of Europe. I’m no expert on the prejudices of the French, but it’s not clear to me how their racial integrity might be sullied by the ancient art of another people of the northern Mediterranean.
This thesis makes no sense, but there’s an obvious reason for proposing it: Klein is playing up the artist’s Jewishness to get Modigliani out of a charge of “cultural appropriation.” There is not a scintilla of evidence that Modigliani could identify with the Hmong in a way that Picasso could not identify with the Fang—to either artist’s credit or discredit—no matter how many times the former presented himself as a Juif to anti-Dreyfusards. On the contrary, this exhibition could have served as an opportunity to attack the bogus complaint of recent times that modernist interpretations of non-European art are acts of theft. The Jewish Museum either failed to summon the nerve, or it is disdaining Modigliani’s formal successes as worthy in their own right as the museum squeezes him uncomfortably onto the bulging bandwagon of identity politics.
“Modigliani Unmasked” functions, in spite of itself, as an effective exploration of how Modigliani’s drawings informed his sculptures and paintings. This is fruitful work to engage in, on behalf of a style that is often gripping but not always likable. His series of caryatids, especially, has always struck me as an odd and unconvincing project, but seeing the works progress from pencil on paper to heavily worked gouaches to hard rock makes clear that Modigliani was engaging in a search for form made all the more urgent by his faltering health. A nigh five-foot-high gouache from 1914 uses white paint to approximate stone, and its tactile modeling lends it nearly as much physical presence.
The museum squeezes Modigliani uncomfortably onto the bulging bandwagon of identity politics.
His hieratic limestone heads, genuinely weird objects that seem to belong neither to the artist’s time nor anyone else’s, when surrounded by dozens of preparatory drawings as they are here, appear as the triumphant rewards of a modernist quest. Singly, the related drawings look a bit trivial. In aggregate, they reveal the difficult work that went into determining which minimalist conventions would lend the sculptures a feeling of the eternal. I can hardly believe that I’m obliged to make this point: pace Klein, for a Jew to experience some kind of personal identification with the art of Egypt would have been a profoundly strange development, whereas an artist’s passion for it would not, nor would a modernist’s appreciation for its elegance. My message to the prigs who think that we ought to condemn that so-called appropriation is je vous emmerde.
Even the commissioned portraits, few as they are since Modigliani hated the work, are illumined by the proximity of drawn studies. It’s a pity that The Amazon (1909) could only appear in reproduction, for the drawings nearby flip between conventions, some more natural, others more synthetic, before arriving at an optimal confluence of boldness and femininity.
That leaves the many drawings unrelated to particular projects, but which are crucial to the essential problem of an artist’s life: to chase after the butterfly that is inspiration. Hence drawings of friends and lovers, styled a little more Secessionist here, a little more Cubist there, a little more Primitivist elsewhere. A standout among these is Female Nude Lying on Her Stomach, with Partial Standing Figure (1911). The model is likely the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who was Modigliani’s paramour for a spell in Paris. It is a wonder that a torso so lengthened could feel so natural. A window in the upper left corner, its curtains raised, lets in a night of dense marks of black crayon. Hatching spills down the wall and across the model’s back, containing the line used to depict it—a technique peculiar to Modigliani, and one that he relied on elsewhere to reinforce outlines that would otherwise seem naive. Pivotal to this work is not an understanding of identity, as heterogeneous or anything else, but a man’s affection for a woman. But tendentious ascription of complicated motives turns this into a needlessly frustrating exhibition.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 4, on page 56
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