Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Remembering Italian Jewish Artist Amedeo Modigliani (1886-1920)

Helsinki, Finland. Large sign for Modigliani exhibit at Helsinki airport. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber November, 2016.

Remembering Italian Jewish Artist Amedeo Modigliani (1886-1920)
by Samuel D. Gruber
Today is the anniversary of the death of  Italian Jewish artist Amedeo Modigliani, who died young of tuberculosis in the heyday of the School of Paris, and whose popularity continues to grow decade by decade.  Born in a Jewish family in Livorno, Italy, he spent his artistic career in Paris. Even so, worldwide, he may the best known Italian painter of the 20th century, surpassing Balla, Boccioni, de Chirico, Morandi, Burri and so many more. His story and his star rival Van Gogh's in art-celebrity annals (2 movies have been made of his life). 

More than the cubists, Modigliani was able to take some precepts of modernism and apply them to traditional - and still recognizable genres.  Though all his many portraits are stylized and unmistakably his, the subjects are recognizable.  He was a very social artist and his portraits of his many artist and writers friends and patrons help us to populate one of the most fertile periods of European art.

Modigliani was also a Jewish artist.  Though in upbringing., language, and religious identity he was quite different from the many Yiddish speaking East European artists in Paris, he was exceptional close friends with many of them, especially Chaim Soutine and Jacques Lipchitz, as well as the American Jewish artist Jacob Epstein. His own Sephardi roots in Livorno and elsewhere were deep and though he was not known to be religious, he overtly and often defiantly identified himself as Jewish, sometimes introducing himself "as an artist and a Jew."
Amedeo Modigliani. Caryatide Head, drawing, 1911
Amadeo Modigliani. Portrait of Jean Cocteau, 1916. Perlman Foundation on long-term loan to Princeton University Art Museum
Amadeo Modigliani. Portrait of Moise Kisling, 1915
Amadeo Modigliani. Portrait of Juan Gris, 1915. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
And then there are the nudes. Few artists have been as unashamedly in love with the female body, presenting nudes with a bold confidence hardly seen since the Rubens. There is no rosy soft-focus of Renoir, or the statuesque perfection of Bouguereau and other soft-porn academic painters of the previous generation.  Modigliani's nudes are real women - or at least real bodies - of flesh and blood and taste and smell.  God know, when I was teenager I was certainly mesmerized!  These works - which now fetch some of the world's highest prices for art - were commissioned by Modigliani's friend and dealer Léopold Zborowski, who provided  his apartment,  models, and painting materials. This was beneficial to both - Modigliani needed money (he was alcoholic and drug-addicted) and Zborowski  paid him  fifteen to  twenty francs each day for his work.  

When exhibited, the nudes caused a great sensation - positive and negative - the show was cited for obscenity. So the nudes in many ways stand alone. Though Modigliani had seriously studied the nude since a teenage art student, these works were unlike his thousands of drawings often created in a passionate frenzy, or his portraits of friends, done as much for friendship as cash. The nudes were conceived of as a commercial venture. And brilliantly so.

1 comment:

Rona Conti said...

Excellent tribute to and summary of the career of Modigliani whose genius would have left us with far more art had he not died so young and been addicted to adverse habits. His work sings, he shys away from nothing.