A curious exhibition, “Modigliani Up Close.” It’s worth a visit, of course: any event that provides extra motivation to travel to the Barnes Foundation is, by default, recommended. Even without the current show, the permanent collection offers a veritable bounty of works by Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920)—sixteen in all, including Cypresses and Houses at Cagnes (1919), a rare landscape. In the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, Thom Collins, the Neubauer Family Executive Director and President of the Barnes, pays homage to the foresight of the museum’s namesake, extolling the manner in which Albert C. Barnes “broke new ground in the history of collecting modern art.” As curated by a host of international conservators—among them Barbara Buckley, the museum’s senior director of conservation and chief conservator of paintings—“Up Close” seeks to break ground in another fashion, by focusing on Modigliani’s approach to materials and process. In underscoring technical matters, the curatorial team aims to bring some clarity to the smoke-and-mirrors legend that surrounds Amedeo, the Doomed and Tragic Soul.
Modigliani proved a wild child.
Modigliani was born in Livorno, a port city on the western coast of Tuscany. His mother came from intellectual stock—the family claimed Baruch Spinoza as an ancestor—and his father was a businessman. The latter fell into bankruptcy the year Amedeo was born and was, at best, a peripatetic parent. Raised largely by his mother, Modigliani proved a vexing child. Prone to illness, he suffered from pleurisy, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis. Nonetheless, he had the wherewithal to study art—in Florence, Venice, and, eventually, Paris. Notions of Florentine rectitude were forever altered by firsthand encounters with Post-Impressionism—Cézanne was a life-changer—and early Modernism. Modigliani became an integral component of the School of Paris. He painted a portrait of Picasso in 1915 and befriended Chaïm Soutine and Maurice Utrillo. Modigliani proved a wild child: whoring, drinking, drugging, and making a general nuisance of himself. He was dead from complications due to TB at the age of thirty-five.
Dying young and staying pretty is the pop version of immortality (though reports do have Modigliani looking fairly dissolute toward the end). If all that weren’t enough, Modigliani’s common-law wife, pregnant with her second child by the artist, committed suicide the day after his death: myth feeds on calamity. Modigliani painted Jeanne (née Hébuterne) several times over, and three of the portraits are on display toward the end of “Up Close.” Those clued into the drama of Amedeo and Jeanne might divine (or impose) some kind of emotional frisson in this curatorial denouement. But there’s little to distinguish the portraits of Jeanne, even the canvas in which she appears pregnant, from most other Modigliani pictures. He was, in the end, too much of a mannerist to embody a sense of intimacy, friendship, or love. Subsuming a host of not entirely incommensurate influences—including Cycladic effigies, African totems, Botticelli, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Pontormo—Modigliani was a canny synthesizer of style who operated within a notably constricted artistic terrain. Even before his untimely demise, the limitations of his art were making themselves plain.
The snag of “Up Close” is that Modigliani was not a genius. He’s a much-beloved minor light of the modernist canon.
Might it be too cynical to wonder if the emphasis of “Up Close”—with its nerdy talk of stretchers, strainers, “bland” canvas textures, and figure, marine, and paysage formatting—is simply a convenient rationale for mounting a crowd-pleasing exhibition dedicated to an artist of whom we know just about enough? The close-grained efforts of conservators should not be dismissed out of hand, and each generation that comes along will have a different take on a given historical figure. Certainly, there are Modigliani canvases many of us are pleased to discover or revisit. But the nuts-and-bolts information about his process isn’t particularly revelatory. Last spring, the Phillips Collection mounted “Picasso: Painting the Blue Period,” an exhibition that included three canvases that underwent significant scientific research, and the results were head-snapping, elaborating, as they did, on the transformative nature of Picasso’s genius. “Matisse: The Red Studio,” moma’s recent deep dive into a staple of the collection, did something related with another genius. The snag of “Up Close” is that Modigliani was not a genius. He’s a much-beloved minor light of the modernist canon. Sometimes distinctions matter.
An odd fillip of “Up Close”—a characteristic that does, in fact, stem from the research of those hard-working conservators—concerns attribution. Reading the fine print on the wall labels, we learn that four of the almost fifty pieces on display may not, in fact, be bona fide Modiglianis. Is it just me or is potential hoodwinking a more compelling curatorial hook than the thread count of canvas? Be that as it may, the Barnes show confirms that Modigliani, in his prime, was a diverting talent whose signature stylings—all those pinched noses, empty eyes, and sloping necks!—are best appreciated on a piecemeal basis. (More than a few museum visitors commented that the stray Modigliani tucked away in the Barnes’s permanent collection benefited from the company of artworks by others.) His finest pieces are those devoted to the reclining female nude, erotic reveries made resonant by an Ingres-like attention to contour and a warm, rich color palette. An arrangement of twelve limestone effigies toward the front of the show makes for a striking installation even as it proves that Modigliani was born not to the chisel but the brush. As for the aforementioned portraits of Jeanne: each canvas buffets the other in a shared accumulation of pictorial tics, making for a striking end to a most quixotic and, yes, recommended exhibition.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 4, on page 49
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