The Curse of Second-best
The exhibition Modigliani and the Artists of Montparnasse, now on view at the Kimbell Art Museum, aims big. Consisting of only 38 paintings, 14 works on paper and a handful of stone heads by Modigliani, this little exhibition nevertheless tackles not one, but two large subjects.
First, it attempts to chronicle Modigliani's role among the Montparnasse, that square mile of Parisian cafes and apartments that looms so large in myths of Modernism. It is a small space but a huge topic, a black hole capable of single-handedly sopping up a surfeit of art-history Ph.D.s.
If the exhibition had but stopped there, it might have had some chance for success. Instead, the organizers feel compelled to take on a fool's errand, arguing (albeit half-heartedly) for the importance of Amedeo Modigliani as a "grand peintre," as an art-historical big deal, rather than a romantic myth. And too bad. For by attempting to place him in context, to present him as a "major figure in his own time," this exhibition inadvertently proves the conventional wisdom: Modigliani was far more interesting as personality than painter.
The show starts off cleverly, if somewhat disingenuously, weaving the facts of Modigliani's short but sensational life into a narrative of place. Born into a prosperous, prominent Jewish family in Livorno, Italy, our hero decamped for Paris by 1906. In late 1908 or early 1909 he moved from the Montmartre section of the city to the more bohemian Montparnasse, where he lived and worked until 1920, when he died of meningitis at the age of 35.
He was part of a generation that died too young but managed to pack a lot of living into the time they had. A stunningly handsome man, Modigliani's Promethean feats of drinking, drugging, socializing and womanizing were the stuff of legend. The tale includes tempestuous love affairs, suicides and illegitimate offspring, even a pregnant lover leaping out a window. The glamorous tale was only enhanced by the fact that his dealers, Paul Guillaume and Leopold Zborowski, both died young. He may have been an art-historical footnote, a subcategory among subcategories, but he lived an interesting life. He was a lot like Frida Kahlo, but without Madonna to resurrect his legend (not to mention his prices).
Not that Modigliani wanted for important backers. And none was more so than Dr. Paul Alexandre, who contributed much to the myth, even writing a book about the artist. It is here, with Alexandre, wandering through the Musée Ethnographique du Trocadero, that the exhibition begins its tale, presenting Paris generally, and Montparnasse in particular, as a sort of artistic hothouse. Whereas an earlier generation of painters had to leave Paris, migrating to Arles and Brittany and even Tahiti in search of inspiration, by the tender years of the 20th century, the primitive had come home. As the art historian Jean-Louis Paudrat noted in his essay for MoMA's 1984 "primitivism" show, "early in this century...Paris more than any other city became the point of convergence for the propagation of ideas and activities that bestowed on African Art an essential role in [modern Western Art]..." The spoils of French colonialism were readily available in the Musée Trocadero and later in the homes of men like Paul Guillaume, rubber-salesman-turned-art-dealer.
The show rubs elbows awhile with the artsy crowd, including the work of Modigliani's contemporaries: a Delaunay here, a Léger there, yon a Lipchitz and a Matisse. By and large, however, these additions have the feeling of a desperate attempt to flesh out slim pickins. Modigliani didn't put out a whole lot of work in his short life, and as the catalog notes, "biographical issues and questions of authenticity" dominate the literature. Viewed all together, one is struck by how little Modigliani's oeuvre grew, how little his mature style changed, once he jettisoned the early cocoon of a symbolist painter. As many have noted, he turned his sitters into "Modiglianis," updated versions of African or Asian masks, with vacant eyes and caryatid bodies. An interesting shtick, but one that wears. No wonder he spent so much energy carousing. He must have been bored.
Despite feints in that direction, the exhibition fails to establish--or even to seriously advocate--upgrading Modigliani into a major artist. The curators talk big, but in the end, they limit the enterprise to tracing history, to the nuts and bolts of scholarship. You know: following people and paintings through catalogs, official records, written sources. In many ways, this sort of scholarship becomes a prisoner of the era it studies, treating every question as a reprise of that favorite pastime of the closing of the Age of Exploration: the great races to "discover" virgin territory. Thus the curators search archives to see which artist was first inspired by a particular mask from Gabon, with a fervor recalling Admiral Byrd's race to the North Pole.
Partly for this reason, the exhibition has the decayed, yellowing feel of newsreel footage. We are presented with the Modigliani of conventional wisdom: a personality whose art-historical import is largely limited. To be sure, they advance a few skimpy arguments to the contrary--noting, for example, that there hasn't been a proper Modigliani show in 40-plus years. Yes, but he's always there as a mention, an aside in everyone else's show, from MoMA's 1984 Primitivism in 20th Century Art extravaganza to the Kimbell's own show of Paul Guillaume's collection a year and a half back.
At another place, the show's organizers try to make a case for Modigliani's importance by pointing out that van Gogh died young, too, at 36. The comparison is instructive--though it doesn't augur well for Modigliani. In the end, he remains as curator Kenneth Wayne describes him, quoting from a French magazine after Modigliani's death: "He will always be the handsome, tempestuous painter, a passionate and unconventional man..." In Montparnasse, that may be high praise, but in Fort Worth 80 years later, it rings hollow.
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