Modigliani up close’ | The Jewish Norm

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Je suis Modigliani, Juif” – in English it’s “I am Modigliani, Jew” – said bluntly one of the most famous Jewish émigré artists working in France before the First World War.

A Sephardi Jew born in Livorno, Italy, Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) became a leading figure in modern art. From his arrival in Paris in 1906 he knew all the key figures who created the most radical art of the early 20th century, but Modigliani established his own distinctive individuality during a career that never only lasted 14 years.

Amedee Modigliani. Portrait of Roger Dutilleul, 1919 (Collection of Bruce and Robbi Toll Amedeo Modigliani)

“Modigliani Up Close” is an impressive and ambitious exhibition at the Barnes Foundation on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia that runs until January 29, 2023. The exhibition, which is exclusively on view at Barnes, focuses on the creative process of Modigliani, avoiding his irresistible Biography. The nearly 40 figurative paintings and eight sculptures are arranged chronologically and thematically to show how the handsome young man came to artistic maturity. With a careful selection of works borrowed from more than 30 individual and institutional lenders, the insightful special exhibition deals with the deliberative evolution of his working methods as he gained artistic confidence. The exhibition draws on the latest art historical analyzes and scientific research from an international collaboration of 61 curators and restorers, including three Israelis.

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It is fitting that the exhibition was held at the Barnes Foundation, whose founder “discovered” Modigliani, raising the artist’s international reputation. Exactly 100 years ago, Dr. Albert C. Barnes traveled to Paris and began buying paintings, works on paper and a sculpture, amassing what is today one of “the most highlights of Modigliani’s work in the country,” Barnes curator Cindy Kang. wrote in his essay, “An Early Adopter: Albert C. Barnes and Amedeo Modigliani”, in the exhibition catalog “Modigliani Up Close”.

Jeanne Hébuterne in the yellow sweater, 1918–19. Solomon R. Guggenheim
Museum, New York. Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift, 37,533 (The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY)

In the 1920s, the Philadelphia Inquirer called Barnes’ collection “crazy art…no more and no less than symptoms of mental degeneration.” Desperately, Modigliani’s “deformed wooden-necked monstrosities” were branded as “compressionist”…as if an appalling pressure had been applied to the skull. Barnes’ last Modigliani purchase in 1926 was a Reclining Nude (Room 21) purchased for $1,750. Just four years ago, a similar female figure, also seen from behind, fetched $157 million at Sotheby’s in New York.

The 15 canvases and three drawings voraciously acquired by Dr. Barnes can be seen in the permanent galleries of the foundation. The wall sets arranged by Barnes have been legally protected since his death in 1951. Thus, no work can be removed and rehung in the museum’s special exhibition gallery, even temporarily. An illustrated brochure accompanying the exhibition directs visitors to Modigliani’s paintings and works on paper on display in the rooms of the main building.

Amedee Modigliani. Self-Portrait, 1919. Museu de Arte Contemporanea da Universidade de São Paulo, Gift of Yolanda Penteado and Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho 1963.2.16 (MAC USP Collection [Museu de Arte Contemporânea da USP Collection, São Paulo, Brazil])

Modigliani will also come to the big screen. A European-based production will begin filming next year. Directed by Johnny Depp and co-produced by Al Pacino, the film is a “loose adaptation” of an Off-Broadway play. Its screenwriters, Jerzy and Mary Kromolowski, recently saw “Modigliani Up Close” and revisited the collection, with its many Modigliani and works by friends of the artist like Chaim Soutine and Maurice Utrillo. Titled “Modi,” the film is not a biopic but will focus on a few days in 1916 and has the potential to bring the Italian Jewish painter and his bohemian lifestyle to a wider audience.

Shortly after his bar mitzvah, Modigliani began drawing lessons. He was determined to be a painter. Once immersed in the Parisian art scene of Montparnasse, he assimilates the influences, maturing as an artist. Besides four landscapes (one is in the Barnes’ permanent collection), Modigliani, called Dedo by his family and Modi by his artist friends, concentrated on portraits, figure studies and sculptural heads; none of his figurative works have an explicit Jewish subject. Nudes make up about 10% of his output, but they include some of his most controversial images.

