Modigliani: Beyond the Myth, May 21-Sept. 19, 2004, at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128
Amedeo Modigliani is usually regarded as a minor modernist, more or less interesting but beside the avant-garde point. Indeed, even though he developed in a Cubist milieu, he never became a Cubist. He flattened his figures, but he never fragmented them. They remained intact, and even convincingly rounded, as the caryatids show: Modiglianis figures are not the sum of destructions that Picasso said his were. Modigliani never violates them, and never suggests that they have violent tendencies. He gave his figures the long African mask nose of those in Picassos Les demoiselles dAvignon -- he saw the painting in Picassos studio in the Bateau-Lavoir in 1907, the year it was made, and was amazed by it -- but his figures are composed, even serene, if sometimes melancholy, compared to Picassos.
Modiglianis Bust of a Young Woman, painted in 1911, the heyday of Picassos Analytic Cubist portraits, has nothing in common with them. Where Picasso dissects the figure, with almost nihilistic abandon, Modiglianis paint gently massages it, bringing it to emotional life. He once portrayed Picasso, a close friend for a while -- Picasso could never remain close to anyone, once he got what he needed from them; indeed, he seemed incapable of intimacy and reciprocity, the key issues of Modiglianis portraits and nudes -- but he never accepted Picassos aggressive idea of art.
Picasso once said he wanted to annihilate the figure, but stopped himself from doing so. The result, as he said, was a caricature of it, nominally and (ironically) recognizable as a particular person but otherwise a formal construction. The more the figure became one, the more it lost human presence, finally becoming a kind of absence or ghost in the formal machine of the picture.
In contrast, for Modigliani form was a way of expressing what is innate in human nature rather than an intellectual end in itself. As he wrote in a 1907 sketchbook, 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.
For Modigliani, art was not autobiography, as Picasso famously said his was, but an instrument -- even form -- of salvation. In 1913 Modigliani wrote: Just as the snake slithers out of its skin So you will deliver yourself from sin Equilibrium by means of opposite extremes. In a sense, Modiglianis portraits attempt to deliver his sitters from sin by balancing the opposing instinctive forces in them. This is the esthetic achievement of art -- in contrast to life, where the opposites are rarely if ever in equilibrium.
Esthetically balancing the emotional opposites that remain at odds in life, the portraits save the sitter from his or her unbalanced life. There is always a tensing hint of the unbalanced or unresolved in Modiglianis portraits -- the precariousness of the heads on the pedestals of his often elongated necks suggests as much -- but the over-all effect is one of relaxed harmony. For Modigliani esthetic equilibrium was as close to eternity as it was possible to come on earth. Certainly it afforded the only stability he had in his own unstable life.
If representation is an acknowledgement of sinful appearance -- it seems especially evident in his odalisques of 1916-17 -- then Modiglianis formalizing tendency, perhaps most obvious in the limestone heads of women of 1911-13, shows his determination to save the sexual sinner from herself: he has transcendentalized her appearance, as though to suggest that she is an otherworldly being or in an otherworldly state of mind. The difference between the sensual reclining nudes and the spiritualized heads -- between the earthbound horizontality of the former and the aspirational verticality of the latter -- signifies Modiglianis own contradictory attitude to woman. It is the familiar difference between impulsive profane and contemplative sacred love: woman is either all exhibitionistic animal body or all soul and interiority -- either inviting femme fatale courtesan, representing the doom of submitting to ones instincts, or a goddess with the saving gracefulness of a serious mind.
The heads suggest that Modigliani used abstraction to defend against his desire for woman -- futilely, as his apparently constant womanizing suggests. Succumbing to temptation in endless pursuit of love, he felt he had sinned, that is, betrayed himself -- perhaps because he received sex rather than love, at least until the end of his life, when he met Jeanne Hébuterne, who committed suicide when he died, and who is buried beside him. The voluptuous nudes stare at the spectator seductively, promising -- indeed, embodying -- guiltless pleasure, in contrast to the (usually) closed eyes of the sculpted heads, suggesting that they are meditating on higher things than their bodies. Indeed, they have none, as though they have risen above and discarded them, unlike the full-bodied odalisques, who are (justifiably) proud of their flesh, displayed in the full bloom of youth. The odalisques and the heads epitomize the core conflict of Modiglianis art and life.
His cartyatids have the bodies of his painted nudes and the heads of his limestone sculptures, suggesting that he was able, however briefly, to reconcile the opposites -- that is, the sensual and the spiritual.
But both heads and nudes are similar in that they are conspicuously human, however much they may be formally solemnized. This is especially true of the portraits: the humanness of the figures is on display. The abstract form Modigliani tends to give them is a kind of monstrance, magically essentializing them. Their humanness is transfigured by an act of esthetic devotion. The portraits of the art dealer Paul Guillaume and the painter Moise Kisling (both 1915) seem more bizarrely alive than Beatrice Hastings in Front of a Door (1915) and Victoria in Portrait of a Girl (ca. 1917), two of Modiglianis girlfriends, but they are all profoundly and vulnerably human.
