Artists of notable achievement who die young are bound to make a special claim on the attention of posterity. The more we admire the work, the greater our sense of loss, and we naturally find ourselves wondering what might have been accomplished had the career not been cut short. Often, indeed, we elevate the artist to posthumous stardom.
The Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), whose work is the subject of an ambitious exhibition at the Jewish Museum, has long enjoyed this kind of legendary status. He brought to the role of the doomed bohemian artist-hero all the requisite assets and liabilities. He was poor and handsome, amorous and dissolute, immensely talented and improvident in everything but his art. He was also tubercular, which for a man of his appetites-sex, drugs and alcohol in large doses-meant living with a death sentence. That he was also a self-conscious Jewish émigré in cosmopolitan Paris, then the art capital of the Western world, added the role of outsider to his other vulnerabilities. (According to Modigliani himself, it wasn’t until he left Italy to live and work in Paris that he experienced anti-Semitism for the first time. Some things about Paris never change.)
Modigliani remains to this day one of the most popular artists of the 20th-century School of Paris-an artist especially adored by women of a certain age. You may see them every day now, waiting patiently in long lines on the sidewalk outside the Jewish Museum, hoping to get into this crowded exhibition of some 100 paintings, drawings and stone carvings. There are, to be sure, a few men in line, but on my two visits the women far outnumbered the men.
It hardly seems to matter to these aficionados that Modigliani was not, after all, a major talent; both as a painter and a sculptor, he remained throughout his short career an artist of limited imagination and formulaic devices. His paintings, mostly portraits, exert an appeal having more to do with poignancy-even, at times, sentimentality-than with anything resembling expressive invention. For the most part, Modigliani shunned the explosion of experiment and innovation that we associate with avant-garde art of the School of Paris in his lifetime. He seems to have instinctively understood that such radical innovations lay beyond his powers as an artist.
Early on, as a consequence of his penchant for modesty and repetition, the classic Modigliani portrait became an instantly recognized assemblage of familiar parts. There are the Modigliani eyes, mask-like slits devoid of emotion; the Modigliani nose, abnormally long and flat and slightly splayed at the nostrils; the Modigliani mouth, as meager and tightly closed as the navels on the elongated torsos of his female nudes; and, most famous of all, the elongated Modigliani neck, pedestal for the oval head affixed at a slightly precarious slant. Whether the portrait is of a famous or obscure person, a boy or a woman or an older man, the formula remains the same. A rare exception is a portrait drawing, included in this exhibition, of the Mexican artist Diego Rivera. The power of Rivera’s unruly personality seems to have shocked Modigliani into attempting a candid, unstylized depiction.
Significantly, perhaps, in his paintings of female nudes, Modigliani abandons the formulaic devices of the portraits in favor of a more credible rendering of his subjects’ individuality. Even the backgrounds in the paintings of the nudes are more richly worked than those in most of the portraits.
In some respects, the sculpture-carved stone heads and caryatids-is more interesting; especially the caryatids, with their tightly packed sensual forms that suggest a level of ambition for invention and monumentality absent from the paintings. While the sculptural heads recycle many of the features to be seen in the portraits, the caryatids leave us with a sense of what Modigliani might have achieved in sculpture if he’d enjoyed a longer life span.
Unfortunately, neither the exhibition nor its weighty catalog adds much to what we already know about Modigliani’s limited accomplishment or his artistic shortcomings. Mason Klein, the curator who organized both the show and its catalog, is more interested in saving Modigliani’s soul, so to speak, than in elucidating either his ideas or the problematic character of his art.
Mr. Klein has assigned himself the difficult task of establishing Modigliani as some sort of hero of Jewish cultural history-an alternative to the”myth”of Modigliani as bohemian sinner. Needless to say, this hopeless endeavor entails uphill work for both the writer and the reader; it results in some of the most turgid commentary ever devoted to a modern artist, much of it concerned with identity politics. If only for the absurd references to 17th-century philosopher and theologian Baruch Spinoza (whose philosophical idealism is invoked in an attempt to illuminate Modig-liani’s artistic vision), the catalog text could serve as a model of the kind of special pleading that nowadays gives art history a bad name.
The fact of the matter is that the “myth” of bohemian rebellion long associated with Modigliani’s life and work still has far more to tell us about the artist than anything in the writings of Spinoza. In this respect, the ladies waiting in line at the Jewish Museum may have a keener understanding of Modigliani than the organizer of the exhibition.
Modigliani: Beyond the Myth remains on view at the Jewish Museum, Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street, through Sept. 19. It then travels to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto (Oct. 23, 2004, to Jan. 23, 2005) and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (Feb. 19 to May 29, 2005).