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.
Taking as its focus one of its more engaging masterpieces, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has organized a thematic exhibition that offers a unique historical context for appreciating the tradition and allure of the enchanting Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque) (1887-88) by the French Post-Impressionist Georges Seurat (1859-91).
Georges Seurat, Pierrot and Colombine, ca. 1886–88
Joined by a remarkable group of seventeen related works by the artist that illuminates the lineage of the motif in Seurat’s inimitable conté crayon drawings, the exhibition explores the fascination the subject held for other 19th century artists from the influential 19th century caricaturist Honoré Daumier, whose caricatures lampooned the changing political climate in 19th century France, to a young Pablo Picasso at the fin de siècle. More than 100 works are on loan ranging from drawings, prints, vintage posters, illustrated journals and musical instruments that vividly depict traveling circuses and fairs of the period. One of the many viewing pleasures is the whiff of Parisian joie de vivre and the city’s bustling art scene.
Georges Seurat, Trombonist, 1887–88
Seurat worked on Circus Sideshow for six years and it represents one of a half dozen figurative paintings he produced. The artist is known for his draftsmanship seen in the painting’s precise geometric shapes, as well as his innovative use of pointillism (brush strokes of dots) and divisionism (separating and dividing color), techniques he developed leading to the Neo-Impressionist era.
Honoré Daumier, The Sideshow (La Parade), ca. 1865–66
Circus Sideshow details the purchase of tickets and the attendant Parade, a come-on or sideshow featuring groups of Saltimbangues (circus performers) and rousing music as free entertainment. Customers are expected to queue up the stairs to the box office. On the makeshift stage under the glow of nine twinkling gaslights, five musicians, a ringmaster and clown play to the assembled crowd of onlookers whose assorted hats add a wry and rhythmic note to the foreground of this austere nocturnal painting, the only nighttime composition Seurat produced before his untimely death at 31.
Fernand Pelez, Grimaces and Misery—The Saltimbanques, 1888
Among the Seurats on display are three surviving preparatory studies for Circus Sideshow and a suite of five drawings of cafe society singers. The other Seurat painting is the small version of “Models” (Poseuses) 1887-88, in which the artist reverses direction rendering daylight, flesh and a moment of relaxation. The larger version resides in the Barnes Collection and debuted with Circus Sideshow in the 1888 Salon des Indépendants.
Jean-François Raffaëlli, Les Saltimbanques-L’Orchestre en parade, 1884
Other highlights: Rembrandt’s dry painted Christ Presented To the People (1655); a first-time showing in the U.S. of Fernand Pelez’s monumental Grimaces and Misery—The Saltimbanques (Petit Palais, Paris), which was presented at the Salon of 1888, at the same time as Seurat’s brooding masterpiece debuted at the Salon des Indépendants. And catch such favorites as Pierre Bonnard, Lucien Pissarro, Emile Bernard, and the American Maurice Pendergast, among others.
Kudos must go to historian and guest curator Richard Thomas professor of Fine Arts at the University of Edinburgh and the Met’s Susan Alysin Stein, curator of Nineteenth Century European Paintings in the Department of European Paintings for the brilliant installation and fine catalogue.
Through May 29, 2017, Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Images (in order):
Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque), 1887–88
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Bequest of Stephen C. Clark, 1960
Pierrot and Colombine, ca. 1886–88
Kasama Nichido Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of
Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986
The Sideshow (La Parade), ca. 1865–66
Fernand Pelez (French, 1848–1913)
Grimaces and Misery—The Saltimbanques, 1888
Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris
Jean-François Raffaëlli (French, 1850–1924)
Saltimbanques—The Sideshow Orchestra
(Les Saltimbanques—L’Orchestre en parade), ca. 1884