Respite from Downtown heat
The Jewish Museum exhibits series of Modiglianis influential portraits
By DAVID SPIHER
The madness of the summer group show is currently running amok in almost all of the Chelsea galleries, with wee curatorial arrows furiously flying and overgrown nominal conceits now in full bloom.
In a vain attempt to escape the muck and mire, I headed north to Modigliani: Beyond the Myth, at the Jewish Museum, only to be smacked upside the head by full-on curatorspeak. Mason Klein desperately reaches to justify supplanting the bad boy, bohemian artist myth with the good boy, independent, Socialist, modernist, spiritual seeker, oh yeah and model Jew myth. The curatorial team further ill serves Modigliani when his obvious influence on current painters including Lucien Freud and John Currin goes unremarked.
In these revisionist times, it has become a truism that if you look at any body of work hard enough and then shuffle the images around long enough you can make a case for anything. The Jewish Museum exhibit attempts to whitewash the fact that Modigliani probably drank, drugged and whored arounda lot. But none of this bio-blather hides the fact that this work, which has not been seen in retrospective in New York since the 1950s, is wonderful and fresh.
The double-back layout of the exhibition really damages the overview of early drawings, caryatids (sculptural support figures) and sculpture. Where the work itself is yeasty and rich with international influences, local influences go unmentionedMatisse and Brancusi, to whom Modigliani is clearly linked, and Klimt and Beardsley are all missing. Attempts to link Modigliani to high modernism via Cezanne serve to diminish and dilute his achievement.
Only midway through the exhibition, with a group of three portraits of Beatrice Hastings and the glowing images of Haricot Rouge and Antonia, does this show really catch fire. Issues of figure and ground and the painting of fabric and flesh all come together in four paintings of working-class young people. The budding of Modiglianis artistic maturity is revealed through linear yet volumetric means that skirt the edge of abstractionist caricature.
The great room of portraits of men that follows reveals an unknown Modigliani of luminous color and gorgeous means. Yes, the spiky, well-known Portrait of Cocteau is there, but also the Seated Man against an Orange Background, a personal revelation of great insight and depth.
The final room of portraits of women and nudes is lush with intensity and insight. Turning into the frame, Blue Eyes, the portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, vibrates with life. In separate grand portraits of the Zoborowsky sisters, Modigliani, sure of his technical means, poaches on John Singer Sargents territory, portraying smart women at ease in rich surroundings.
Five justly famous reclining nudes close the show. The Nude w/Loose Hair from Osaka takes on the staring contest that Manets Olympia began and comes out of it quite pleased with herself. The tender Nude, from the Guggenheim, the emotional opposite of the Osaka nude, is movingly observant of the models equine face, the indentation of her waist, the swell of her belly and the way her flesh touches the sheets.
See this exhibition with fresh eyes and leave the words behind.