Drawing On His Jewishness


‘My name is Modigliani. I am Jewish.” That is how the Italian artist Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920) often introduced himself during the years he lived in Paris, where he settled in 1906 and where he remained until his death, at the age of 35, from tubercular meningitis. 

This biographical detail will probably come as a surprise to most people, who are more likely to associate Modigliani with the elongated figures and stylized faces that characterize so many of his paintings than his Jewish identity. But as “Modigliani Unmasked,” an exhibit opening next week at The Jewish Museum shows, his identity as a Sephardic Jew was also central to both his personal and his artistic vision. The exhibit, which opens Sept. 15 and runs through Feb. 4, 2018, will showcase approximately 150 works by Modigliani, mostly from his early years in Paris and many of them never before seen in the United States. 

Exhibit curator Mason Klein explains that Modigliani arrived in Paris in the wake of the infamous Dreyfus Affair, in which Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus had been framed and falsely convicted of treason before ultimately being exonerated. But the anti-Semitism stoked by the affair remained widespread, as did a nationalist-driven strain of prejudice against all foreigners. These racist and anti-Jewish attitudes, batted about freely in various newspapers and social circles, shocked Modigliani, who had never experienced this kind of bias in his home town of Livorno, Italy, a port city that remained generally free of restrictions and persecutions against the Jews until the Fascist government of the 1930s.   

In Klein’s view Modigliani’s assertion of his Judaism as a matter-of-course in introducing himself reveals his pride in his Jewish identity. For most people, Klein says, Modigliani’s ethnicity was “invisible,” as he neither looked nor sounded like the derisive caricature of a hooked-nosed Jew who spoke French with the accent of someone born in an Eastern European shtetl. Instead, because his mother had been born in Marseille, Modigliani spoke fluent French, without a foreign accent. In addition, as a Sephardic Jew whose generational roots went back to Spain and Portugal, he resembled someone from the Mediterranean, not an “outsider” from beyond France’s borders. “He could easily have passed as gentile but he chose not to,” says Klein. “Rather than be victimized or silent, he asserted himself as a Jew.”

Equally telling of his commitment to his Jewish heritage, says Klein, is the fact that the very first painting he exhibited in Paris (and which will appear in the Jewish Museum exhibit) was called “The Jewess.” The portrait, which Modigliani painted in 1907-8, depicts a pale, dark-haired woman with deep-set eyes whose eyes and nose are streaked with green. “There is an emphasis on both the nose and the deep-set eyes, as if to emphasize and question at the same time, what is ‘Jewish,’” he says. Although anti-Semites were caricaturing Jews as physically impure or deformed, he continues, “Modigliani was saying … these [features] are beautiful.”   

This is not the first time The Jewish Museum has showcased Modigliani’s work. In 2004 it exhibited a major retrospective, “Modigliani: Beyond the Myth.” This time, the majority of the exhibit’s works derive from Modigliani’s early years in Paris, a time when he concentrated on drawings and sculpture. Modigliani himself gave many of the drawings displayed here to his friend and first patron, Dr. Paul Alexandre, who amassed a collection of some 450 of the artist’s works. Several of those drawings, included in the current exhibit, are portraits of Alexandre, dark-haired and bearded with a slightly curled mustache, dressed formally but standing informally with his left hand dipped into his pocket. 

The range of Modigliani’s artistic influences are also highlighted. Many drawings reimagine, through a modern lens, the figures of the stately sculpted ancient Greek caryatids which were used as support columns in classical architecture. Of particular interest is the fact that although caryatid figures were traditionally female only, Modigliani included male or gender ambiguous figures — an indication that Modigliani looked at gender in a more fluid way than usual for the era.

His numerous drawings of heads often have the appearance of masks, in keeping with his interest in non-Western art from Africa and Asia. He also incorporated elements of Egyptian art, seen to striking effect in his studies and drawings of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, whom he first met in 1910 and with whom he often went to the Louvre to view its Egyptian collection. By including artistic traditions from around the world, Modigliani, says Klein, encompassed “globalism before the word existed.” 

“Modigliani Unmasked” opens Sept. 15 and runs through Feb. 4, 2018 at The Jewish Museum, Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, thejewishmuseum.org.