Modigliani show explores painters complex cultural identity

new york | Amedeo Modigliani portrays poet and sometime painter Max Jacob with sharp, jutted features. He paints Jacobs with one glittering, crosshatched green eye and one blank eye to reveal the spiritual bond between the two men.

The oil on canvas “Portrait of Max Jacob,” from 1916, also shows how Modigliani incorporated cubism into his already eclectic and unique expressionist style, and the likeness of Jacob with a large head, donning a top hat, white shirt and checkered tie, also hints at Modigliani’s sculptures.

Such portraits with elongated facial features are a stylistic and subjective departure from the female nudes for which the Italian-born Jewish artist has become best known.

“Modigliani: Beyond the Myth,” which opened late last month at New York’s Jewish Museum, is the city’s first major exhibition of the artist’s work since a 1951 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. It is the first to focus on the relationship of Modigliani’s sculptures to the full range of his work. In doing so, it also seeks to uncover Modigliani’s complex cultural identity beneath the myth of the bohemian artist who indulged in wine and drugs during a tragic, short life.

“The popular story has been so ubiquitous, so embraced,” curator Mason Klein said. “Fundamentally, we’ve tried to look beyond the myth.”

The show features more than 100 paintings, sculptures and drawings on loan from collections throughout the world. It is on view through Sept. 19. Born July 12, 1884, in Tuscany, Italy, Modigliani was the last of four children born to a Jewish bourgeois family. He arrived in Paris in 1906, proud of his Italian and Sephardic roots, his intellectual upbringing and his mother’s liberal social and political ideals.

“He came to Paris and experienced anti-Semitism for the first time,” Klein said. “In a sense, you could say he was the first secular Jewish artist.”

Modigliani was identified as Italian, and his fluency in French further obscured his ethnic identity, leading him to often say, “I am Modigliani, Jew.” He did not align himself with any art movement, and limited himself almost entirely to portraits.

“I think he chose to be an outsider,” Klein said. “I think he chose portraiture when no one else was doing portraits.”

In Modigliani’s five years of creating sculpture, his carved heads incorporated historical and cultural archetypes, including archaic Greek and Cycladic, African and Egyptian, early Christian and Khmer. He quit sculpture in 1915 because of World War I, the rising cost of stone and his failing health.

“Jean Cocteau,” an oil on canvas portrait from 1916-1917, features an elongated neck and triangular chin atop a slender figure seated in an elongated chair. The columnlike neck supports the masklike face, which is influenced by African tribal masks.

While borrowing from the masks, Modigliani was committed to creating a likeness of his subject and portraying an individual identity.

With his flushed cheeks, proper attire and his hands resting on his crossed legs, “Cocteau is constructed as the sensitive, aesthetic, polished, punctilious, and effete, and his identity, although assembled in parts, reads as coherent, his own, of a piece,” Tamar Garb writes in an essay on “Making and Masking.” The essay appears in the catalogue edited by Klein and co-published by The Jewish Museum and Yale University Press.

The exhibition is divided into six sections: “Caryatids,” “Sculpture,” “Return to Painting,” “Portraiture,” “Montparnasse” and “Nudes.” It begins with Modigliani’s early symbolist exploration of femmes fatales.

“Reclining Nude (La reveuse),” an oil on canvas from 1917, is typical of those highly sexualized works. With one arm cradling her head and the other pressed against her cheek, a woman lies outstretched with her breasts exposed and one knee bent.

Modigliani, who once said, “To paint a woman is to possess her,” had one solo show in his lifetime, in December 1917, and it was the lone nude on display that stirred scandal. The police chief forced dealer Berthe Weill to remove the nude from the show at her Paris gallery.

While the current exhibit strives to shift the emphasis on the importance of identity in Modigliani’s broad body of work, he remains most popular for his nudes. A 1917 painting, “Reclining Nude (on Her Left Side),” sold for $26.8 million on Nov. 4, 2003, a record for the artist at auction, Christie’s said.

Modigliani died at age 35 of tuberculosis in 1920, ending a life and career marred by his volatile personality, poverty, poor health and the suicide of his 21-year-old pregnant lover, Jeanne Hebuterne, the day after his death.

“He tried, but I don’t think he really wanted success,” Klein said.

The show will travel to The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Oct. 23-Jan. 23, 2005, and then to The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., Feb. 26-May 29, 2005. The exhibit is not scheduled to travel to the Bay Area.