In the most riveting portrait in “Modigliani and the Artists of Montparnasse,” the traveling exhibition that opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a lowly working-class servant at a fancy Parisian establishment is presented as a brilliant swirl of furious brushwork. His crimson uniform bleeds across the canvas like a ferocious gash. The outstretched palm of his hand is a gesture of benign openness, while also soliciting cash. His crumpled face -- studded with hollow black eyes, heavy brows and big, lopsided ears -- shows a pitiful figure of twisted regret. Indignity, struggle and profound humanity jostle one another.
At once cruel yet tender, the portrait is rendered with tactile bravura -- Rembrandt gone rancid. It’s hard to take your eyes off it. Indeed, about the only disadvantage to this powerhouse performance is that Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), putative subject of the LACMA exhibition, did not paint it. Chaim Soutine did.
Soutine was Modigliani’s pal -- a fellow indigent carouser and foreign-born artist relocated to France, trying to make his way in the budding world of avant-garde art early in the 20th century. Soutine’s “Pageboy at Maxim’s” is one among 19 examples by other painters and sculptors in the show, included to illuminate the context within which the Italian expatriate developed.
Picasso, Brancusi, De Chirico, Leger, Rousseau -- one peculiarity of the show is that, in case after case, the artists providing context are so far superior to Modigliani that his own tepid work seems even further diminished. A pleasant mediocrity who occasionally touched a resonant sentimental chord, he is not well served when surrounded by his artistic betters.
Modigliani was born into a prosperous family in the bustling port city of Livorno, Italy (near Pisa), where he studied art in a variety of local schools. Michelangelo was his hero, becoming a sculptor his ambition.
When he moved to Paris at age 22, he settled in the 19th century artists’ neighborhood of Montmartre, at the far reaches of the city’s Right Bank. He remained in Paris, except for travels, for the remainder of his life. He carved stone sculptures for the relatively brief period when he could afford the more expensive materials and find the necessary studio space; mostly, he painted.
Around 1909, he began to spend increasing amounts of time across town, in the Left Bank neighborhood of Montparnasse. This is the crux of the story told in the exhibition, and it contains a variety of fascinating if underdeveloped ideas. Montparnasse was replacing Montmartre as a meeting ground for progressive artists. It became the crucible in which a modern “school of Paris” aesthetic would be forged -- one characterized by cosmopolitan verve and sheer indifference toward French history, literature, art and, not least of all, bourgeois xenophobia.
As the exhibition points out, the neighborhood’s international array of artists was part of a larger influx of immigrants to France in the years leading up to World War I. In addition to the Italians Modigliani and Giorgio de Chirico, there were the Spaniards Picasso and Juan Gris; Elie Nadelman from Poland; the Bulgarian Jules Pascin; Mexico’s Diego Rivera; Joseph Csaky from Hungary; Piet Mondrian from the Netherlands; and the Romanian Constantin Brancusi.
There were also numerous Americans, including Jacob Epstein, Morgan Russell and, from Los Angeles, Stanton Macdonald-Wright (whose name, alas, is misspelled in the show’s catalog). And from a variety of regions in Russia came perhaps the largest contingent, including Alexander Archipenko, Sonia Delaunay, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz and Soutine.
Dealers, collectors and critics in Montparnasse also represented an international array. They ranged from the Polish critic Waldemar George to the German dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler. Pivotal were the American collectors Gertrude, Leo, Michael and Sarah Stein. The new cosmopolitanism of Montparnasse would become the model that, for the rest of the 20th century, would characterize the emergence of a city’s mature artistic milieu -- starting with New York in the 1940s and ‘50s and then Los Angeles and London in the 1980s and ‘90s.
At LACMA, one almost wishes for a big exhibition devoted to that vastly intriguing larger subject, rather than to the narrower one of Modigliani’s place within it. There hasn’t been a full Modigliani survey in 40 years, and this one doesn’t really qualify. Of its 34 paintings, 26 were made between 1916 and 1918. Modigliani’s career was brief -- he died of tubercular meningitis at the tender age of 35, just 14 years after settling in Paris -- but not quite that brief.
