Franklin Einspruch

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This Magic Moment: Modigliani Up Close casts a spell at the Barnes

Root Quarterly, Winter 2023, Volume IV, Issue No. 3

In 2017 the Jewish Museum in New York City mounted “Modigliani Unmasked,” which promised to “illuminate Modigliani’s heritage as an Italian Sephardic Jew as pivotal to understanding his artistic output,” or so the museum claimed. The title was an obtuse pun on the artist’s mask-like handling of portraiture, and implied that the Jewish Museum was going to deliver the real, never-seen-before Amedeo Modigliani.

While the display of art itself was illuminating, the conceit of the exhibition was disastrous. “Despite the common conception of Modigliani’s work as uniform and unyielding,” wrote curator Mason Klein, “his Sephardic inclination was to encompass diversity, a temperament that allowed him to comfortably inhabit, when few did, the unsettling terrain of portraiture.” That was just the beginning. In Klein’s imagination, Modigliani’s powers of Sephardic consciousness grew to thaumaturgic proportions, making him a veritable multicultural magus of Montparnasse, able to transmute influences from Oceania to Egypt into modern art without ever committing the supposed sin of cultural appropriation. Klein’s treatment was corny even by the standards of the hackwork that has long plagued Modigliani’s biography, ever since collectors pumped the resale market with cliched paeans of tortured genius shortly after his death in 1920 at the age of 35. Klein was involved in the Jewish Museum’s 2004 exhibition “Modigliani: Beyond the Myth,” which had tried to inject some realism into the artist’s story, and it was strange to see him so eager to spin up new tales.

At “Modigliani Up Close,” currently at the Barnes Foundation, there is nothing on the wall labels that you can’t see in the paintings and sculptures beside them. The catalogue is a centimeter-by-centimeter account of how they were made and of what. On Head of a Woman from 1911–12, three credited authors observe that the carving block is “calcareous Lutetian limestone, a locally quarried stone also known as ‘Paris stone’ that was the major material used for buildings and monuments in the Paris Basin from antiquity until the early 20th century. Lutetian limestone is characterized by a light-yellowish color with brown spots; the block also exhibits scattered small blue crystals.” I’ve excluded two footnotes in this passage. On it goes like this, for one work after another, for more than 300 pages. For most people this is probably like watching the sidewalk crack. But after several years of enduring the Mason Kleins of the world, I could not be more relieved.

Truly, this is Modigliani unmasked, the real artist behind the legend, pounding away at scrap construction limestone as his beleaguered lungs struggled to keep up. (His life was bookended with childhood pleurisy and death by tubercular meningitis.) Two different credited authors pore over the mons veneris of a nude painted in 1917 on loan from the Guggenheim, admiring how “an additional, brighter blue-gray layer applied in large swaths over the surface… complements the nude’s pink-orange flesh and is visible along the borders of the body and facial features, defining shadows and adding vibrancy to the image.” It is as if some saintly class of art-priests has driven the whores of identity politics out of the scene.

Point in fact, this is simply how art history was done for most of the existence of the field. The visual and material analysis that goes into determining that the canvas lining two different portraits came from the same bolt of cloth may seem like mere obsession. But such data are crucial to determining chronologies where none have been recorded in text, and serve as the basis of attribution, which is important regarding an artist who has been so aggressively faked. One of these portraits, Madame Zborowska from 1918, has a tightness that suggests someone else’s hand. But examination by an effort known as the Thread Count Automation Project has determined it to be painted on cloth from the same roll that serves as the support of Standing Nude (Elvira), also 1918 or circa, on loan to the Barnes from the Kunstmuseum Bern. It remains that the Zborowska portrait looks a little suspect.

While this is great fun in a Sherlock Holmes sort of way, the idea that the museum can leave people alone to look, rather than going through mighty efforts to engage them in the art by relating it to contemporary issues, is so reactionary as to become radical again. It may turn out to be a fluke, but the “Matisse in the 1930s” exhibition running contemporaneously at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is similarly responsible, pulling back on interpretation to allow the viewer a bit of aesthetic breathing room. Have some curators here and there figured out that nothing is so inclusive and cross-cultural as appreciative looking?

Let’s hope. In the meantime, “Modigliani Up Close” goes so deeply into Hows and Whats that it may be worthwhile to consider some Whys. Modigliani in the nineteen-aughts was concerned to the point of worry by Matisse’s output at the time. Nude with a Hat (1908) hangs with its verso exposed to reveal an upside-down portrait of, likely, the same woman, a mysterious figure who spent time in Europe under a pseudonym, chasing men and morphine. Matisse’s hard, black outline is evident in the younger artist’s portrayal, but the latter didn’t have the sophistication, color sense, or joy to pull it off. It would have fit right in if he were in Vienna at the time, alongside Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele at the Wiener Werkstätte, but he was in France with Picasso and Soutine, and wholly different concerns were in the air.

How Modigliani transitioned from this derivative work to the striking, original limestone heads of the early nineteen-teens is not readily apparent in this exhibition, as it includes none of the many drawings he executed in order to find the forms. The drawings were the principal subject of “Unmasked,” so it wouldn’t have made scholarly sense to delve into them again. But they reveal how hard he worked to assimilate the artistic and ethnographic material coming from afar to France. “He used to rave about Egypt,” recalled the poet Anna Akhmatova, who had been Modigliani’s lover. “He drew my head bedecked with the jewelry of Egyptian queens and dancers. He seemed overawed by the majesty of Egyptian art.” Consider that Picasso had painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, under a similar though more transient spell of the sculpture of sub-Saharan Africa.

“Modigliani Up Close” sets up a circle of these sculptures in the first room of the exhibition. They hold together like nothing else in modern art, as if they were produced by a once-mighty empire of ancient people who had contact with Cycladic tribes or Middle-Kingdom Thebans, but developed their own artistic style. The smiling Head from 1911 shows how carving rock forced the artist to clarify to himself how to establish a powerful, graphic form without resorting to a heavy outline. Another head from the same time, two feet high, is elongated to impossible proportions, but instead of looking freakish it comes off as supremely elegant.

To the regret of just about everyone who has admired his work since, his faltering health wouldn’t allow him to keep working in stone. As fine a painter as he became, in sculpture he was a revolutionary matched only by Brancusi and later Picasso. Nevertheless it’s possible to draw direct lines from the aforementioned heads to Boy in Short Pants (1918) and the several portraits of Jeanne Hébuterne respectively. Jeanne Hébuterne in a Yellow Sweater (1918–19) wears an expression of eternity, her eyes a subtle blue throughout their almond outlines. It is a simple painting that seems to have been composed of five colors at most, all muted except for the navy skirt. But everything there counts, most of all the artist’s mark, evident throughout the dappled touch of the background.

The center of the exhibition is a roomful of nudes, including the Barnes’s own Reclining Nude from the Back from 1917. It’s striking how Italian it feels in comparison to what Matisse was working on at the same time, and how free he grew of the older master’s influence. Evidently the restrained color scheme was a complicated affair, according to the catalogue, which notes, “Modigliani painted the red cloth—against which the figure is so crisply placed—in multiple layers to achieve the rich burgundy color and warm-yellow decorative patterns.” The method hearkens back to earlier periods of painting, built up in transparent veils. Yet the drawing is insistently modern, as is the unapologetic mien of the depicted woman.

“Modigliani Up Close” is a warm invitation to observe. As fascinating as is the history of the artist, this exhibition is more than anything an opportunity to accompany Modigliani as he searches for the forms that will justify his observations and feelings. Look as hard as he did, and ancient and modern disappear into the living moment.

Word count: 1471

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