A Jewish Artist in Post-Dreyfus Paris

Visual Moment | Modigliani
September, 18 2017

“What I am searching for is neither the real nor the unreal, but the Subconscious, the mystery of what is Instinctive in the human Race.”
—Amedeo Modigliani

When the 22-year-old Italian Jewish artist Amedeo Modigliani arrived in Paris in 1906, his health was already compromised. He had suffered childhood bouts of pleurisy, had nearly died of typhoid fever at age 11 and had been diagnosed with tuberculosis at 16. In his first years in the City of Light, which was rife with anti-Semitism in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair and the flood of foreign émigrés, one of the important bonds he formed was with a young French physician and art lover, Paul Alexandre. The two became close friends, meeting almost daily from 1907 to the start of World War I in 1914. Although his means were limited, Alexandre became Modigliani’s first patron and an ardent promoter of his art, urging the artist “not to destroy a single sketchbook or a single study” and amassing a collection of some 450 of the artist’s drawings.

Alexandre entered the French medical corps when war broke out, and Modigliani succumbed to tuberculosis in 1920. The two never saw one another after 1914. Over the years Alexandre became possessive about his cache of drawings, restricting both reproduction and scholarly access. He hoped one day to use the trove to establish the importance of the artist’s early work. It wasn’t, however, until 1993 that Alexandre’s son Noël finally published a comprehensive volume of the collection, titled The Unknown Modigliani.

Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani strikes a rakish pose in 1912, six years after moving to Paris to pursue a career in painting and sculpture. His bohemian appearance belies his cosmopolitan, middle-class upbringing. A Sephardic Jew, he was drawn more to the spiritual and occult than to formal religion.

Now New York City’s Jewish Museum has mounted an exhibition featuring more than 100 of these early drawings (many of which have never been seen before in the United States) along with other drawings and selected sculptures and paintings by the artist. On view from September 15, 2017 through February 4, 2018, “Modigliani Unmasked” is the first exhibition in the United States to focus on Modigliani’s early work. Organized by Mason Klein, senior curator at The Jewish Museum, the show illustrates how the artist worked out his conceptual and pictorial ideas through drawing and sculpture and sheds light on the relationship of this early period of Modigliani’s career to the development of his distinctive and celebrated style of portraiture.

Modigliani had every expectation of feeling at home in Paris. He spoke fluent French and was intimately familiar with French literature and poetry. His adjustment, however, was difficult. He struggled financially, suffered from recurrent attacks of tuberculosis and developed an increasing sense of alienation, due in part to his view of artists as visionaries, as being different from other people. One of the premises of the exhibition is to demonstrate, through the early drawings, Modigliani’s preoccupation with identity and its impact on his art.

Modigliani’s black crayon drawing Head from 1911 (top) reveals his interest in tribal art and the motif of the mask. The artist was intrigued with exotic, non-Western art, especially Egyptian and African art, and its influence was key to the development of his unique style of portraiture. His Seated female nude, back view, three quarters to left, from circa 1908 (bottom), was executed in pencil.

An Italian Sephardic Jew, whose mother was born in France, the artist grew up in the liberal and tolerant atmosphere of Livorno on the northwestern coast of Italy, where Jews were not relegated to a ghetto, but instead were an integral part of the community. According to family sources, Modigliani had never experienced anti-Semitism before moving to Paris. With his Latin good looks, command of French and classical education, he could easily have passed as a gentile. To the contrary, he refused to assimilate and boldly proclaimed his Jewishness, often introducing himself by saying “My name is Modigliani. I am Jewish.” 

One account has him confronting a group of young men sitting at a nearby table who were shouting anti-Semitic slogans. Modigliani reportedly stood up, walked over to their table and confronted the group declaring, “Je suis Juif et je vous emmerde.” (“I am Jewish and to hell with you.”) Even his Sephardic heritage set him apart from his cohorts in the Circle of Montparnasse artistic community, which was composed primarily of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, including Marc Chagall and Chaim Soutine.

Modigliani was particularly drawn to exotic, non-Western art—specifically to Egyptian, Asian, Greek, Khmer and African art. The influence of masks is clearly evident in the drawings and sculptures in the show. “It is only through this expanded notion of the ‘mask’ that we can understand the artist’s novel and personal appropriation of tribal art, which profoundly affected many of the paintings he made in the second half of his short career,” writes curator Klein in the exhibition catalog.

Modigliani’s 1908 The Jewess was the first painting he exhibited in Paris and one of the most arresting of his early portraits.

Notable, too, in the Alexandre collection are the stylized drawings related to Modigliani’s sculptures, as well as a series of life studies, female nudes and explorations of a motif borrowed from ancient art—the caryatid. Evident in many of these drawings is the artist’s keen psychological insight, which was able to transform rudimentary sketches into portraits.

Klein maintains that Modigliani’s early  work reveals his Modernist embrace of difference, as well as his understanding of identity as heterogeneous, beyond national or cultural boundaries. The works in the show, he says, “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.”

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One thought on “A Jewish Artist in Post-Dreyfus Paris

  1. zipmeme.com says:

    The scandal began in December 1894 when Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason. Dreyfus was a 35-year-old Alsatian French artillery officer of Jewish descent. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly communicating French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, and was imprisoned in Devil’s Island in French Guiana, where he spent nearly five years.

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