What REALLY Inspired the Art of Amedeo Modigliani?

Amedeo Modigliani Appreciators, Rejoice!

Modigliani Unmasked Exhibit at the Jewish Museum | Heritage and Race - Key influencers in Modigliani's art | The Iconic Style of Amedeo Modigliani
Image of Amedeo Modigliani (1884 – 1920). Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Jewish Museum in New York City is offering “Modigliani Unmasked” from Sept. 15 through Feb. 4, 2018. This will be the first exhibition in the U.S. to focus on the Italian modernist’s early works, according to a museum press release.

The artist’s close friend and first patron, Dr. Paul Alexandre, acquired a large selection of the art to be displayed in the one-of-a-kind exhibit — many of which are being shown for the first time in the U.S.

Modigliani Unmasked Exhibit at the Jewish Museum | Heritage and Race - Key influencers in Modigliani's art | The Iconic Style of Amedeo Modigliani
Amedeo Modigliani, Unfinished Portrait of Paul Alexandre, 1913, Oil on canvas, 31½ x 25¾ in. (80 x 65.6 cm). Private collection on long-term loan to the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen

But what really makes this exhibition so unique is the large portion of works on display that shine a light on the pivotal role Modigliani’s heritage as an Italian Sephardic Jew played in his work.

His ‘Masked’ Identity

The long faces and noses, tiny mouths and slanted eyes act as an almost signature in the later portraiture of Modigliani. Were these unified features simply a nod to abstraction? Or were they a way to leave his subjects’ heritage united in ambiguity?

To truly appreciate race’s significance in Modigliani’s art, we must first understand the artist’s background — and the political atmosphere of early 20th century France.

Modigliani Unmasked Exhibit at the Jewish Museum | Heritage and Race - Key influencers in Modigliani's art | The Iconic Style of Amedeo Modigliani
Amedeo Modigliani, Caryatid, 1914, Gouache and ink on paper, 22¾ x 18½ in. (57.8 x 47 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York, Bequest of Mrs. Harriet H. Jonas; image provided by The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, New York

Modigliani was born in 1884 in Livorno, Italy, to Jewish parents. “An Italian Sephardic Jew with a French mother and a classical education, Modigliani was the embodiment of cultural heterogeneity,” notes the release.

In addition to his classical education, he also studied classical art, which his family supported. So in 1906, a young Modigliani moved to Paris to broaden his artistic horizons.

However, the early 1900s in France were filled with anti-Semitism following the political crisis known as the Dreyfus Affair, which started after Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery captain in the French army, was falsely convicted of treason. This racial turmoil of early 20th century Paris was very new to Modigliani, who came from a town rich in cultural acceptance.

Modigliani Unmasked Exhibit at the Jewish Museum | Heritage and Race - Key influencers in Modigliani's art | The Iconic Style of Amedeo Modigliani
Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of a Woman Taking Part in a Spiritualist Séance, c. 1906, Black crayon, China ink, and watercolor on paper, 22¼ x 14⅝ in. (56.5 x 37 cm). Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, Gift of Blaise Alexandre, 2001

“When he moved to Paris, he came up against the idea of racial purity in French culture — in Italy, he did not feel ostracized for being Jewish,” explains the Jewish Museum. “His Latin looks and fluency in French could have easily helped him to assimilate. Instead, his outsider status often compelled him to introduce himself with the words, ‘My name is Modigliani. I am Jewish.’”

His desire to “unmask” his identity and reveal himself as a Jew not only speaks volumes of the influence his heritage had on his life, but also on his art.

From Modigliani’s Early Works to His Later Signature Style

Modigliani Unmasked Exhibit at the Jewish Museum | Heritage and Race - Key influencers in Modigliani's art | The Iconic Style of Amedeo Modigliani
Amedeo Modigliani, Head, c. 1911, Black crayon on paper, 16⅞ x 10⅜ in. (42.7 x 26.3 cm). Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, Gift of Blaise Alexandre, 2001

The Jewish Museum reports Modigliani mostly stopped painting so he could develop his “conceptual and pictorial ideas through drawing and sculpture” in the years leading up to World War I.

“The works [from this time] in the exhibition reveal the emerging artist himself, enmeshed in his own particular identity quandary, struggling to discover what portraiture might mean in a modern world of racial complexity,” the museum continues in the release.

