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Modigliani: Misunderstood

A new exhibition positions the bohemian artist's work above even his operatic life story

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For much of his life, Modigliani was better known as a character than as a painter. Some 40 years after his death, his daughter, Jeanne Modigliani, wrote that some people nearly swooned at his suave, cultivated manner, while others found him “an unbearable buffoon” and a “boring, drunken spoilsport.” (Jeanne, a toddler when her parents died, was raised by her father’s sister in Italy. She knew her father only from interviews, letters and other documents. An artist and writer, she died in 1984 at age 66.)

Modigliani’s first patron was Paul Alexandre, a young surgeon and would-be dealer who ran a low-budget art colony of sorts in a run-down house on Paris’ Rue du Delta. Modigliani painted there rent-free and turned over his canvases to Alexandre for 10 to 20 francs each ($2 to $4), and his sketches for perhaps 20 centimes (4 cents). It wasn’t much, but the doctor let the artist retrieve his work if he could get a better offer. Between 1909 and 1913, Modigliani painted three oil portraits of Alexandre. The first was a conventional portrait with the subject posing stagily, with hand on hip. The last (far left), which the artist painted from memory, is the most distinctively “Modiglianiesque,” with the rapid brushwork, elongated face and blank eyes that would become his trademark.

Modigliani had entered seven watercolors and oils in Paris’ Salon d’Automne exhibition in 1907 and five works in the Salon des Indépendants in 1908, but they’d attracted little attention. Other than Alexandre, no one seemed interested in his art. Embittered, he threw himself instead into carving stone, inspired in part by Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, a friend and neighbor. Modigliani was convinced Rodin and his followers had corrupted sculpture with an overreliance on clay—“too much mud,” he called it. Real sculptors, he declared, carved directly from stone. To do so himself, he stole chunks of limestone from building sites. For an occasional sculpture in wood, he swiped oak crossties from the new Metro line then being extended to Montmartre.

From about 1909 to 1914, though the stone dust weakened his frail lungs, Modigliani carved a series of large, highly stylized stone heads. With their impossibly long noses and tiny pursed mouths, the massive works combined the serenity of early Renaissance tomb sculpture with the exotic spookiness of Easter Island monoliths. He also drew and painted caryatids—load-bearing architectural figures—almost obsessively.

“The influence of tribal art, especially African sculpture, on the avant-garde in Paris during this period cannot be overestimated,” says Mason Klein, associate curator at the Jewish Museum, who believes that Modigliani’s acute awareness of himself as a Jew (if a nonpracticing one) and an outsider opened him to the richness of non-Western art. “If you look at his sculpture,” says Klein, “you see the influence of not only African art but Khmer art and the art of archaic Greece, ancient Egypt and Rome. You even see some of the iconic presence of Byzantine art.”

Unfortunately, Modigliani’s carved heads were simply too strange to attract buyers. He used them as giant candleholders in the disheveled studio where he often slept and worked. One limestone block that he had transformed into a kneeling caryatid (p. 78) was too heavy for him to cart away from the vacant lot where he found and carved it. Friends rescued it shortly after his death in 1920. It is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

“Sculpture helped him think about how you can simplify forms, how you can show the essence of something using the simplest possible means,” says art historian Tamar Garb. When Modigliani refocused on painting around 1914, his work had a new energy and confidence.

Most of the painters who made names for themselves in the early 20th century took part in new movements with their own theories and manifestoes: Fauvism, Futurism and the like. “Modigliani has been an anomaly,” says Klein. “His work doesn’t fit into the standard art-historical categories like Expressionism or Cubism. Not to paint any still lifes and to be so exclusively focused on portraiture was very unusual, if not unique, in his time.” But Modigliani was happy to stand apart. Charles Beadle, an English journalist who contributed to a 1941 biography of Modigliani titled Artist Quarter, had known the artist in Paris around 1913. “Once,” Beadle wrote, “when I asked him what he called his ‘manner,’ he retorted haughtily: ‘Modigliani! When an artist has need to stick on a label, he’s lost!’ ”

Impulsive and argumentative, Modigliani had neither the inclination nor the social skills needed for commissioned portraiture. (In an early portrayal of a fox-hunting French baroness, he changed the woman’s scarlet riding jacket to canary yellow. Insulted, the baroness refused to pay for the painting.) Many of his subjects were friends or acquaintances. His portrait of Jean Cocteau (p. 3) is a deft blend of the signature Modigliani “look”—mismatched eyes, crooked nose, elongated head balanced on a plinthlike neck—and the poet’s icy hauteur. “You see Cocteau sitting there imperious on his thronelike chair with one eyebrow lifted, ready to dismiss someone’s stupid remark,” says Klein. The painting has elements of caricature but exudes the gravitas of a royal portrait.

Equally revealing are Modigliani’s depictions of Paul Guillaume, his first serious art dealer. In a 1915 portrait, Guillaume looks sleek and confident, with a fussy little mustache and one gloved hand holding a cigarette. “Modigliani wrote ‘Novo Pilota’ below the figure,” says Klein. “He saw Guillaume as his ‘New Pilot,’ a savvy member of the avantgarde who was going to advance his career. But you also see his distrust for this cosmopolitan know-it-all in the way he emphasized the cocky tilt of the head, the fancy suit, the cigarette, almost as though Guillaume were a pimp selling Modigliani’s work.”

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