‘Modigliani’ paints moving portrait of tormented artist

An artist’s angst over personal demons and the vicissitudes of the marketplace is depicted with a mixture of humor and pathos in the upcoming revival of “Modigliani” at the Open Fist Theatre in Hollywood. The story, set in the Montparnasse area of Paris in 1916, covers three days in the life of the celebrated Italian-Jewish painter Amedeo Modigliani, who, like numerous other artists, became an icon only after his death. He is particularly noted for his renderings of elongated figures, mask-like faces and erotic nudes.

The play, by the late Dennis McIntyre, was produced off-Broadway at the Astor Place Theatre in 1980, where director Bjørn Johnson saw it when he went to New York as a young actor to study. He was so taken with the material that, years later, he decided to play Modigliani as a project for his acting class in Los Angeles. Now he is helming a professional production of the work for a midweek offering at the Open Fist.

“ ‘Modigliani’ is really the genuine starving-artist story,” Johnson remarked. “He was a guy who was recognized by everybody but just couldn’t get it off the ground.”

He was also recognized for his alcoholism, his addiction to hashish and absinthe, and his womanizing. 

“He was a wild guy,” Johnson said, “very eccentric and so open. And that’s what’s so attractive about the play, what’s so attractive about the characters. What else is attractive to me about the material is that it’s a great acting opportunity. The scenes are detailed, and they’re deep, and they get to completion. They go to very deep places, not all of them dark. But it’s just kind of a great, human opportunity for an actor, and a director.”

Johnson and Matt Marquez — who plays the title role — both say that they, as artists in another medium, can relate to Modigliani’s struggles.  Marquez describes the three days depicted in the play as a particularly crucial point in Modigliani’s life. The artist is burned-out; tired of buyers, collectors and dealers; has not been painting; and wants money to fulfill his fantasy of running away to Martinique.

“He’s somebody who has begun to doubt his own talent,” Marquez explained, “and he has reason for that. He’s basically come to a crisis in his life where he doesn’t know what to do or if he’s made the right choice. So, he’s filled with doubt, like many of us are at times in our lives.”

Marquez added: “What makes it even harder to deal with is the fact that he has tuberculosis and he’s dying. In those three days, he’s struggling to find something of substance in his life and a way back into what he loved so much in his art. He’s uninspired, and he’s trying to find inspiration, and he knows his time is finite. He doesn’t know if he’ll make it to the next day.”

The art world of Modigliani’s day in Paris was teeming with such movements as Cubism, Post-Impressionism, Dadaism and Futurism, among others, but Modigliani didn’t fit the mold. Marquez feels it’s a problem for artists that never changes.

“It has to do with culture and what’s popular and what’s not. They say artists are ahead of their time, but it’s more about everyone else having to catch up. They’re right where they need to be, but everyone else has to catch up,” Marquez said.

“There’s a line where one of the dealers tells my character that there’s no demand for a certain kind of painting that I’m doing, and I say, ‘Demand? But demand can’t change something that’s beautiful.’ And, of course, he rejects what I’ve just said,” Marquez added.

The tragic underpinning of the play is leavened with hilarity, particularly in the characters of Modigliani’s fellow artists Chaim Soutine (Nasser Khan), also Jewish, and Maurice Utrillo (Daniel Escobar).

Utrillo wants Soutine to help him kill his mother’s lover, while Soutine wants assistance in stealing a dead cow so that he can watch the side of beef change and paint the colors that emerge. He worries that they won’t get to the carcass in time. “What if they throw out the beef? Butchers aren’t very sensitive. They don’t understand reds or greens.”

Modigliani, or Modi, as he was called, also has his comedic moments. At one point he explains his injured hand to his agent, Leopold (Jeff Lorch and Peter Lewis,  double-cast), by recounting his escapade in an upscale restaurant that he had entered from the back.  When the staff realized he had drunk two bottles of wine, and probably couldn’t pay, they started chasing him. He describes leaping over tables, stepping in dinners, introducing himself and sampling desserts when he found himself at the table of a French general and his wife.

“And you know what I think about French generals,” he says. He then describes how he dropped his pants and bent over, adding, “And Jews don’t drop their pants on very important generals.”

The fact that Modigliani was Jewish definitely informs the work and is a significant element of the story, according to Johnson.

“I don’t think it’s an isolated thing. I think it ties into his sense of being held outside, of being excluded, of being repressed. And I think it couples with his frustrations. Utrillo is his best friend, and yet he sort of laughingly calls him a Jew bastard and sarcastically calls him a kike. But it definitely ties into the gestalt of the society in which they’re living.” 

Modigliani’s sense of being alienated explodes in the play’s devastating, pivotal scene, which finds him meeting with art dealer Guillaume Chéron (Jon Collin Barclay), who trivializes the artist’s efforts, is disrespectful, dismissive and somewhat contemptuous, offering an insultingly paltry sum for some of the artwork. The dealer says, “You have a talent — but I doubt you’ll ever develop it. You’re good — no — more promising than good, but you’re not that good.”

