In the 1960s, the New York Jewish Museum became the unlikely leading venue for contemporary avant-garde art in America. It was there, in the former Warburg mansion on upper Fifth Avenue, that enthusiasts for innovative art were able to study, in some depth, the second generation of the New York School, as well as those artists who had already gone well beyond it–Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, George Segal, Philip Guston, Ad Reinhardt and others. In 1963 Alan Solomon put together the exhibition “Toward a New Abstraction,” with work by, among others, Ellsworth Kelly and Leon Polk Smith, marked by the hard-edged clarity of its forms and colors, and the use of canvases shaped in nontraditional ways. The following year the museum gave most New Yorkers their first understanding of Minimalist painting and sculpture when Kynaston McShine organized the epochal exhibition “Primary Structures.” It would have been difficult to tell from what was on view in the other museums in the city that New York was the most exciting center of artistic innovation in the world, and there can be little question that the extraordinary popularity and prestige of the Jewish Museum’s shows put pressure on its peers to rethink their responsibilities to contemporary art.
At the same time, however, the success of those shows created considerable tensions between the museum and its parent institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, not to mention the more conservative elements in New York’s Jewish community. The museum was originally intended to house and study ritual and ceremonial objects the seminary had acquired. It had never been intended as a hot spot for non-Jewish artists to display their work for a cosmopolitan audience. My own view was that nothing could be more Jewish than supporting advanced art, and that a European tradition of Jewish patronage, disrupted by fascism, had been taken up by American collectors like Vera List, who had become powers on the museum’s board of directors. In the end, conservatism triumphed, and the Jewish Museum disappeared from the “What’s Going on in New York” pages of magazines. Unless you had a passion for Jewish artifacts and their historical significance, there was no reason to set foot in what for a decade had been the improbable site of radical artistic exploration.
In recent years the Jewish Museum has been pursuing a program that again appeals to a wider and more urbane audience, while remaining faithful to the mission of promoting an awareness of Jewish culture. It has mounted shows of Jewish artists whose work is of compelling interest to anyone concerned with art, whether or not they take a further interest in the ethnic or religious identity of those who made it. As one part of this agenda, it has paid particular attention to Jewish artists drawn to Paris in the first decades of the twentieth century, when it was the beacon for those with advanced artistic ambitions–Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Sonia Delaunay, Chaim Soutine and now Amedeo Modigliani, figures that any museum anywhere would take pride in presenting. As a Jewish venue, however, the museum feels bound by responsibilities other museums need not share. It cannot rest satisfied with letting the work stand on its artistic merits alone. It must make an effort to explain in what special ways the Jewishness of the artists contributes to the significance of the art. It is thus under the kind of obligation that museums with dedicated constituencies generally feel bound by–to explain, for example, how a peculiarly feminine sensibility inflects the art in a museum devoted to work made by women, or how the blackness of the artists in museums restricted to black artists contributes to the interest and importance of their art.
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There are many sound reasons–political, moral, educational and psychological–for the existence of what we might call identity art museums: museums whose visitors are, in a sense, split between those whose identity is an important reason for going to see an exhibit, and those who go primarily for the art irrespective of the artists’ race, nationality or gender. As a rule the artists don’t need such museums. It is, rather, the other way around. There is currently on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum a superb painting of chess players by Sofonisba Anguissola, in a show of artists from Lombardy. Anguissola was one of the wonders of her age: Vasari visited Cremona to see her work, and Michelangelo held her in highest esteem. The Chess Players, almost certainly her masterpiece, is difficult for most of us to see, since it is located in Poznan, Poland. I went down to Washington especially to write about the wonderful show of her work a few years ago, which, for reasons of museum politics, was shown in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. But it would have been no less at home in the National Gallery or, for that matter, the Metropolitan Museum. The Jewish Museum had an incentive to put together the superb and very moving show of Modigliani–a Sephardic Jew born in Livorno in 1884–now on view in its second-floor galleries (until September 19, after which it travels to the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Phillips Collection in Washington). But because of Modigliani’s stature, and his nearly unparalleled popularity, lines at least as long as those at the Jewish Museum would form wherever such a show were held today.
