NEW YORK (RNS) — The visual key to Amedeo Modigliani’s self-conscious Jewishness, says Mason Klein, the curator of “Modigliani Unmasked,” an exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum, is a small sketch called “Self-Portrait With Beard.”
Since the original drawing was stolen in 1977, the image in the show is a copy. But it serves Klein’s point handily. It looks nothing like Modigliani’s most famous portraits, those languid nudes with elongated, masklike faces. Indeed, the “self-portrait” looks little like the actual Modigliani, who was Byronically handsome. It portrays an almost circular head with heavy-lidded eyes above a largish nose and a full beard.
“If you’re looking for a smoking gun, you’ve found it,” said Klein. “He’s depicting himself as an Orthodox Jew.”
In the decades since he died penniless of tubercular meningitis in 1920, two things about Modigliani have remained indisputable: his works’ popularity and their immense market value. His paintings, which began selling around the time he died, hang in prime spots in top museums, and (when available) sell for fantastic sums — one that went for $204 million in 2015 is routinely listed among the world’s 10 most expensive canvases.
His reputation, however, has undergone waves of rehab. He was the bad boy’s bad boy in the bohemians of Paris’ Montparnasse neighborhood in the second decade of the 20th century: overdrinking, womanizing, dying young and leaving a ravishing body of work.
Some years ago Klein and others set out to establish him as something beyond a self-destructive hunk with a magical brush, and succeeded. Modigliani recited Dante at length, admired Nietzsche and enjoyed an intense meeting of minds (as well as bodies, as drawings in the current show attest) with one of Russia’s greatest poets, Anna Akhmatova.
The Jewish Museum exhibit would be a must-see for Modigliani lovers even if it had no thesis: It is the first U.S. showing of a cache of drawings, many wonderful, never before seen.
But with the aid of the bearded self-portrait and some 150 other works, Klein is delving further into the artist’s identity, particularly his brand of Judaism and its artistic expression.
The Montparnasse circle included a number of Jews, among them Marc Chagall and Modigliani’s protégé Chaim Soutine. They were from Eastern Europe and bore the scars of centuries of marginalization and persecution. In a France fascinated by ethnic identity, they didn’t look or sound “French.”
“Modi,” the son of a French mother and Italian father, was different. Modigliani was raised in Livorno in northern Italy, which had welcomed Jews for centuries. The Modiglianis, cultured and upper-class, identified both as Italians and Jews and followed the teachings of the rabbi Elia Benamozegh, who preached a utopian universalism looking ahead to the uniting of all faiths in one Jewish-flavored brotherhood.
Although Modigliani’s religious education was traditional — he would sometimes chant the kaddish prayer for mourners when he was depressed — he was essentially secular, spoke fluent French and looked gentile: He could easily have “passed.”
But he chose not to. The France he discovered when he arrived in 1906 was bitterly divided between open-minded Republicans and Nationalists obsessed with purging the country of Jewish and colonial “foreign” influence. His response was to introduce himself with “I’m Modigliani; I’m Jewish,” or, in one famous story, to a table of loudly singing Nationalists, “I am a Jew and to hell with you!”
Modigliani also described himself as a “Jewish artist.” But, mused Modigliani expert Ken Wayne, “We don’t know exactly what that means” — he may have been identifying himself as an artist who happened to be Jewish, or as one whose work was somehow Jewish, too.
Chagall idealized Eastern European shtetl life, and Soutine’s expressionism could be attributed to his outsider status. Modigliani’s paintings and sculptures have no obvious Jewish referents and project a stylized serenity. One biographer, Jeffrey Meyers, wrote that artistically, “Rembrandt (the great 17th-century master, a gentile who knew and painted Jews) was much more ‘Jewish’ than Modigliani.”
Samantha Baskind, co-author with Larry Silver of “Jewish Art: A Modern History,” has also thought about Modigliani’s Jewishness quite a bit.
“We just couldn’t find very much evidence in the end, so we talked about him as a modern artist who was Jewish,” she said.
Klein, however, looks at the same works and sees them as deeply Jewish — but Modigliani’s kind of Jewish. At about the same time as the self-portrait, the artist sketched page after page of heads, recording different hairstyles, tattoos, jewelry and facial features. Viewed collectively, they bear a superficial resemblance to ethnic charts from the pseudoscience of physiognomy then being revived.
But while even Picasso co-opted African masks for “primitivist” imagery such as the terrifying faces of the prostitutes in his revolutionary “Les demoiselles d’Avignon,” Modigliani used his heads in a spirit of inclusivity, approaching diverse ethnic features in a more respectful way, Klein said.
In fact, they helped form the face familiar from many of his late paintings. Benign, almond-eyed, resonant both of Botticelli Virgins and Gabonese masks, the signature visage represents what Klein called “noncolonialist multiculturalism,” a portraitist’s version of Rabbi Benamozegh’s universalism.
Klein finds other expressions in the show of Modigliani’s Jewish-derived rebellion against idealized European identities. Stunning drawings for caryatids (sculpted women serving as architectural supports) are based not on classic or European models, but Asian types, and are not downtrodden or contorted, but graceful and somehow free — another slap at colonialism (France owned Indochina). About the show’s display of several of the artist’s monumental stone heads, Klein said, “The emphasis on the nose is a focal point of his sculpture and a self-referential facet of his Jewishness.”
Until now, it might have been possible to use Modigliani’s art as an example of art for art’s sake, work that somehow floated above the political and religious frays, luxuriating in the glory of line and of the human form. That will be harder after “Modigliani Unmasked.”
“As an artist, he was very much involved in responding to his moment in history,” which in his case meant “addressing his Jewishness in his art, which he did quite explicitly,” Klein said. “At a time of great anti-Semitism, self-identification is important.”