A New, Nuanced Vision of Amedeo Modigliani on View at the Jewish Museum

Text by Mary Gregory, Photos by Adel Gorgy

One of the highlights of a glorious fall/winter season for art in New York is the Jewish Museum’s Modigliani Unmasked, a rare exhibition of over 100 drawings, sculptures and paintings by one of the great artists of the 20th century. The exhibition is stunning, filled with lush colors, sensuous figures, and bold early modernist experimental themes and techniques. It’s as complex and rich as the artist, himself.

“Unfinished Portrait of Paul Alexandre.”  Alexandre was Modigliani’s first and most important patron.

The collection of drawings, which make up the bulk of the show, was bought by a friend, admirer, and early supporter of Modigliani, Dr. Paul Alexandre. Most of them have not been shown before. It’s a unique chance to see quick sketches that reveal the spontaneity of the artist’s hand, completed paintings that required more time, and sculptures hewn from stone that still carry the fluid, graceful, exaggerated and abstracted lyricism for which Modigliani is not just famous, but revered.

Modigliani’s 1912 “Head of a Woman” in limestone reveals his mastery of many materials.

The exhibition focuses on the early part of Modigliani’s career, shortly after he arrived in Paris, in 1906. It was a glorious time in Paris. Artists like Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brâncusi were already there, and they became friends, colleagues, inspiration and sometimes rivals with the young Italian émigré.  But it was also a difficult time, politically. Modigliani was a Sephardic Jew, and Paris was a hotbed of anti-Semitism after the Dreyfus Affair.

The exhibition shines a light on both of those aspects of life in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, and offers ways to approach Modigliani’s work by considering all the cultural influences that surrounded him. Mostly, though, it presents a vast body of splendid, original work and a unique artist’s vision and voice.

In “Female Nude Leaning on Her Left Elbow” Modigliani wields his pencil with a sculptor’s force.

“Nude with a Hat” is on one side of a rare double-sided painting by Modigliani.

Nude drawings of beautiful women reveal Modigliani’s smooth, elegant line, but also his the mind of a sculptor. One of the intriguing effects one notices is heavy outlining around the edges of the body, as though he were trying to carve a niche for his figures with dark shadows. The dramatic lighting on the wonderful collection of sculptures by Modigliani (as well as African, Greek, Egyptian, and Khmer work that influenced him) reinforces the fact that line was a key element in the artist’s visual vocabulary. But perhaps nothing says that more eloquently than the paintings.

“Head in Profile,” a 1911–12 drawing on paper

“The Jewess,” a 1908 oil on canvas is resplendent in rich blue and dark turquoise.  A later work, “Jeanne Hébuterne with Yellow Sweater” shows a softer palette and Modigliani’s more developed style.  Cool, removed, with blanked out eyes, Jeanne, Modigliani’s lover, muse and frequent model, looks a little like a soft sculpture.

“Jeanne Hébuterne with Yellow Sweater” is a tender depiction of Modigliani’s lover.  They both met tragic ends.

Struggling and impoverished, Modigliani, whose work is adored today, was not recognized or rewarded for his art in his own lifetime. He died of tuberculosis in 1920, at age 35, just two years after painting Jeanne’s picture. She threw herself out of the window two days after his death, killing herself and their unborn child.

Modigliani’s 1919 painting “Lunia Czechowska”

The exhibition includes historical items from Paris in Modigliani’s time, personal letters, and wall texts that round out a picture of an era and an artist whose passion and pathos changed the course of Modern Art. It runs through February 4th, 2018.

Top Photo: “The Jewess” a 1908 oil on canvas, is a highlight of Modigliani Unmasked.