Written by Stanley Greenberg Friday, 19 June 2009 07:18
As Lorraine and I walked through the Metropolitan Museum of Art with our 3-year-old grandson Lewis in a stroller, he pointed to the Modigliani and shouted, “Picture in Grandma’s house.” Lewis was right. We have many Modigliani paintings (prints of course) hanging on our walls.
When I was first introduced to Amedeo Modigliani, the Bohemian Sephardic Jew from Livorno, Italy, I assumed he was only a caricaturist. After viewing his life work, I decided he was a great modernist who created enigmatic portraits that had universal appeal. He captured the inner essence of his subjects. His popularity came from having an accessible style easily understood by the masses.
His own life was tragic. He was born in Livorno, Italy in 1884 and moved to Paris in 1906. He died there, tragically, in 1920, at the age of 35. He remained outside the art movements of the early twentieth century, cubism, fauvism, futurism and became one of the greatest Italian painters.
Impoverished, ill with tuberculosis, he worked day and night sustained by hashish, absinthe, red wine and the women who loved him and posed for him. His friends, art dealers and artists tried to save him from himself. His friends were Picasso, Utrillo, Brancusi, Soutine, Chagall, Lipschitz and Rivera. Initially, he was not commercially successful. His sales pitch went like this. He went up to the tables in the cafés of Paris and offered his drawings. “I am Modigliani, a Jew,” he would say “five francs.”
Human nature was his passion. The twin elements of Italianism and Judaism permeate his work. He arrived in Paris at the height of the Dreyfus Affair. It was a time of deep anti-Semitism. Modigliani never relinquished his Jewishness.
Much of his style was molded by his Parisian experience. He was an integral part of the Montparnasse scene, and through his portraits and drawings he documented it. From 1911 to 1914 he was inspired by Brancusi to become a sculptor. His work crossed religious and national lines.
The oval, elongated figures with blank or penetrating eyes became known as the Modigliani “look.” Described by one of his subjects, “he drew them out as if he were a gypsy reading palms.”
His readily accessible style has worked for and against him. The masses love his works but the academics of his time dismissed him. He was a tortured soul, who was multi-talented and sensitive to his surroundings.
Each viewer of his art has to come to their own conclusion. Even Lewis felt the power of his paintings.