Modigliani was indeed a peintre maudit (like his friends Kisling and Chaim Soutine), but the people he portrayed are also subtly cursed by suffering, whatever their social prominence. It is Modiglianis ability to bring out the all too human in the pompously human -- for example, in the Paul Guillaume of the 1915 Novo Pilota portrait -- that makes his figures emotionally seductive, empathically attaching us to them the way Modigliani seems to have been. For Modigliani, paint is the empathic matrix in which the suffering figure exists, even as its schematic form gives it a spiritual aura that seems to reconcile it to its suffering, or at least works like a charm against the curse of suffering that contaminates life. Stoically self-contained, Modiglianis figures seem to have mastered tragedy, however tragic they look.
I am arguing that Modigliani rehumanized what Picasso dehumanized, as Jos Ortega y Gasset famously argued. Or rather Modigliani refused to dehumanize the figure in the name of form, that is, to achieve a formal rigor that seems superior to the informal figure and more artistically authentic by reason of its supposed autonomy. For Modigliani form was a way of bringing out and accenting inner human qualities, rather than some intriguing pure thing in itself. Austerity of form was a betrayal of the feeling of being human -- and the feelings human beings had -- for Modigliani.
The dictatorial idea of absolute art was inimical to his libertine instincts and spiritual ambition. It was a betrayal of the imaginative potential of art, falsifying it by implying that it had no transformational effect on human beings and nothing to do with the human condition.
Ortega observed that there was a ban on pathos in Cubism, but Modigliani lifted the ban, or rather refused to accept it just as he refused to accept the dehumanization of human form. He has been said to be a failure as a modernist because he was attracted to the Old Masters -- Clement Greenberg said the same thing of Soutine -- but the Old Masters represent pathos and humanness, and pathos -- the pathos of being human -- was what Modigliani and Soutine were after. Greenberg thought Soutine failed because he had excess feeling, but I think that both he and Modigliani achieved a new equilibration of feeling without denying the extremes of its intensity.
This fusion of traditional humanism and modernist formalism is their innovation, one perhaps more important than purely formalist innovation, for it showed that pure forms have human relevance. Indeed, in their different ways Modigliani and Soutine successfully adapted modernist means to the expression of archetypal feelings, explicitly showing, as the Old Masters never did, that feelings are rooted in instinct even as they make one conscious of oneself -- a service to consciousness and selfhood that is spiritual in import.
(I think Greenberg was disturbed by the disruptive sense of the tragic in Soutine, preferring instead, as he said, decorative unity. It is also well-known that Greenberg eschewed spirituality in favor of materiality -- he thought the former was an incidental and irrelevant byproduct of the latter [the supposedly strictly material facts of art] -- which I want to suggest is part of what he himself called his Jewish self-hatred. The paradox of the Jews is that they are a pure spiritual people -- the people who discovered the oneness or unity of God or the sacred -- who have been forced to become materialists to survive in a world that however much it yeasays spirituality refuses to accept the control of instinct that is a sign and proof of being truly human, that is, a spiritual being. Spiritual consciousness in fact brings with it a sense of the oneness or unity of self that the instinctive never affords. Pagan religions, which are purely instinctive, randomly -- promiscuously -- find the sacred in an endless variety of objects [animal, vegetable, and mineral], suggesting that they lack a concept of unitary selfhood and the concentration of purpose that comes with it. These are exactly what one finds in Modiglianis figures: they are always one with themselves and resonate with a sense of existential purpose.)
Modigliani had too much respect for the feelings of human beings to turn them into grotesque, hostile monsters, as Picasso did. It is also the reason Modiglianis figures are never menacing and confrontational, but seem to recede into the private space of their inner selves -- this is true I think even of the odalisques -- where they become aware of and at one with their complex feelings. In contrast, Picassos demoiselles have only one mindless feeling -- rage. I think they enact the rage hidden in the melancholy figures of Picassos Blue and Pink period paintings. This rage finally consumes the Analytic Cubist figures, confirming their inherent negativity. Thus the outrageousness of Picassos death-informed figures has as much to do with their symbolization of life-negating rage as with their outrageous forms.
Compared to the sensitively rendered vitality of Modiglianis figures -- even his schematization of their faces makes them seem more exquisitely alive than their natural features would -- Picassos demoiselles are puppets in a Grand Guignol theater. Their bodies are flattened like stage props and they wear African masks as though to frighten us. In contrast, the mask-like faces of Modiglianis figures gives them a meditative cast, and their bodies never lose their organic verisimilitude however stylized. Modigliani cherishes the human figure, while Picasso seems contemptuous of it, brutally distorting it to fit into a formal Procrustean bed, as though to deny its inherent appeal and our natural curiosity and spontaneous empathy for it, even our unconscious identification with it. Thus, compared to the black humor and harsh form of Picassos Cubist figure, Modiglianis figure looks traditional and sentimental, even when it has a certain dynamic, like the caryatids. But then their arabesque bodies look tame -- facilely harmonious and suave -- next to Picassos wild demoiselles.
