Amedeo Mogdigliani (1884 to 1920) currently has a retrospective exhibition, “Mogdigliani: Unmasked” mounted at the Jewish Museum now until February 4, 2018, and shows the artists strange obsession with masks.
The first room of the exhibition has hundreds of sketches by Mogdigliani, often in outlines, andsculptures by the artist. Mogdigliani had facility to paint and draw realistically, but when he finally settled on a style, he drew and painted idealized versions of the human form until he finally painted strange masks, like the sculptures he made. Where the line drawings are realistic, the sculptures look like the heads from Easter Island, with long rectangular heads, horizontal slits for eyes, and long slender noses.
Modigliani was born in Livona, Italy to a Jewish family and lived in France for the majority of his career. The Jewish Museum’s choice of Mogdigliani is absolutely fascinating in conversation with its sister museums in New York City. The Jewish Museum’s next-door-neighbor, the Neue Galerie, featured Richard Gerstl for its summer exhibition. The lives of Gerstl and Mogdigliani have some parallels. Gerstl and Mogdigliani were immediate cohorts – Gerstl died in 1908, Mogdigliani died in 1920. Both were Jewish; both died tragically young and penniless; both had certain insider acclaim (Gerstl from the composer Schoenberg; Mogdigliani from Picasso and Chagall); and both artists predicted modern art trends with uncanny prescience.
All of these similarities makes their departure all the more radical, and the contrast all the more stark. Gerstl’s innovation was to predict German Expressionism; which in a criminally short summary might be called Impressionism with emotions; and Gerstl’s paintings violently attack the viewer with questions of significance. Does this painting matter?
For example as a case in point, a standout painting in this exhibition is the Jewess, painted in 1908, when Modigliani hit his stride as a painter and the mask like face of the woman gains power more than before. Mogdigliani’s understatement in all of those serene, placid faces is just the opposite of Gerstl. And while Mogdigliani’s use of African art couldn’t be confused with Cubism (Picasso was an immediate contemporary, so Mogdigliani didn’t predict Picasso’s work in Cubism); Mogdigliani’s art could certainly be said to predict trends in 20th century art such as the surrealism of Catalonians Salvador Dali and Joan Miro; or the Dadaism of Marcel Duchamp, all three of whom had a bizarre alienation from emotional responses that German Expressionism trafficked in.
The litotes of Mogdigliani – this bizarre absence of emotion – is like a tragic movie whereupon the audience knows more than the characters in the play; sometimes called dramatic irony. The subjects of these portraits don’t have proportional noses or lips, but the audience wants the subjects to have those features. And, by extension, the audience wants to feel emotional resonance with the people in the portraits.
One can take Mogdigliani’s masks at “face value.” His masks have kinship with the Greeks and the other ancient cultures, and in doing so he was saying his art was as good as all of those ancient cultures, and he was saying his friends and lovers were as ideal as those cultures.
When calling lies and theatrics what they are, unmasking a villain at the end of the episode of Scooby Doo, or pointing out a politician’s false promises, what that unmasking does in the audience and the viewers is re-frames the context of the drama. Calling a politician a liar shows the politician to be motivated by the coal industry, shows him to be an intentional actor. Mogdigliani was a dramatist. His sketches indeed unmask the artist as comfortable with realism. The sketches therefore prove Mogdigliani’s commitment to painting and sculpture on ideal, fictionalized forms very much intentional. The sketches show Mogdigliani didn’t have dyslexia, or a similar disorder called prosopagnosia, whereupon the affected person cannot recognize faces. (Prosopagnosia is the disorder that plagues hyper-realist portraitist Chuck Close.) Mogdigliani’s early paintings, which in this exhibit include “Portrait of Maude Abrantes,” from 1907, and “Portrait of a Woman with a Beauty Spot,” from 1908, show a gift for realism at the edge of lewd and outrageous, and could have easily come from Henri Toulouse-Lautrec a generation earlier.
When doing anything truly revolutionary, one has to establish as many strong roots as possible. If that’s impossible, one has to at least make up a good, plausible myth. Philosophers Nietzsche and Spinoza (a distant ancestor to Mogdigliani), used this historical trick often, that if critics found their ideas and their methods objectionable, the philosophers could at least point out that the critics’ objections weren’t in line with history. Separately, Nietzsche wrote, “Vanity only offends us when it offends our vanity,” and it might be said that criticism and offense are parts of vanity. Mogdigliani’s critics could say the artist was out of synchronization with the popular trends of the early 1900’s, but those critics would be ignorant of the historical allusions Mogdigliani was making.
But enough about the pedigree – why did those ancient civilizations – Greek, Buddhist, Hindu, and African – why did they make idealized sculptures that look like aliens? They might have seen the way skulls whittle down and smooth over after death, and they might have seen the way columns and materials remained. Greeks believed people’s souls became butterflies after they died, and this sort of reincarnation, also found in ancient Hinduism, is as possible as the most dry atheism. Greeks saw they could preserve buildings with stone materials and architectural angles, such as column-forms and shapes. These sculptures are idealized in the same way a sharp stone sands down and smooths over – the same way a word starts as a proper name and becomes a bland signifier over time. By painting people as Greek sculptures, the dramatic irony is the freshness of the audience. Mogdigliani traps and jars fresh souls in these paintings and compares them to the ancients. These people were so very clearly alive a century ago. Could we say anything different for the placid faces of Easter Island or Ancient Africa? At last, the bizarre serenity in Mogdigliani’s masks are the silence of death itself, which is disquieting for the living but indifferent to the universe regardless.
The Jewish Museum presents an exhibition of early drawings by Amedeo Modigliani-many of which are being shown for the first time in the United States. Acquired directly from the artist by Dr. Paul Alexandre, his close friend and first patron, these works illuminate Modigliani's heritage as an Italian Sephardic Jew as pivotal to understanding his artistic output.
Picture citations below:
Picture one (Drawing) -- Amedeo Modigliani, Seated Female Nude, possibly Anna Akhmatova, c. 1911. Black crayon on paper. 16⅞ x 10⅜ in. Paul Alexandre Family, courtesy of Richard Nathanson, London. Image provided by Richard Nathanson, photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates, London
Picture two (Drawing of Female face) -- Amedeo Modigliani, Head, c. 1911. Black crayon on paper. 16⅞ x 10⅜ in. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen. Gift of Blaise Alexandre, 2001
Picture Three (Sculpture of Female Head) -- Amedeo Modigliani, Head of a Woman, 1910-11. Limestone, 25⅝ x 7½ x 9¾ in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Chester Dale Collection
Picture Four (Caryatid) --
Amedeo Modigliani, Kneeling Caryatid, 1911-12. Black crayon on paper. 16⅞ x 10⅜ in. Paul Alexandre Family, courtesy of Richard Nathanson, London. Image provided by Richard Nathanson, photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates, London
Picture Five (Painting of Woman Realistic) -- Amedeo Modigliani, The Jewess, 1908. Oil on canvas. 21⅝ x 18⅛ in. (54.9 × 46 cm). Laure Denier Collection, Paul Alexandre Family, courtesy of Richard Nathanson, London
Picture Six Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Roger Dutilleul, 1919. Oil on canvas. 39½ x 25½ in. (100.4 x 64.7 cm). Collection of Bruce and Robbi Toll
Picture Seven (Portrait of Woman)_ -- Amedeo Modigliani, Lunia Czechowska, 1919. Oil on canvas. 31½ x 20½ in. Museu de Arte de São Paulo. Photograph by João Musa