And with the Italian modernist’s announcement of his Jewish roots, it’s no wonder that he was generally intrigued by other cultures — especially those of nonwestern regions.

In fact, “Modigliani Unmasked” will feature around 150 works of art by the Italian modernist, most of which unveil these multicultural influences — African, Greek, Egyptian, Asian — in his art.

During his time in Paris, Modigliani would visit museums such as the Louvre and the city’s first anthropological museum, Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, enthralled by the displays of nonwestern art.

Instead of finding abstract and expressive influences based on these works like many other artists of this time, reports the release, Modigliani’s inspirations were “far more respectful.”

His admiration to the masks and heads often on display, in particular, are clearly evident in many of his early drawings and sculptures, such as Head of a Woman. This sculpture features stark similarities to his later, more iconic portraiture. Coincidence? Maybe … but, most likely not.

Modigliani Unmasked Exhibit at the Jewish Museum | Heritage and Race - Key influencers in Modigliani's art | The Iconic Style of Amedeo Modigliani
Amedeo Modigliani, Head of a Woman, 1910-11, Limestone, 25⅝ x 7½ x 9¾ in. (65.2 x 19 x 24.8 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Chester Dale Collection

“Prominent in the Alexandre collection are the stylized drawings related to sculptures. Produced between 1909 and 1914, this body of work constitutes a distinct category within the artist’s oeuvre and reveals his ongoing preoccupation with identity,” states the Jewish Museum in the release. “Particularly noticeable is his obsessive examination of physiognomy. When seen together, his repeated images of heads and faces reveal minute, calculated variations in the eyes, noses, and mouths. As seen in the exhibition, this group of drawings offer a nuanced commentary on the underlying issue of aesthetics as it relates to race.”

Want More Modigliani?

Enjoy more early works of Modigliani featured in the Jewish Museum’s exhibition below. And, if you are in the area, be sure to check out “Modigliani Unmasked” for an immersive look into the life and early works of the young Amedeo Modigliani.

Modigliani Unmasked Exhibit at the Jewish Museum | Heritage and Race - Key influencers in Modigliani's art | The Iconic Style of Amedeo Modigliani
Amedeo Modigliani, Paul Alexandre, c. 1909, China ink on paper, 10⅝ x 8¼ in. (27 x 21 cm). Private collection, courtesy of Richard Nathanson, London; Image provided by Richard Nathanson, photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates, London
Modigliani Unmasked Exhibit at the Jewish Museum | Heritage and Race - Key influencers in Modigliani's art | The Iconic Style of Amedeo Modigliani
Amedeo Modigliani, Hermaphrodite Caryatid, 1911-12, Black crayon on paper, 16⅞ x 10 in. (42.8 x 25.5 cm). Paul Alexandre Family, courtesy of Richard Nathanson, London; Image provided by Richard Nathanson, photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates, London
Modigliani Unmasked Exhibit at the Jewish Museum | Heritage and Race - Key influencers in Modigliani's art | The Iconic Style of Amedeo Modigliani
Amedeo Modigliani, Study for “The Amazon,” 1909, Black crayon on paper, 12⅛ x 9⅛ in. (30.8 x 23.2 cm). Paul Alexandre Family, courtesy of Richard Nathanson, London; Image provided by Richard Nathanson, photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates, London
Modigliani Unmasked Exhibit at the Jewish Museum | Heritage and Race - Key influencers in Modigliani's art | The Iconic Style of Amedeo Modigliani
Amedeo Modigliani, Woman in Profile, 1911-12, Charcoal and pastel on paper, 16⅞ x 10½ in. (42.9 x 26.7 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Joan and Lester Avnet Collection. Image provided by The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, New York
Modigliani Unmasked Exhibit at the Jewish Museum | Heritage and Race - Key influencers in Modigliani's art | The Iconic Style of Amedeo Modigliani
Amedeo Modigliani, Lunia Czechowska, 1919, oil on canvas, 31½ x 20½ in. (80 x 52 cm). Museu de Arte de São Paulo. Photograph by João Musa

Do you think heritage is behind Modigliani’s trademark style? Tell us in the comments below.

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