Modigliani At The Jewish Museum
But does a museum’s focus on his Jewishness trivialize his work?
In the first room of The Jewish Museum’s new exhibit “Modigliani Unmasked,” a case displays two issues of La Libre Parole, the early-20thcentury French anti-Semitic newspaper founded by Édouard Drumont.
The covers of both feature caricatures of Jewish men, their attributes overblown and bulbous.
Hung on a nearby wall is Amedeo Modigliani’s 1908 painting “The Jewess.” The subject is, most probably, Modigliani’s mistress Maude Abrantès, a married American Jew whose visage appears in several of the exhibit’s drawings. She appears statuesque and guarded. Her face is slender, her features angular, her bearing aristocratic.
The ability to compare these two images — Drumont’s Jew and Modigliani’s “Jewess” — is one of the pleasures of an exhibit that features artwork primarily from the collection of Paul Alexandre, an early friend of Modigliani in Paris who was also his first and most dedicated patron. Alexandre preserved over 400 of his friend’s drawings from the period between 1906 and 1914 — a trove that wasn’t revealed publicly until 1993, when Alexandre’s son Noël Alexandre published reproductions of the work in a book.
Modigliani, the painter and sculptor who died of tuberculosis in 1920 at the age of 35, has had a number of afterlives. His early death, followed by the tragic suicide of his fiancée, Jeanne Hébuterne, then pregnant with their second daughter, has made him a subject of morbid romantic fascination. His art has become some of the most highly valued in the world; in 2015 one of his paintings fetched $170.4 million at a Christie’s auction. At the time that was the second-highest price paid for an artwork in such a venue.
But as the exhibit suggests, occasionally clumsily, in the popular eye Modigliani’s Jewishness has traditionally been considered less pertinent.
Born to a Sephardic family in the Tuscan town of Livorno in 1884, Modigliani moved to Venice in 1901, seeking a cosmopolitan artistic haven. Having heard that Paris better suited the bill, he migrated there in 1906. That same year, the Dreyfus Affair, a scandal over the contested 1894 treason conviction of the French Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus, resolved with Dreyfus’s exon-
THE JEWISH MUSEUM