Amedeo Modigliani’s nickname was Modi, in reference to maudit, meaning “cursed.” The artist believed he was destined to live a short life after a streak of bad health, and indeed, he died at 35 after a 19-year battle with tuberculosis. Up to that point he lived the life of a quintessential bohemian artist, broke, drenched in alcohol, and searching for meaning through creativity. In such a short career he managed to leave behind a heap of art, and this winter a small portion can be seen at the Jewish Museum in New York in its latest exhibit on the artist, “Modigliani: Unmasked.” It is a modest show but succeeds in showing how a Sephardic Jew from Italy grappled with his complex identity in the years leading up to the Holocaust.
Modigliani moved to Paris in 1906, the same year Captain Alfred Dreyfus was finally vindicated, so he was walking into an environment of virulent anti-Semitism. His ability to pass as Parisian—he was fluent in the language and knowledgable of the city’s history—laid a clear path for him to struggle with his identity. The museum attempts to link this struggle to his use of masks as a motif in his work, which the curators attest was a confrontation of psychological depth. Although his application of masks was the most pivotal moment in Modigliani’s short career, it serves only as an emotional barrier between his subjects and their audience.
His move to Paris was likely the first time Modigliani had to confront anti-Semitism. He was born in Livorno, where Jews were not confined to a ghetto but shared in the cultural and intellectual stew enjoyed by gentile elites. In Paris, however, Modigliani most certainly encountered the anti-Semitic propaganda that the museum displays, and his shock turned to defiance. He introduced himself as Jewish to anyone he met.
Modigliani was a proud Jew, but by no means was he orthodox. His heavy drinking, if nothing else, would have made that difficult. Like most artists, he was more taken with dubious spirituality and idealistic primitivism. He attended his first seance as a child, and two watercolor portraits in the exhibit—of a man performing a seance and a woman attending one—show the experience’s lasting effect. These two paintings are small and could go unnoticed, but are the gems of the show. They are delicate but deliberate; the faded color, just barely visible, floats on the page while his use of line defines the strong, stern faces.
The early oil portraits show a more obvious confrontation with identity than those that apply the mask, and it is a shame he abandoned the style so early. The Jewess and Nude Wearing a Hat present pallid, striking women framed by languid, Picasso blues. Their gazes are oblique but daring, meant to challenge their viewers. Modigliani used gestural, frantic brushstrokes—a notable difference from the subdued hand that painted his later works.
Was Modigliani using masks to remove himself from a full confrontation of identity? It would appear so, in the placid faces of his famous, elongated portraits. While the Jewess and Nude are evocative from their gazes to the brushstrokes, his signature style only exposes what John Updike favorably called “serene limpidity.” That serenity makes for a lovely portrait, but there is a shallowness to them, as if he were telling a story but noticeably leaving parts out.
Modigliani distilled his subjects’ faces into more palatable shapes, leaving room to focus on the color and composition that make them the nice images that they are. But nice is where it ends. A portrait of his wife, Jeanne Hébuterne with Yellow Sweater, has removed the eyes on her tilted, flat head, with blue almonds in their place. She has a soft smile, her hands are folded on her lap—she is the epitome of tranquility. It ultimately comes across as artificial. What else could she evoke under the confines of a mask?
Sculpture proved to be a superior medium for the mask motif, and it is unfortunate that his illness prevented him from continuing his work. The limestone heads rise from their bases with austerity. Clean lines cut across smooth stone to make a face of such serene bearing the viewer will feel it without questioning it. Masks, after all, are meant to be a three-dimensional entity; on paper, they appear merely as ersatz faces, uniform and iris-less. There are 23 drawings of the masks in the exhibit, differentiated only by a detail here or there—one has a triangle nose, one has a rectangle. Visitors of the museum shuffled from one drawing to another before breezing past the rest to pool around paintings for a refreshing burst of color.
It is one of the many artistic mysteries that artists can convey what they perhaps are unable to find in their own lives. Modigliani was racked with worries of an impending death and fighting anti-Semitism and addiction, but was simultaneously able to imbue his creations with equanimity. “What I am searching for,” he said, “is neither the real nor the unreal, but the subconscious, the mystery of what is instinctive in the human race.” He did have a keen ability to see beyond an outward appearance, as his friend the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova noted (she served as the model for a series of Egyptian-inspired drawings seen in the show).
“It astonished me that Modigliani could find ugly people beautiful and stick by this opinion,” she wrote. “I thought even then that he clearly saw the world through different eyes to ours.”
One wonders how Modigliani would have expanded his craft, but nothing could keep him from an early death. His body, battered by violent alcoholism and tuberculosis, was put to rest in 1920. His wife, seemingly so placid in her yellow sweater, threw herself off the ledge of their fifth-story apartment the next day. Their daughter wrote a biography of her father, in which she warned Modigliani’s followers to not forget his ancestry.
“Just remember,” she wrote, “Amedeo Modigliani was a Sephardic Jew.”
A lack of paintings and overflow of simplistic drawings can make the presentation of “Modigliani: Unmasked” dry, but there is nothing dry about the final piece in the exhibit, inconspicuously shoved in the corner of the last room. It is Modigliani’s death mask, in line with the popular ritual at the time to create plaster castings of the dead’s faces. Here in the museum, a calm face rests behind the glass like delicate porcelain, a mask of the cursed man whose subconscious and instinct were revealed through hard-won serenity.