In reaction, Modigliani goes on a rampage, destroying many of his paintings. His self-destructive behavior finally provokes his mistress and model, Beatrice Hastings (Nicole Stuart), into leaving him.

It seems that Modigliani has nothing left, but then his inner core bursts forth. It is a quintessential expression of tenaciousness, which, for Johnson, is at the heart of this play.

“He’s got so much behind him; he’s got so much fire in his belly; he’s got so much genuine artistic inspiration; and he’s flying in the face of incredible obstacles. He’s got tuberculosis; he’s out of money; he’s in questionable company; he doesn’t have two cents to rub together; he doesn’t have any food; it’s incredibly cold, and it’s raining. He’s got some hard knocks and close calls, and he just won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. I think the universal theme is tenacity.”

“Modigliani” at the Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90038. 323.882.6912. Mon. April 30 (preview) – Thurs. May 24, 2012. Reservations: https://openfist.secure.force.com/ticket

Gala Opening:
Tuesday, May 1st @ 8pm 
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at 8pm

Gala Opening Tickets- $30.00
Preview tickets: $15.00
VIP Tickets $34.00 ~ Includes Wine
Regular tickets $20 ~ Students & Seniors – $15

Artist ‘Modi’ Gets On-Screen Portrait

The tortured, self-destructive painter, unappreciated in his lifetime and finding solace in wine and women, is an irresistible subject for moviemakers.

Now, following screen portraits of Michelangelo (Charlton Heston), van Gogh (Kirk Douglas), Picasso (Anthony Hopkins) and Jackson Pollock (Ed Harris), it’s Amedeo Modigliani’s turn.

“Modi” (1884-1920), as he was known to the art world, was a strikingly handsome man and a great artist, but afflicted with booze, hash, violent rages and tuberculosis, and a Jew and Italian, to boot.

“Modigliani” plays out the last years of the artist’s life, when bohemian Paris, rebounding from the slaughter of World War I, is truly the world’s artistic capital.

Joining Modi in cafes and bars are painters Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Maurice Utrillo and Chaim Soutine, and writers Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau and Max Jacob. Even the venerable Pierre-Auguste Renoir puts in an appearance.

Andy Garcia pours his considerable talent and passion into the title role, and the agony and ecstasy (thanks, Irving Stone) of the artistic sensibility comes through with full force, occasionally spilling over the top.

The film, told in flashbacks as Modigliani lies on his deathbed, includes a scene in his native Livorno, where his pious but bankrupt family is about to be evicted from their home. The furniture is piled high on the mother’s bed, since Italian law stipulates that police cannot confiscate belongings on the bed of a pregnant woman.

In Paris, Modigliani starts out as a sculptor, strongly influenced by African art. The style carries over into his paintings of people, with their distinctive oval faces, elongated necks and simplified features.

Soon he meets and beds a shy 18-year- old art student, Jeanne Hebuterne, raised in a bourgeois, Catholic household.

The father strongly disapproves of his daughter’s liaison with a starving artist — and their resultant love child — and becomes fully enraged when he learns that her lover is a Jew.

Confrontations between the two men lead to blows and the father spirits away his granddaughter to a hiding place.

To earn some money, Modigliani agrees to enter Paris’ premier art competition, which pits him against an already famous Picasso.

In the runup to the contest, the two antagonists, as well as Rivera, Utrillo and Soutine, are shown in their respective studios, all painting furiously away at their masterpieces.

Director-writer Mick Davis, a Glasgow native, has taken some liberties with the facts, adding an overdramatized death to an already dramatic life. Britain’s Miriam Margolyes has a warm and funny turn as Gertrude Stein.

The film offers two genuine pleasures: The performance of French actress Elsa Zylberstein and the cinematography of Emmanuel Kadosh — two names to gladden a Jewish heart.

Zylberstein is luminous as Jeanne, Modigliani’s lover, fragile in appearance but determined to fight and suffer to protect her man, even from himself.

In a phone call from her native Paris, the 35-year-old actress reported that she was Polish Jewish on her father’s side and French Catholic on her mother’s side.

“I was raised in both faiths, though being Jewish is more a cultural than a religious factor in my life,” she said. “We go to a temple but we also have a Christmas tree.”

She was trained as a classical dancer and has made 15 films. She scored her first success in the 1994 French film, “Mina Tannenbaum,” in which she played one of two Jewish girls in Paris during the Nazi occupation.

In competition at the Cannes Film Festival is “La Petite Jerusalem” (Little Jerusalem), in which she describes her role as that of “a dry and religious Jewish woman” living in a Paris suburb.

Zylberstein, who speaks fluent English, said her big ambition now is to act in British and American films.

The work of Israeli cinematographer Kadosh lifts the film to another artistic level. With Romania substituting for Paris in 1919, Kadosh captures the feeling of the City of Lights — and shadows — with the eyes of a painter.

Viewers hungering for more portrayals of tempestuous artists can shortly look forward to “Klimt,” the story of fin de siecle Viennese painter Gustav Klimt, starring John Malkovich.

“Modigliani” opens in theaters on May 13.