As a Sephardic Jew myself, I might, if I were given to such allegiances, take satisfaction that one of our own had achieved such eminence as an artist. But I find it extremely difficult to see how Modigliani’s Sephardic identity has any bearing on his art. As a person and an artist, Modigliani personified the values and aesthetics of the School of Paris in the years before World War I. He immediately grasped that a new era had opened in art, and that to achieve the artistic greatness to which he aspired, he had to find his way as a Modernist. He very quickly began appropriating non-European stylistic devices that had become marks of Modernism–from Africa, Oceania and elsewhere. He saw Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon in the artist’s studio in 1907, and soon began carving heads with elongated faces, long thin noses, slitty eyes and tiny mouths. Modigliani’s style had certain affinities to German Expressionist art, not as a matter of direct influence but of an interest in non-European forms shared by advanced artists throughout Europe. The impact on Modigliani of the aesthetic strategies of l’art negre defined his entire generation. He would almost certainly never have become the Modernist he was had he remained in Italy. So it is difficult to swallow the argument of the show’s curator that “far from being rooted in aesthetics and the history of art, his art and portraiture originate elsewhere”–namely in the political and religious reality of a Jew in Modigliani’s Italy, and especially “his Sephardic understanding of the indelibility of his Jewishness, regardless of acculturation.”
How does that “understanding” show up in his art? “Mirroring his own experience of racial anonymity, Modigliani’s abstracting pictorial terms confer on his sitters an enigmatic quality.” At best, this would explain the “enigmatic quality” of Modigliani’s sitters. In fact, the portraits are so transparent that if one of them had an enigmatic quality, it would be because he or she was an enigmatic person. The curator goes on: “What are we to make of an artist whose scrutiny of the individual gradually becomes so stylized as to effect a succession of seemingly indifferent faces echoed in the impassive expression of his stone caryatids?” My response to this is: What are we to make of a curator who sees Modigliani’s portraits as “a succession of seemingly indifferent faces”?
The mystery of Modigliani is that each of his portraits embodies his own unmistakable style while at the same time showing a face with an expression of its own and a personality one is certain is precisely that of the sitter before him. The early sculptured heads admittedly have a kind of hieratic sameness, but it may have been this that caused him to give up sculpture in 1915–not merely because of his exceedingly fragile health, as is sometimes argued, or because the stone he needed was difficult to come by during the war, but because he realized that sculpture was the wrong medium for an artist whose true gifts coincided with his profound interest in the individual soul that each human face reveals. The paintings that captivate the throngs waiting outside to see them were all done in the last five years of his tragically short life, when portraying those who meant the most to him–artists, lovers, patrons–must have had an urgency that accounts for their poignant intensity.
What calls for explanation is that Modigliani’s signature work is almost entirely restricted to portraits–even the spectacularly erotic and profoundly moving suite of nudes he painted late in his life are individuated portraits of women looked at through longing eyes. If one did not know they were models, hired by one of his patrons so that Modigliani might paint something salable–his show of nudes at the Berthe Weill Gallery in December 1917 was his only one-person exhibition in a commercial gallery–one would suppose they must be of women with whom he had made love. They are among the most erotic nudes in history, the heat and softness of their bodies made magically visual. Each is an incarnation in visual terms of tenderness and desire, and each, at the same time, is an individual woman, passionately aware. Matisse’s Blue Nude, even his Pink Nude, is an exercise in expressive abstraction. We are conscious of them as paintings, and only secondarily as women. Only rarely with Picasso, as in some of his portraits of Marie Therèse Walther, does the sexed being of a woman become palpable. But Modigliani loses himself in the women he paints, accenting their nipples and pubic hair. Small wonder the police closed the show down!
