Volume 17 • Issue 11 / August 06 - 12, 2004


The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Ave. at E. 92nd St.
Sun.-Wed., 11 a.m. - 5:45 p.m.
Thu., 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.
Fri., 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Through Sep. 19
212 423 3271

Respite from Downtown heat

The Jewish Museum exhibits series of Modigliani’s influential portraits


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 around—a 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 unmentioned—Matisse 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 Modigliani’s 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 Sargent’s 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 Manet’s “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 model’s 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.

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