Still, it is possible here to secure a sense of his minimal development -- perhaps because it was so modest and repetitive. Think of Modigliani’s style as Mannerist Cubism.
His painted portraits invariably feature fractured surface planes, ambiguous settings, lozenge-shaped heads, almond eyes and mask-like immobility of facial expression. They’re stylized, ethereal variations on Picasso’s hulking 1906 portrait of Gertrude Stein. Modigliani transformed the ugly duckling into a swan, with elegant heads perched atop long, graceful necks.
Modigliani also likely saw Picasso’s 1907 fusillade, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” in the artist’s nearby Montmartre studio; almost every trope in his work can be traced back to this art-shattering precedent. By 1911 or 1912, when the Italian was focusing his attention on carved sculpture, Cubism had become the house style for the Parisian avant-garde.
Modigliani’s concentration on sculpture is significant here. Partly that’s because carving in stone was physically resistant to the new Cubist fracturing. And partly it’s because it speaks to his adoration of the Mannerist work of Michelangelo, for whom sculpture took precedence over painting. Six Modigliani sculptures (of 27 known examples) are here, dating from 1910 to 1913.
All are heads, each about 2 feet tall (or slightly less). Most have blunt, flat tops rather than curves, visually suggesting severe compression.
The downward visual push plays against the extreme vertical elongation of the oval cranium, thin nose and slanted eyes of most faces, which recall African and Oceanic masks and Khmer sculpture. The formal result is an elegant sense of muscular buoyancy. The chunky sculptures are just heads, but they’re related to Michelangelo’s blocky, roughly chiseled designs for Atlas-like figures for the tomb of Pope Julius II, which likewise strain under an enormous if unseen weight.
Modigliani was revolting against the smooth finish and sleek bronze-casting techniques associated with Rodin, sculpture’s reigning superstar. That surface rawness got transferred to his painting style. The short, wide, often parallel strokes of paint are like the staccato marks of a chisel left in stone.
Typically, he used oval forms as an organizing principle for portrait compositions, such as the dramatic ovoid torso of “Young Woman of the People” (1918). It recalls the Renaissance motif of the mandorla (from the Italian word for almond), which signified holiness. Modigliani was Jewish, not Catholic, but he applied the exalted mandorla to humble bohemian sitters to consecrate their humanity. “Young Woman of the People” becomes a secular Madonna.
Even a peculiar anomaly associated with Modigliani’s portraits can be traced back to Michelangelo’s 16th century Mannerist work. Many of his portrait faces feature one eye marked by cross-hatching, while the other eye remains smooth and blank. The likely source for this eccentric habit is Michelangelo’s personification of “Victory” -- a strange, almost Hellenic sculpture of a youth, also meant as part of Pope Julius’ tomb ensemble.
The sculptor incised the cornea of one eye, but he left the other one blank. Like “Victory,” a Modigliani portrait displays a conflicted sense of perception: It’s simultaneously directed toward inner and outer worlds.
But his figures also seem impassive -- bland ciphers bent to the artist’s overweening will. Soutine’s tortured pageboy might be dissolute, but he also possesses an independent verve.
Oddly, the Soutine dates from about 1927 -- long after Modigliani’s death. Many of the other works chosen to provide Montparnasse context also date from after his demise. The apparent reason is that they were readily at hand: All but two are from the admirable collection of Buffalo, N.Y.'s Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which organized the show.
The curatorial shortcut shortchanges the concept, however, weakening an already tenuous show. Modigliani pretty much wilts in the galleries, while a viewer is drawn to look at the other, greater artists who emerged from the Montparnasse stew.
‘Modigliani and the Artists of Montparnasse’
Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.,
When: Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, noon-8 p.m.;
Fridays, noon-9 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-
8 p.m. Closed Wednesdays.
Ends: Sept. 28
Price: Adults, $7; students/seniors, $5
Contact: (323) 857-6000