It is often observed that Modigliani remained independent of the two powerful styles that defined the Paris art world before World War I–Cubism and Fauvism. That is because he had no interest in reducing objects to geometrical elements, with Picasso and Braque, or in submerging visual reality to arbitrary colors in the interest of abstract design, as with Matisse and Dérain. His subject was the human being, body and soul. The drive to put that meaning onto canvas entailed that the only format available to him as an artist was the intimate portrait. The freedom with which Cubism and Fauvism broke up the human form gave him a lexicon of notations with which to render features in a way that borders on caricature. It made it possible for him to reinvent the face before him, depicting expressively, through curves and angles, the way the subject felt to him. That made him a modern artist, but free of Modernist dogmas. Characteristically, an oval head is tilted on a long neck, with the body quickly brushed in. He did a few landscapes, and no still lifes that I know of. What interest could he have had in mere things and places?
Like Tosca, Modigliani lived for art and for love–Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore. He had a knack for living likenesses, but an interest only in people for whom he had a bond of feeling. This guaranteed a life of poverty, for he could hardly charge fees when his subjects were primarily chums and sweethearts, themselves as poor as he was. So he lived on handouts, petty loans, small charities. A man that impractical was hardly likely to live a prudent life. He formed terrible habits and became a legendary drunk and pothead. His friends called him “Modi,” which sounds close enough to maudit–“cursed”–to summon up the image of the outcast poet portrayed in Baudelaire’s Fleurs de Mal, were it not for the affection with which it must have been pronounced. As he was blazingly handsome, there was always someone happy to take care of him. Luckily for us, he was too driven by a belief in his ultimate greatness to settle for the passive life of a spoiled beauty.
Modigliani not only underwent a true academic training in Florence, Venice, Rome and Livorno but continued to believe in the virtues of traditional painting. Unlike his compatriots the Futurists, he was in no hurry to jettison the past. It was for the same reason he held himself apart from the Cubists and the Fauvists. He meant to be a Modernist, but he wanted at the same time to achieve work that had the weight, the clarity, even the beauty of traditional Italian art. Though indisputably modern, particularly in their use of African forms, the great portraits of the last five years of Modigliani’s life have the transparency of a Renaissance portrait. But this is to look at him too much from an art-historical perspective. I would not want someone to take away the idea that what made him an important artist was a sort of fusion of Siena and the Congo.
What made Modigliani important altogether transcends the question of influence, though I am unsure that I am able to explain it. I found it extremely moving to walk past those paintings of slender, luminous beings with their blank eyes and pursed lips, an experience I can only compare to looking at old photographs of people I don’t know but whom somebody once knew, who had a real existence–a life–in a certain place and time. There is that extraordinary patina of their having been some particular person. Which is not to say that the images are in any sense photographic. We see them through the medium of Modigliani’s consciousness, which is dense with effects entirely his own. The image is the intersection of two consciousnesses–the artist’s and the subject’s–and some of the feelings of both are transmitted in ways it is impossible to explain, but that make us feel we are in the presence not primarily of a painting but of a person. I think of them as having the power of icons, in which the subjects–traditionally Jesus or Mary or one of the saints–made themselves mystically present. It was not necessary for the icon to resemble its subject. What mattered was that the subject was somehow present, and could be engaged with. I was overwhelmed by the reality of these presences–of Moise Kisling, or Max Jacob, or Jean Cocteau. And I could not think of another artist who achieved such an illusion, unless Vermeer or perhaps Egon Schiele, although by very different means.
I think Modigliani addresses each of his viewers in these terms. The most important thing about him is what also explains his popularity. What those who line up to see a show of his work know is really all that needs to be known, the rest being art history and gossip. What they know is that they have fallen in love with a tawny nude, or a beautiful long-necked woman with eyes like blue almonds and a mouth that looks as if it were kissed onto the canvas. They don’t come because they have studied Modigliani in art history courses, since he is no longer part of the great canonical narrative of Modernism. His absence from the art history textbooks must have something to do with the fact that there has not been a show of his work here for more than fifty years. But I imagine that reproductions of his paintings continue to sell very well. So in the end I am grateful that Modigliani’s Sephardism gave the Jewish Museum a pretext to give us this wonderful show. Don’t let the crowds keep you away! And if you come up with a better account of his power, I’d like to know about it. I am sure it has to do with light, love and beauty. But my analytical powers carry me only so far.