She looks away. The small almond-shaped eyes peering off somewhere outside the frame, letting us trace the overly long nose down to the tiny pursed lips. The mask-like face is propped atop the elegantly curved neck, which disappears into an asymmetrical collar – the shape of the white fabric mimicking her gently curling hair style. The warm light is coming from somewhere behind us, not from the curtained window behind her. On the fabric, floating in careful, rounded cursive, is the name of the man who put paintbrush to canvas and conjured her.
This portrait of Hanka Zborowska is part of a “Visiting Master” exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art: “Amedeo Modigliani: Among Friends.” The small show, which will run until August 28, centers around three oil paintings on loan from various collections. The show is filled out with several early drawings by the artist from the museum’s graphic collection and works by his contemporaries, many of them Jewish artists of the School of Paris.
So, let’s talk about Amedeo Modigliani.
Even if you’re no art buff, you probably recognize his work – the mask-like faces with the too-long noses and blank, almond-shaped eyes, long necks and dark color palette. African-mask like without the brutish primitivism you get from Pablo Picasso. Exotic without the weird fetishism of Paul Gauguin.
Born in Italy in 1884 and painting in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, Modigliani kicked it with some of the era’s most famous artists: Picasso, Diego Rivera, Constantin Brâncusi and others. Never knowing the same success as his friends during his own life, his paintings are now among the most expensive in the world. One of his nudes, “Nu Couche” (1917-18), sold for some $170 million at Christie’s New York in 2015. That’s the 10th largest sum anyone has ever paid for a piece of art, let alone one that looks like Kim Kardashian trying to break the internet again.
The exhibition text, much like a game of Jewish Geography, seeks to remind us immediately that Modigliani was Jewish. It notes that he often introduced himself by saying, “My name is Modigliani. I’m a Jew.” While this tidbit is the kind of fun fact that news outlets like ours foam at the mouth over, this phrasing first appears on the internet in 2017, as part of the text for the exhibition “Modigliani Unmasked” at the Jewish Museum. The anecdote has been parroted ad nauseam in Jewish publications ever since. Whether this factoid holds up to the burden of proof may be irrelevant, but at least I know that the curators did the same Google search for “Modigliani Jewish” as I did.
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Regardless, Modigliani certainly was Jewish and proud. He was born to an upper-middle class Sephardi family in Livorno – one of the few places to openly welcome diversity and Jewish residents. His family’s fortunes were often in flux, prosperous at times, and down on their luck at others. After he survived childhood bouts with tuberculosis, his mother took him to study art in Florence. He moved to Paris in 1907, where he threw himself into the bohemian lifestyle with abandon.
“Amedeo Modigliani: Among Friends” gives the impression of a mildly troubled but valued young member of his community. Two portraits at the center of the show, never before shown side by side, depict the Zborowskis. Leopold, a poet turned art dealer, and his wife and business partner Hanka, were close friends of Modigliani. The curators emphasize the elegance of the portraits and the couple’s upstanding nature. The third portrait depicts Gaston Modot, a successful film actor of the era and a repeated subject for Modigliani.
The drawings displayed from the museum’s collection are mainly from his “Caryatid” series. Caryatids are female nudes used in columns of classical architecture. There is sadly no hint of the more brazen nudes – like the one that got the artist’s first and only solo exhibition at Berthe Weill Gallery in Paris shut down in December 1917 – but the Caryatids in particular give a glimpse into the wide range of historical artistic influences and sources that Modigliani drew on, as well as his affinity for sculpture.
The show goes further to solidify the “nice Jewish boy” image by tying the works together through gifted sculptor and Modigliani contemporary Chana Orloff, a founding figure of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Her sculptures are a high point of the exhibition, elegantly crafted and adding some much-needed three-dimensionality that emphasizes the sculptural elements of Modigliani’s paintings.
But let’s talk about Modigliani’s actual lifestyle. To put it daintily, he was what one might call a lout. To put it more plainly, he’s the guy you wouldn’t want your child to date, and all the people I dated before I discovered the wondrous and elusive gift known as “self-respect.” Roguishly handsome, he lived in illegal squats with other artists and took more drugs than a girl at Coachella trying to get over her recent breakup.
During his lifetime, Modigliani was better known for being that drunk who stripped at parties than he was for his art. Like our boy Van Gogh, he only received widespread recognition for his art after his untimely death at the age of 35 from tubercular meningitis.
His longtime mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne (whose parents renounced her over their relationship), took her own life shortly after his death while eight months pregnant with their second child. He was survived by one child, Jeanne Modigliani, as well as at least three other illegitimate children with other women.
My point is, I wish the Tel Aviv Museum had dirtied it up just a bit.
Degeneracy is an integral part of Modigliani’s work – as well as what we love about Paris in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The incessant search for beauty and the drive to redefine who art was for and about led Modigliani to create works that drew on his classical technique and training, and apply them in the dankest of settings. Yet he didn’t dwell on loss of dignity or the disintegration of his subjects – painting high- and low-culture people alike, Modigliani affords all his subjects a sense of elegance.
In particular, he avoids the trappings of Primitivism and Orientalism – styles that modern scholarship has shown are linked to racist assumptions and attitudes. Many of the Parisian artists became enchanted by objects from Africa, the Caribbean and Mesoamerica around the turn of the 20th century. Think Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” The formal, aesthetic qualities of those objects were often used to describe the brutish primitivism of the subjects – an equally fetishized and denigrated animal-like “primal” humanity. Modigliani, however, gathers varied influences – from around the world and throughout history – and blends them into a more humanistic view.
Placing Modigliani’s work among other Jewish and immigrant artists that came to make up the Paris school – Chaïm Soutine, Moïse Kisling, Jules Pascin and others – the Tel Aviv exhibition gives some insight into the alternative communities that existed in Paris, and a different point of view on La Belle Époque.
The mask-like quality of the faces reminds us that sometimes we can only understand so much about a person from their appearance. The exaggerated elongated features give a sense of what it might feel like to stand out in a crowd – to be the odd man out, like a Jewish man from a tight-knit community encountering antisemitism for the first time in Paris.
All said, it’s a worthwhile afternoon at the museum. But remember (or maybe I’m only reminding myself), the tortured-artist thing is cute, but don’t disregard the red flags. He’s a jerk, a very talented and very cute jerk, but he will not call you back.
“Amedeo Modigliani: Among Friends” is at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art until August 28.