The Jewish Museum’s fine Modigliani retrospective and all the essays in its catalog are geared to do one big thing. That this doesn’t happen doesn’t at all diminish the exhibition.
The show’s subtitle, “Beyond the Myth,” is a catchy way of saying, “Pay no attention to the myth of Modigliani.” The strategy is strange and insular, and will likely make people think, “What myth?” Few are aware that Modigliani was a well-born Sephardic Jew from Tuscany and was extremely literate and artistically precocious, or that he arrived in Paris in 1906 at the age of 22, got to know nearly all the early modernists, and in 1907 saw Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in Picasso’s Bateau-Lavoir studio and soon thereafter started drinking and taking drugs.
Modigliani looked like Antonio Banderas but acted like Courtney Love. His only one-person exhibition caused a scandal because of his depiction of female pubic hair (and he is great at this). He was touchy, conceited, and prone to rages and spousal abuse. Painter Max Jacob noted his “unbearable pride, grim ingratitude, and arrogance,” calling him “as fragile as glass and . . . as inhuman.” A mistress described him as “a swine and a pearl.” On the way to register his newborn daughter, he got drunk, and as a result the child was never legitimized. Several weeks after a 1920 New Year’s Eve binge, he died of tubercular meningitis at the age of 35, destitute, in a garret. Two days later, his girlfriend—the mother of his unregistered child, 19 years his junior, and nine months pregnant—threw herself from a window, killing herself and her unborn baby. The following day, mourners following Modigliani’s coffin to Père Lachaise included Brancusi, Soutine, Léger, and Picasso (who slyly commented on Modigliani’s exhibitionist bohemianism, “You never saw Modigliani drunk but at the corners of Boulevard Montmartre and the Boulevard Raspail”—in the middle of the art world, in other words).
These facts of Modigliani’s life gave rise to the myth. If we neglect the myth, the show’s organizers suggest, Modigliani will cease being considered a second-rung modernist. The problem is, Modigliani’s myth isn’t actually visible in his work. There may be melancholy, but there’s no histrionics, suffering, or anger. His sculptures are elegant and poised, his drawings keen, and his portraits serene. Ease and isolation emanate from Modigliani’s work, a geometry of stillness and composure.
This crowded but wonderfully condensed exhibition of eight primitivistic sculptures, 44 mostly excellent drawings, and 47 paintings of varying quality—including a great portrait of a limp-wristed Cocteau, and five reverberating nudes—allows you to glean why Modigliani might have been driven to drink after that day in the Bateau-Lavoir. Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Mondrian, even Klee, revered the past but were forced to overturn it out of sheer frustration. Modigliani was frustrated too, but he consciously preserved his connection to the past. He wanted newness without cubism. This ties him to the more conservative wing of modernism, and makes him a better, more universal version of Oskar Kokoschka or Elie Nadelman—closer to Chagall, although Chagall’s colors, compositions, space, and surfaces are more adventurous. Modigliani combined influences like Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, early Picasso, Fauvism, and Brancusi, as well as archaic Greek and Renaissance sculpture and African and Cycladic carving to invent a race of long-necked, oval-faced, hollow-eyed beings who exist in shallow tilted space. These beings and that space have bewitched viewers ever since. Still, something’s missing.
The opening Modigliani quote in the show’s catalog inadvertently sheds light on what that may be: “The man who cannot find new ambitions and even a new person within himself, who is always destined to wrestle with what has remained rotten and decadent . . . is not a man.” Certainly, Modigliani’s art is neither rotten nor decadent. It is filled with elegiac love and numinous longing. However, except for the nudes, sundry portraits, and a number of the drawings, his art is formulaic. In his defense, you could say that unlike in his life, in his art Modigliani found something, settled down, and perfected it. True, there is amplification in his work, but there’s sadly little perfecting. He overturned convention, then settled into one of his own making. Perhaps Modigliani wasn’t confident or conscious enough to plumb the extraordinary implications of his art—the collapsing space, the frontality, his ideas of finish and elongation, or his striking mix of the primitive and classical. As a result, you don’t need to experience his art over and over in order to “know” it. Modigliani’s art lets us know that, far from being habituated to risk, he avoided it.
Herein lies a radiant paradox: Modigliani’s doubt limits his art but endears him to us. We can sense that he strove toward the new. But he was desperate not to risk too much. In this he’s like most of us. Modigliani repeats, but to his credit he’s never empty like Jim Dine or Tom Wesselman. Modigliani’s doubt forced him to reduce all human beings to a single being (something Giacometti later built on). Not only does this universalizing tendency make Modigliani’s work accessible on almost a spiritual level, it’s likely to beguile viewers long after the quarrels about his myth and stature have faded.