REMINISCING IN THE PAGES of her memoirs, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova recalled how her one-time lover Amedeo Modigliani announced several months into their affair, “I forgot to tell you that I’m Jewish.”
The Italian artist would usually announce his Jewishness in public, introducing himself as “Modigliani, je suis Juif.” At a restaurant in Montmartre’s Place du Tertre on one occasion, he even yelled at a couple of anti-Semitic Royalists, “Je suis juif et je vous enmerde.”
The English sculptor Jacob Epstein, who collaborated with the artist at one time, wrote that Modigliani “was intensely proud of his Jewish origin, and would contend with absurd vehemence that Rembrandt was Jewish. He gave as his reason that Rembrandt must have been Jewish on account of his profound humanity.”
But walking around this sumptuous retrospective of Modigliani’s work at Tate Modern, London, it is hard to discern any Jewish influence in the artist’s work. Unlike his contemporary Chagall, for example, with his magical portrayals of shtetl life, Modigliani shied away from it.
“I don’t think he identified as [a Jewish artist], but he certainly identified as being Jewish – for sure,” co-curator of the exhibition Simonetta Fraquelli, a specialist in 20th century European art, tells me.
If there is one theme that binds this exhibition, it is the dynamism of Modigliani’s identity, and how this was shaped by cosmopolitan avant-guerre Paris. For curators Fraquelli and Nancy Ireson, it was important to get away from “the same old hackneyed story” of Modigliani the bohemian and drug addict, and “look at him more as a young person coming into Paris: what he would have seen, how he would have developed. The city as well: where it took him, the people he met, and how that influenced what he did.”
In the exhibition, a film projection evokes a sense of that world: views of Montmartre’s fabled streets, and artist studios like La Ruche and Le Bateau-Lavoir; Modigliani posing on the street for Jean Cocteau alongside luminaries like Pablo Picasso, Max Jacob, and André Salmon; Moulin Rouge can-can dancers; the screen siren Stacia Napierkowska performing Cambodian dance.
Remarkably, one photograph, dated July 5, 1913, shows Modigliani’s agent and friend Paul Alexandre in the process of moving house, a stack of art piled up outside his house, two of Modigliani’s paintings in the foreground, lying on the street.
This is Modigliani’s Paris as it was lived, breathed, and consumed. It was a far cry from the painter’s native Livorno, a Tuscan port city which had served as a haven to Jews for centuries. The 22-year-old arrived in the French capital the same year, 1906, that the Dreyfus Affair ended. Yet it was a time when, if anything, anti-Semitism was on the rise.
Modigliani himself was descended from generations of Talmudic scholars on his mother’s side, and legend had it the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza was an ancestor. In France the numbers of Jewish immigrants fleeing Eastern Europe grew by more than 25,000 from 1881 until the beginning of the First World War.
Artists Chaïm Soutine, Moïse Kisling, Jules Pascin, Ossip Zadkine, Jacques Lipchitz, Léon Indenbaum, Chana Orloff, and others all settled at one time or other in Paris. Modigliani was friends with them all, although only Lindenbaum’s portrait is in this exhibition.
It was Modigliani who introduced the Russian Soutine to his art dealer, Léopold Zborowski, also Jewish, who supported the Expressionist painter financially during the First World War.
“He was very protective of Soutine”, says Fraquelli, who has traced the artists’ relationship. “It may have been Judaism that brought them together. There were a lot of Jewish artists in Paris, so the likelihood is there would have been a certain affinity.”
For Fraquelli, Modigliani’s declarations of being Jewish were therefore “very much in that context, where he was very proud of being Jewish, and therefore proud of saying it in a climate of anti-Semitism”.
“in Paris, Modigliani was a Jew with a difference: he was Italian.”
At the same time the Jewish connection should not be exaggerated. Unlike Eastern European Jews, Modigliani arrived in France speaking fluent French and already assimilated into local culture. As Emily Braun writes in The Faces of Modigliani: Identity Politics under Fascism: “Modigliani’s harmonious, Latin good looks were at furthest remove from the anti-Semitic racial type – epitomised by the hooked Jewish nose.” In other words, “in Paris, Modigliani was a Jew with a difference: he was Italian.”
According to Fraquelli, we might instead see Modigliani as “a culturally international person” rather than someone strictly Jewish or Italian. Giorgio de Chirico, the Italian Surrealist, even claimed Modigliani and himself as French: “There is no modern Italian painting. There is Modigliani and me, but we are really French.”
Fraquelli again: “He was culturally multi-faceted in that sense, and I think in Paris his identity shifts again, because he becomes part of this Parisian art world scene, and does kind of develop within that, as does Picasso and do a lot of other artists”, she continues, naming the Romanian Constantin Brâncuși, and Russian Marc Chagall.
At the time, treasures from Africa and Asia in places like the Musée Guimet, Musée de L’Homme and Trocadéro fascinated Modigliani and his foreign contemporaries. Ahkmatova, for example, writes that Modigliani “seemed totally overawed by the majesty of Egyptian art”.
He visited the Louvre’s Egyptian section several times with his lover, assuring her “that everything, ‘tout le reste’, didn’t deserve any attention”. One of his dozen drawings of the St Petersburg beauty is displayed here: a few light pencil strokes transforming the great poet into a hieroglyphic queen, complete with Egyptian headdress, reclining in a barely-there slip, her breasts outlined ever so delicately.
The same room contains paintings and drawings, from a selection of more than 70 by the artist, of sensuous caryatids, the female figures the Ancient Greeks used in place of columns. With their almond eyes, elongated foreheads and noses, however, Modigliani’s caryatids, look more like the West African masks or Cambodian gravings the artist would have seen in Paris’ museums.
That influence is also apparent in some of Modigliani’s lesser-known works, an exquisite selection of the carved stone heads with heavy lidded eyes and exaggerated features he made in a frenzy of sculpture between 1909 and 1915.
According to Epstein, who conceived with Modigliani of building a “Temple of Humanity” surrounded by caryatids, the artist would place candles on top of the sculpted heads, the effect “that of a primitive temple. A legend of the quarter said that Modigliani, when under the influence of hashish, embraced these sculptures”. Any shrine built with Epstein, then, would presumably not have been of the kosher kind.
Those impenetrable almond eyes and elongated features follow us in the next rooms of the exhibition, with brazen confidence in Modigliani’s nudes, or gentle beauty in the portraits of lover Jeanne Hébuterne. Irrespective of social origin or nationality, whether painting L’Algérienne, the Pole Zborowski, or simply Marie, fille du peuple, Modigliani strips away all labels, deferring his subjects to his artistic vision alone.
“He was defiant in establishing an identity for himself. He did it in his painting, in the sense he didn’t follow anybody else, he didn’t join any other group”, affirms Fraquelli.
Indeed, his love of non-Western art might even be explained as “an affinity with it, another way of developing an identity”, considers Fraquelli. Arguably then, is this very sense of Modigliani as an outsider, a French-speaking Sephardi Italian in Paris, rather than his Jewishness alone, that may shed light onto his work.
Main photo: Nude, 1917, Private Collection
Artist in his studio, 1915: Paul Guillaume, Grand Palais
Marie, 1919: Kunstmuseum, Basel
Jeanne Hebuterne, 1919: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York