Amedee Modigliani, Portrait of Maud Abrantes (back), 1908. Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum, University of Haifa (Photograph © Hecht Museum, University of Haifa, Photo: Shay Levy)

His signature style is marked by curvy figures with elongated necks and stylized faces with almond-shaped, pupilless eyes. His subjects possess a close intimacy as they are presented within reach of the viewer. Jacques Lipchitz, the Jewish-Lithuanian sculptor and close friend of Modigliani, recalls: “He could not allow abstraction to interfere with feeling.”

With limited resources during the first days in Paris, Modigliani ingeniously reused his own canvases as well as those of others. He effectively layered the existing textures and colors of these suitable surfaces to create new paintings from old ones. Rather than buying expensive art materials, he even experimented with cheaper, commercially prepared cardboard.

Amedee Modigliani. young woman in yellow dress (Renée Modot), 1918. Collezione Fondazione Francesco Federico Cerruti per l’Arte, on long-term loan to Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Turin (Cerruti Foundation for Art, on long-term loan to Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art, Turin)

The earliest visible image is “Nude with a Hat”, which dates from 1908 and has a textured surface of loose brushstrokes. The work, on loan from the Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum of the University of Haifa, is painted on both sides; its reverse is visible by the way it was framed and displayed. Scientific research revealed that there were six different images on the repurposed canvas, revealing the young artist’s exploratory experimentation.

For a short time between 1911 and 1914, Modigliani was intensely involved in sculpture. Befriending the masons, he secures the stones for construction sites around Paris. A gallery at Barnes includes a selection of eight sculptures that can be seen from all sides. The artist carved directly into the limestone. The stylized heads still retain faint traces of wax, confirming that Modigliani lit candles on them to create an ancient temple atmosphere in his studio. He even placed them at varying heights like “the tubes of an organ”, as Jacques Lipchitz wrote in his biography of the artist in 1954.

Amedee Modigliani. young woman in blue (Giovane Donna in Azzurro), 1919, oil on canvas. (The Barnes Foundation, BF268)

There are several portrait images of the model Jeanne Hébuterne, who was the artist’s companion and the mother of their daughter. In fact, an image from 1919 shows Jeanne wearing a white sleeveless top, but it’s unclear whether this is her first or second pregnancy. Despite its brightness, there is a sense of sadness when his beloved gazes up at the viewer. Months later, when she was nine months pregnant, Hébuterne committed suicide the day after Modigliani died.

“Self-Portrait” shows Modigliani in a jacket, with a sweater tied elegantly around his neck, seated in front of an easel. The colors from the palette in his hand are used all over the canvas. It had been thought that Modigliani used a very reduced range of colors; however, the latest research reveals a much wider range of pigments. The stylized head with rather cropped hair almost looks like a mask. He is gaunt, contrasting with earlier photographic images of his fuller face and curly black hair. This alludes to the declining health of the artist. Because the ocher walls suggest his last Paris studio, scholars believe it was one of Modigliani’s last paintings, completed shortly before his untimely death.

In 1920, when he was 35, Modigliani died of tuberculous meningitis aggravated by drugs and alcohol, tragically ending a life far too soon. Modigliani had often told friends he wanted a “short but intense life”. The artist is buried in a Jewish section of the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. His tombstone bears the inscription: “Morte lo colse quando giunse alla gloria” – Italian translates to “Death greeted him when he attained glory”. Jacques Lipchitz attended the funeral at the cemetery, officiated by a rabbi, and recalled: “Everyone felt deeply that Montparnasse had lost something precious. Something essential.

Sir Jacob Epstein, the British sculptor who had known Modigliani in Paris, aptly acknowledged: “Amedeo Modigliani left behind him a lifetime’s work in art”.

Fred B. Adelson Ph.D. is professor emeritus at Rowan University, where he taught art history. He lives in Cherry Hill.

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