This exhibition of work by Amadeo Modigliani (1884–1920) aimed to throw his far-reaching primitivist sympathies into focus by casting them through the lens of his Jewish identity. The show gave special emphasis to a cache of early drawings collected by Dr. Paul Alexandre, a patron and close friend of the artist, though it also included several of his paintings and sculptures as well as a range of objects representing his aesthetic influences. Modigliani’s early studies in life drawing at Florence’s Accademia di Belle Arti plainly informed his subsequent activity in Paris, where he left a distinctive mark on twentieth-century modernism and completed over four hundred drawings between 1906 and 1914, many of them on view here. The works on paper offer insights into Modigliani’s thematic preoccupations and stylistic experiments, which homed in almost exclusively on the (usually female) human form.
The show’s title, “Modigliani Unmasked,” alluded to Modigliani’s characteristic physiognomies: stylized visages that, rather than offering some window onto the soul, often appear rigid and impenetrable. Masks—a few examples of which were on display—were influential in this regard, particularly those from Africa and Oceania that were acquired by Paris’s Musée de l’Homme in the century’s first decades. Unlike Picasso’s, Braque’s, or Derain’s assimilation of “primitive” cultures, however, Modigliani’s was complicated by his status as a Jew living in a city still reeling from the Dreyfus Affair and riven by anti-Semitism. Even his Jewish origins—as an Italian of Sephardic descent—set him apart from the largely Ashkenazi immigrant artists of Montparnasse. From cabaret performers to beggars and prostitutes, it was to society’s more marginal figures that the artist gravitated, and they appear in several of his drawings.
Rather than his famously ill health, it was Paris’s anti-Semitism that Modigliani’s daughter claimed weighed most heavily on her father, and the exhibition contextualized such issues by displaying racist caricatures of Jews that appeared on the covers of the anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole. Evidently, the artist routinely introduced himself with the statement “My name is Modigliani, and I am a Jew.” Indeed, his 1910 Self-Portrait with Beard, in which he depicted himself with Near Eastern features and wearing an exotic-looking tunic, suggests an individual vaunting his Jewishness rather than keeping it under wraps. In the portrait The Jewess (1908), he portrayed society wife Maud Abrantes with a prodigious nose, which the exhibition identified as a projection of his own Jewishness. Yet the artist’s self-portrait as Pierrot (ca. 1911), like his sculpted limestone head from the same year shown in an adjoining room, reveal a decidedly straight and streamlined nose, recalling that of the Ntumu mask on display nearby. While Modigliani fixated on non-Western identities, his assimilation of them suggests anything but a straightforward meditation on Jewishness.
Russian poet Anna Akhmatova visited Modigliani twice in Paris, and a suite of several portraits of her offers a case study of his approach to drawing: by turns unrehearsed and meticulous. His studies of anonymous models likewise convey his contrasting approaches: if Female Nude Reclining on Left Side, Right Arm in Front of Her Body (ca. 1909) appears almost gestural in its seeming informality and spontaneity, Female Nude with Winglike Arms (ca. 1910) demonstrates a hieratic, even decorative, economy of line. That hieraticism derived in great part from the artist’s interest in Egyptian art, which, along with the symmetry of Cycladic figurines and various other traditions, also informs his series of Caryatid drawings, gouaches, and sculptures. The exhibition’s final gallery included examples of what were ostensibly inspirations for his Caryatid series: from a Cycladic marble figure to a Bodhisattva from pre-Angkor Western Cambodia, from a Syrian sculpture of a seated God to a Thai Buddha.
The accompanying wall text averred that the Eastern inflections of Modigliani’s Caryatids evince a certain “audacity in defining himself as different.” Yet the metaphorical otherness of the artist’s representations appears repeatedly assimilated to a fundamentally Western idiom, one only intermittently definable as Jewish per se. Modigliani’s synthesis of historical aesthetic sources and modernist forms remains far more compelling and nuanced than any articulation of identity politics.