Modigliani At The Jewish Mu­seum

But does a mu­seum’s fo­cus on his Jewish­ness triv­i­al­ize his work?

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Talya Zax

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-


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