Nonetheless, Modiglianis humaneness gave him access to his sitters feelings, no doubt partly by way of projective identification, but also by way of a larger awareness of the human condition. He did not simply aggrandize figures as tropes for some one-dimensional feeling, as Picasso did. Modigliani saw through people to the pathos within them, transforming their appearance just enough to convey it, without destroying their dignity, as Picasso did. Where did Modiglianis sensitivity to others -- his respectful response to human beings, whether at their most sensually exciting, as in the odalisques, or at their saddest, as in The Jewess (1908) -- come from? His Jewishness. Modigliani was a Sephardic Jew with mystical inclinations, as has been argued, but I want to emphasize the moral rather than mystical side of Modiglianis Jewishness. The mystical is secondary to the moral in his art, however evident it may be in his limestone heads. Just as Chagalls Jewishness led him to maintain a sense of moral commitment while working in a modernist manner -- he even integrated them, as Meyer Schapiro argued in his essay on Chagalls Illustrations for the Bible, a rare feat because of modernisms tendency to idealize form at the expense of the human and communal -- so Modiglianis Jewishness gave him an enduring respect for human experience that gave him the esthetic strength to resist its subsumption, not to say complete submergence, in the experience of form, which is exactly what occurred in Cubism.
I submit that for Modigliani and Soutine the Old Masters were wise Old Jews, knowledgeable about the world without sacrificing their spirituality to it. Indeed, the Old Masters, who often dealt with Biblical themes, symbolize the antiquity of Judaism, which originates further back in time -- almost at the beginning of time if one is to believe the Old Testament -- than Greek antiquity, and thus is more fundamentally human. The Jewish sense of the human is ancient compared to modernist formalism (which is inherently short-lived by reason of its limited goals): why should the latter take precedence over the former, rather than vice versa? Thus Modiglianis and Soutines love of the Old Masters suggests their nostalgic Jewishness, indeed, their refusal to deny their Jewishness in modern society -- in anti-Semitic Paris, barely recovered from the Dreyfus affair (1906). For Modigliani and Soutine there was clearly more to lose by abandoning their Jewish roots than to gain by becoming modernists.
It is noteworthy that Chagall, Modigliani and Soutine -- all the peintres maudits -- have been called sentimentalists, but if so they are not as cursed as they have been said to be. Sentimentality may seem like softness and naivet, but then the hardness and coldness of formalism suggests failed humanity. And prudery: what is more puritan than Malevichs anhedonic square? It is absence disguised as presence -- a hollow godhead misrepresented as a cosmic essence. It has become an academic symbol of modernism, suggesting that it was never sacrosanct to begin with. But what is sentimentality? It signals the need for love -- and both Chagall and Modigliani are among the few modern masters who admit to the need and attempt to represent love (not simply sexuality, as Picasso does), and who even manage to convey a loving attitude to the human subject (as Picasso rarely does) -- however stymied the need, ironically by the needy sentimentalist himself.
The psychoanalyst Edgar Levenson defines sentimentality as an investment in emotion as an experience, rather than a transaction. The sentimentalist wishes to feel loving, to experience himself as a loving person, rather than to love someone. It is love in the intransitive state.* The sentimentalist is a narcissist, as Levenson says, more interested in the sensation of loving than in actually loving someone in particular. Don Juan is a sentimentalist, unable to sustain a relationship with the women he has sex with, let alone to love them and care for them (like Picasso). If this is true, Chagall was never a sentimentalist, as his marriage to Bella indicates, but a true lover.
In contrast, Modigliani was a desperate Don Juan, reluctant to become involved in the complex interpersonal transaction that love is, although shortly before his death he was finally able to love a woman in all her particularity and be loved in return. Until then, he seemed to confuse sex and love, but I would contend, on the evidence of the intimacy that emanates from his portraits, he had great capacity for the reciprocity of love. But he clearly loved better in his art than he did in his life, if the issue of love is to unite tenderness and lust (and maybe tilt more toward the former than the latter) as Freud thought.
One may recall that the first commandment requires one to love God -- love is the important human word here. It is a moral injunction: loving God one comes to love the human beings who are Gods creation. To love human beings means that one does not destroy them, even in the name of art, as Picasso does. It may seem absurd to say so, but in a sense from a Jewish point of view his formal analysis of the figure is a crime against humanity. It cannot help reminding a Jew -- Modigliani -- however unconsciously of the persecution of the Jews and their dehumanization and distortion into grotesque devils. It may be artistically progressive and revelatory, but it is also humanly regressive and malevolent. I submit that Modiglianis art is a loving Jewish art -- certainly in contrast to Picassos Cubism, which is a loveless and at times a hate-filled art -- which is why it has been regarded as a minor art, for those who love and who are Jewish (even if they fail at love and are not the most religious Jews) are in the minority in the world.
* Edgar Levinson, The Ambiguity of Change: An Inquiry into the Nature of Psychoanalytic Reality (New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. 44
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.