When Amedeo Modigliani arrived in Paris in 1906, at the age of 22, the city was still roiling with anti-Semitism spawned by the Dreyfus affair. Although Modigliani was a Sephardic Jew from Italy, the young artist also had Mediterranean good looks and a fluency in French. He could have “passed” as gentile.
Instead, feeling revulsion toward a racist climate that he had never experienced in Italy, Modigliani proudly declared himself the “other” before anyone else could. “My name is Modigliani. I am Jewish,” is how he introduced himself.
The fact that Modigliani was rambunctiously Jewish is probably the most interesting aspect of “Modigliani Unmasked,” an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York City through Feb. 4, with a gorgeous accompanying catalog by Yale University Press.
Modigliani began to refer to himself as a “Jewish artist.” The first painting he exhibited in Paris was “The Jewess.” “Je suis Juif et je vous emmerde,” he once shouted at a table of loudly singing French nationalists. “I am Jewish and to hell with you.”
As many Jewish artists in the past few decades have gone to great lengths to mask their Jewishness — showing trendy disdain for Israel as a way to say, “See, I’m not one of them” — here is one of our most brilliant artists doing what real artists do: not conform. He embraced his unique identity as a form of protest; he refused to assimilate. “Rather than be victimized or silent,” curator Mason Klein wrote in the exhibition notes, “he asserted himself as a Jew.”
Modigliani’s ethnicity was largely “invisible” because he neither looked nor sounded like the caricature of an Eastern European from the shtetl. By contrast, Marc Chagall, who came to Paris from St. Petersburg in 1910, later said, “I felt at every step that I was a Jew. People made me feel it.”
According to Klein, Modigliani’s embrace of his Jewish identity helped to fuel his artistic vision. In the years before World War I, Modigliani largely stopped painting, using drawing and sculpture as ways to develop his ideas. “The works in the exhibition reveal the emerging artist, enmeshed in his own particular identity quandary, struggling to discover what portraiture might mean in a modern world of racial complexity,” Klein writes.
Klein interprets Modigliani’s refusal to assimilate as an “unmasking” of his Jewishness, while viewing the concept of the mask as a metaphor of modern identity. “Modigliani, having felt what it was to be the unknown foreigner, the invisible Jew, moved toward a conceptual portraiture, one that considered the very representation of identity to be problematic, even false.”
The exhibition, which I visited last week, is the first in the United States to focus on the artist’s early work, nearly 150 pieces, mostly drawings, from the collection of Paul Alexandre, his close friend and first patron.
Until now, Modigliani’s incorporation (“appropriation”) of a host of diverse influences — from ancient Greece, Egypt and Africa — was seen as merely a mark of his signature style. But his very personal struggle with and rejection of European notions of race give his multiculturalism a radical new meaning. “Modigliani sought to directly challenge the assumption of European cultural superiority,” Klein writes.
Modigliani was mesmerized by non-Western art, Egyptian in particular; you can see it in the attenuation of the figure and the angularity of form. Ultimately, he demonstrated a modernist understanding of identity as heterogeneous, beyond national or cultural boundaries.
He could have “passed” as gentile.
While his avant-garde cohorts were merely fascinated with the “primitive” exotic, Modigliani identified with the exotic — the sensual other.
By fusing a diversity of ethnicities, the drawings deviate dramatically from the aesthetic standards of the time. As a result, they feel timelessly modern. One is struck by their inherent grace and elegance, by their aristocratic bearing. White Europeans, Modigliani seems to be saying, are not the only ones who are beautiful; so are we.
Modigliani died penniless from tuberculosis in 1920, at the age of 35. Today he is considered one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, celebrated for revolutionizing modern portraiture. The lessons of nonconformity, of embracing our unique identities, are profound.
“Always speak out,” Modigliani wrote. Ultimately, though, the artist may have been presciently pessimistic about humanity’s ability to speak out when necessary. In his late paintings, according to Klein, “there are those who see, those who do not see, and those who cannot be seen or known.”
Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic living in New York City.