What We Saw at the Jewish Museum

Entry to Jewish Museum, 1109 5th Ave and 92nd St, NYC

Sept 29, 2017, NYC — If you like Modigliani like I like Modigliani, you should try to catch the Modigliani Unmasked exhibition, on at the Jewish Museum through February 4th, 2018. It was one of our favorites among the many exhibitions we saw during our recent NYC trip.

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani (ignore the “g” for correct pronunciation) was born into an intellectual Sephardic Jewish family in Livorno, Italy in 1884. He received a classical education and he drew and painted from a very early age. His mother wrote that he “thought himself already a painter,” even before beginning formal art studies.

Amedeo studied the art of antiquity and the Renaissance until, in 1906 at age 22, he moved to Paris, where he fell into the milieu of avant-garde artistic experimentation and came to know fellow modernist artists, including Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brâncuși.

Portrait drawings of Paul Alexandre, 1909–1913

He also developed a close friendship with a young French physician, Dr. Paul Alexandre, who became his first patron and a passionate advocate of the young Italian’s modernist work. Alexandre collected more than 400 Modigliani drawings, made between 1906 and 1914.

Heads, 1911–1912, crayon on paper

Modigliani initially saw himself as a sculptor rather than a painter, but by 1914 he abandoned sculpting and focused solely on his painting. This was probably precipitated by the fact that it became difficult to acquire sculptural materials after the outbreak of WWI, as well as by continuing physical deterioration. He had been sickly as a child, and gradually became increasingly debilitated by tuberculosis as an adult.

Curatorial notes tell us that the exhibition is concerned with Modigliani’s output shortly after he arrived in Paris in 1906, when the city was still roiling with the anti-Semitic after-effects of the long, tumultuous Dreyfus Affair. “With his cosmopolitanism and his fluent French, he could easily have passed as gentile. He chose instead to use his work to question the very notion of identity.”

“The exhibition puts a spotlight on Modigliani’s drawings, and shows that his art cannot be fully understood without acknowledging the ways the artist responded to the social realities that he confronted in the unprecedented artistic melting pot of Paris. The drawings from the Alexandre collection reveal the emerging artist himself, enmeshed in his own particular identity quandary, struggling to discover what portraiture might mean in a modern world of racial complexity.”

Jeanne Hebuterne with Yellow Sweater, 1918–19, oil on canvas. Solomon Guggenheim Museum

About 150 drawings from the Alexandre collection, plus paintings, sculptures, and other drawings from collections around the world, are complemented by representative works of the various multicultural influences — especially the linear forms of African sculpture — that inspired Modigliani during this lesser-known early period. The well-curated presentation of these varied works offers a re-evaluation of Modigliani’s art, revealing new context in which to consider possible influences on the development of Modigliani’s unique style of portraiture.

Moving out of artists’ colony villa at Rue du Delta, 1913

Among the works featured are a mysterious, unfinished portrait of Dr. Alexandre, never seen before in the United States; impressions of the theater; life studies and female nudes, among them the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova; and drawings of caryatids and heads, which speak to Modigliani’s artistic process in creating his sculptures.

Modigliani died in January 1920, at age 36, after an all-too-brief 14-year career.

Modigliani Unmasked at the Jewish Museum in NYC, is an exceptional exhibition, and we highly recommend that you see it, if you can, before it closes February 4, 2018.

Whether you go or not, the exhibition catalog is exemplary in its presentation of the drawings and paintings from the show, and it provides engaging explanatory text. Truly a great among early 20th-century artists, Modigliani’s genius as a portraitist is insightfully revealed in this book.

An illuminating study of Amedeo Modigliani’s early drawings and how they reflect the artist’s conception of identity

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I am an art geek, writing about art, exhibitions and museums. Discover more than 1600 art museums, artist studios, historic houses and gardens across the US.

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