Modigliani in NYC

by Eszter Hargittai on August 18, 2004

I saw the exhibition Modigliani: Beyond the Myth at The Jewish Museum in New York this week. I highly recommend it, it is a wonderful exhibit. (It’s only on until Sept 19th so don’t delay.) There was a twenty minute wait in line, apparently much more reasonable than a few months ago. The experience was definitely worth the wait.

One nice thing about shows that focus on the entire career of an artist is that you tend to learn more about an artist’s background than possible through just a few pieces mixed in with works by others. Modigliani died at the age of 34, but created quite a bit during his short life. Before learning about this exhibition, I had no idea that Modigliani was Jewish. One may wonder why that matters, but given the anti-Semitism he encountered once he moved to Paris, and given that much of his work focused exclusively on portraitures and an exploration of identities, it seems this part of his identity would be important for understanding his work.

Another thing I did not know about Modigliani is that he had worked as a sculptor as well. In fact, it sounds like had it not been for his poor health and the difficulty in obtaining the raw materials for his sculptures, he would have done more with that medium (and it’s unfortunate that he couldn’t). A propos sculptures, as I was looking at some of his sketchings of caryatids I started wondering about the influence of Brancusi on his work. Taking a few steps I was at the sculpture section of the exhibit, and learned that Modigliani had met Brancusi in 1909. Lucky for those in NYC, there is a Brancusi exhibition at the Guggenheim right now just a few blocks from The Jewish Museum also on until Sept 19th. (I cannot vouch for that show as I did not go see it having already seen a Brancusi exhibition in both Paris and Philly years ago, but I suspect this one is similar and thus worth seeing.)

I loved the way the pieces were laid out in the exhibit. I looked at the following three pieces right next to each other for several minutes taking a few steps back: The Italian Women, 1917; Lunia Czechowska (La femme a l’eventail), 1919; and Paulette Jourdain, 1919. (Unfortunately, I can’t find the middle piece online nor in the exhibition book. Otherwise I’d try to recreate the effect here. There are several variants with that name, the one I am looking for had a strong red background, which was in beautiful contrast with the other two pieces surrounding it.)

After the Modigliani show I decided to take a look at the permanent collection as well. The material is interesting and diverse with a focus on different historical periods, parts of the world and types of materials. One of my favorite sections was the collection of menorahs on the top floor (especially the modern versions).



dsquared 08.18.04 at 3:54 pm

Just in order to show that Crooked Timber is a big tent with room for all sorts of dissenting opinions, I saw a Modigliani exhibition at (I think) the Royal Academy a few years ago and I think that he’s bloody awful. In related news, Edward Hopper is the thinking man’s Jack Vetrianou.

The Brancusi exhibition, however, if it’s the same one that was at the Tate last year, is well worth a look.


eszter 08.18.04 at 4:43 pm

Dissenting opinions are fine.:) But can you say more about why you think he is so incredibly awful?


dsquared 08.18.04 at 5:22 pm

I think the common thing in Modigliani, Hopper and Tara de Lempicka (whose exhibition at the RA had me actually believing I was going to vomit) is a certain use of chiascuro on flat shapes. It’s the effect which is produced in modern commercial art with an airbrush; shading next to a sharp edge which makes a flat surface look like a slightly reflective cylinder. You see it most on the cheeks and necks of Modigliani figures. The combination of the flat edge and the realistic shading gives me a kind of motion sickness. I also don’t like the hollow eyes.


bob mcmanus 08.18.04 at 6:11 pm

Inspired by Eszter post, and thank you, I went to a site I know and downloaded 36 nearly full screen scans. Resolution good enough to notice what appears to be restoration or cleaning on the “Max Jacob” and “Seated Nude”. The scan I have on “Seated Nude” is very cracked. Perhaps the scan was Photoshopped?

Won’t post the link because I know many people, or most, have IP concerns. I admit to some conflicts, but obviously overcome them. I am not getting to New York, can’t afford a bunch of $100 art books or $20 a month subscriptions. And a 100×100 image doesn’t do it on a 21 inch monitor.
Course if I bought a book or a subscription I would possibly appreciate it more, and would get some text that might help me understand what I was looking at.

I get dsquared’s reference to Lempicka right away, but going to have to re-examine Hopper. Anomic objectification? Now I have made everyone else mad at me, but for all the faults of Bacon or Freud or Perlstein, at least they draw an emotional reaction.


eszter 08.19.04 at 7:35 am

Dsquared – thanks for sharing. I must agree that I don’t quite get the lack of detail in the eyes. Sometimes he adds some detail and in some cases even makes the eyes a different color or adds lines, which is outright confusing. But the other stuff you mention I like quite a bit actually. So do you not like people like Fernand Léger either? What you describe is precisely his style as well, but more so with objects instead of humans. I like Léger’s work a lot. What I like about Modigliani is that he has a very particular style and manages to make the portraits quite distinctive even though the methods don’t seem that elaborate (I don’t mean to be naive about the painting techniques, I do actually paint so I’m quite clued in to the non-trivial aspects of portraitures). I like his use of color and shading in certain areas.. and the way he uses the background in some paintings. And his sculptures were a really pleasant surprise. A very nice mix of abstract and figurative.


momo 08.19.04 at 12:09 pm

Another thing I did not know about Modigliani is that he had worked as a sculptor as well

So you’d never heard of the infamous Modigliani hoax? The three Modi heads?

Just twenty years ago, 1984, in Livorno, during celebrations for the 100th anniversary of Modigliani’s birth, the curators of the exhibition got authorization to dig a canal in which it was rumoured that Modigliani had thrown away a few sculptures, before leaving for Paris. The digging started and all sorts of things were fished out – bycicles, tyres, rubbish – and it soon became a joke with the locals, as many were a bit skeptical of the attempts to find the lost Modigliani’s. Inevitably, someone had to get the idea that the search might need a little hand… And, indeed, within a few days, three sculpted heads in perfect Modigliani style were found in the canal, and the critics proclaimed these were indeed the sculptures that Modigliani had thrown away in anger before leaving the city. Several experts swore by their authenticity. A few weeks later, three Italian students came out and revealed they had made the fake Modigliani’s themselves, with a Black & Decker (the company promptly seized the occasion for ads featuring pictures of a fake Modigliani head and the slogan “see what you can do with a Black & Decker”). Just last week, the city of Livorno remembered the 20th anniversary of the hoax with an exhibition of the three fakes, one of which was stolen and then returned a few days later, in another hoax on the hoax…

Comments on this entry are closed.