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A richer portrait

Special to The Times

The life of Amedeo Modigliani is the stuff of cliched myth and operatic tragedy: A handsome Italian artist weakened by too much hashish and alcohol, Modigliani died penniless in Paris of tuberculosis in 1920 at the age of 35. His last love leaped to her death from a fifth-story window a day later. While alive, he never sold enough to exist without the charity of friends.

Yet, from the moment of his death, the fascination for his life and his work has soared. Now he is one of the world’s most popular artists. Only last November, Sotheby’s auctioned his last portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, the mistress who killed herself, for $31,368,000, a record for a Modigliani.

Although the drama of his life and his popularity after death have driven up the value of his paintings, they have done far less for his reputation. Some admirers, in fact, believe that the myth of Modigliani makes it difficult to take him seriously and to understand him. That is the thesis of the traveling exhibition, “Modigliani: Beyond the Myth,” at the Phillips Collection in Washington.

The show, put together by the Jewish Museum in New York, is the largest survey of Modigliani’s work in the United States for more than half a century. On display are almost a hundred paintings, drawings and sculptures. In his short life, Modigliani turned out only 300 oil paintings. The show has 46 of them, mostly portraits. The exhibition, which also stopped at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, will close in Washington on May 29 and go nowhere else.

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The show highlights some of his best-known portraits, including those of French poet and playwright Jean Cocteau, South African writer Beatrice Hastings, Polish art dealer Leopold Zborowski and his wife Hanka, Hebuterne (though not the one recently sold by Sotheby’s) and the unidentified “Young Woman of the People” (painted in 1918 and owned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). A handful of Modigliani’s languishing and erotic nudes are displayed as well.

Although they find some anecdotes about the painter exaggerated, the organizers of the exhibition, led by the curator, Mason Klein of the Jewish Museum, do not try to smash down the myth of Modigliani. He did lead a frenzied and often wasteful Bohemian life. But the organizers try to avoid this or, as they put it, move beyond it by concentrating on two aspects of Modigliani as an artist: first, his study of classical Italian painting at some of the finest schools in Italy, and second, his identity as an assimilated Jew trying to understand the universality that kept people together and the differences that set them apart.

Cosmopolitan upbringing

Modigliani was born in the Tuscany port of Livorno in Italy on July 12, 1884. His father was a businessman whose mining and lumber enterprises failed shortly before the birth of Amedeo. His mother came from an Italian family that had emigrated to Marseille in France in the mid-19th century. Educated by an English Protestant governess and at a French Catholic school, she could speak Italian, Spanish, French and English. When Amedeo was a child, she opened a private school in Livorno to supplement the meager family income.

The families of both his father and mother were Sephardic, descended from Jews who had fled Spain after their expulsion in 1492. Livorno was regarded as a tolerant place for Jews. Unlike many Italian cities, it had never had a ghetto. The Modiglianis were liberal and cosmopolitan Jews steeped in the teachings of Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher who was an ancestor of Modigliani’s mother. Spinoza had urged his fellow Jews to approach the Bible with rational thinking and not accept every word there as literal fact.

Modigliani grew up with bouts of illness that were finally diagnosed as tuberculosis when he was 16. Encouraged by his mother and financed by an uncle, the young Modigliani studied art in schools and the workshops of artists in Livorno, Florence, Rome, Carrara and Venice. In 1906, when he was 19, he left Italy for Paris, the world mecca for art at the turn of the 20th century.

In Paris, Modigliani encountered anti-Semitism for the first time, though not directed at himself. The long case of French Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer unjustly imprisoned for espionage, was about to come to a close with his vindication in 1906. The Dreyfus affair had split the country, and anti-Semitic diatribes still flourished in magazines. Many of Modigliani’s artist friends in Paris, such as Chaim Soutine and Moise Kisling, were East Europeans whose heavy accents easily identified them as Jewish. But Modigliani spoke French fluently with only a slight Italian accent. He was not picked out as Jewish. In fact, he sometimes surprised strangers by introducing himself as “I am Modigliani, Jew.” Paris made him ponder the problems of identity.

“Modigliani came to Paris from a rarified background,” Klein, the chief curator, said in an interview at the Washington opening of the exhibition. “He was a privileged Jew from Livorno. In Paris, he began to wrestle with the issue of identity and universality. Spinoza was the first Jew of the Diaspora to identify as more than a Jew. Modigliani was doing the same. In his portraits, he was using geometric forms to describe what is universal, and he was trying to create what is different at the same time.”

It is easy to see this tension in Modigliani portraits. They are stylized -- almost everyone has a long neck, narrow face, triangular nose and crooked or empty eyes. (Some of the stylization stemmed from the few years Modigliani tried sculpting -- a practice he gave up because the stone dust irritated his weakened lungs). In contrast to the stylization, Modigliani tried to include the individual detail that set one subject apart from another. No one can doubt, for example, that the portrait of Cocteau (painted in 1916), with its giraffe-like neck, angular nose, sharp chin and cast of eyes, is a Modigliani. But other details -- the pursed lips, the string bow tie, the pocket handkerchief, the square shoulders, the stiffness of the face -- make it clear that the haughty Cocteau is different from other Modiglianis.

Modigliani obviously experimented with achieving the right balance. The exhibition, for example, displays three portraits of the wife of his dealer Leopold Zborowski: “Portrait of Anna (Hanka) Zborowska” (1916), “Hanka Zborowska” (1917), and “Anna Zborowska” (1917). The first two are obviously portraits of the same beautiful but distant woman. But the third portrait is so stylized that it looks like a sculpted cylinder of marble.

Controversial results

The nudes of Modigliani enhance the myth about him. Their carnal frankness could tempt a viewer into supposing that the artist must have painted his conquests soon after each lovemaking. But most of them were painted in 1917 on order from the dealer Zborowski, who installed Modigliani in a room in his apartment, supplied canvases and paints, hired the models and paid the artist 15 to 20 francs a day for his work. Modigliani was probably trying to paint modern and vibrant variations of the classical nudes that he had studied in Italy.

The results were controversial. In December 1917, Zborowski organized a Modigliani show at Berthe Weill’s gallery in Paris, the only one-man exhibition he received during his lifetime. But the French police, shocked by one of his nudes in the window, shut down the show for a day until Weill removed the offending canvas.

There is no way to get away from the story of Modigliani’s life. It is too romantic to ignore. A new movie, “Modigliani,” starring Andy Garcia, is making the rounds of film festivals and should be released soon. But even without a movie, the story of Modigliani is ever present in his paintings, for he painted and drew portraits mainly of the people around him: Paul Guillaume, for example, one of his rare collectors; Hastings, who loved and supported him; Soutine, the young painter who idolized him and followed him to cafes; Zborowski, the dealer who nurtured him; and, of course, Hebuterne, the young mother of his child. There are four Hebuternes in the show.

The story is also depressing. When he was gravely ill, a group of dealers, who owned a few Modiglianis, urged his main dealer Zborowski to suspend sales until his death.

They were sure that the story of a hapless Bohemian artist who died young and penniless would whet the appetite of potential buyers and augment the prices for his paintings. When alive, his friends in Paris used to call him “Modi.” That has the same sound as the French word maudit. It means “cursed.”


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