Art: Wednesday February 13, 2003
Chiseled Features

The Kimbell reveals Parisian boho Amedeo Modigliani as a gloriously failed sculptor.


Amedeo Modigliani was a crazy-ass young gun reared in Italy but nurtured in turn-of-the-century Montparnasse, a Parisian ’hood where all kinds of artists hung out, smoked hashish, talked philosophy, starved, read in public, and slept with one another. A real bohemia. Mentors abounded, and Modigliani, a frustrated sculptor, had found one in his neighbor, the great modernist Constantin Brancusi. Modigliani’s two-dimensional works bear sculpture’s influence heavily. Like most modern painters, desperate to get at the essences of things instead of merely replicating their surface idiosyncrasies, Modigliani used the disciplines and styles at his command to capture his subjects. Many of the Modigliani pieces work on two levels: They can be appreciated as self-contained works of art or as the beginnings of sculptures, graphic designs, or even buildings. You know the old saying “It takes a village ...”? Well, Modigliani is the prodigal-son product of an entire “village” of artists and artistic influences.

Of course, Modigliani was no joiner — he worked on the fringes of this fringe culture, swooping in occasionally from his outside perch to pick up on what was happening at the moment, be it Fauvism or Cubism or Primitivism, and then beating a retreat back to his studio to incorporate those trends into his work. What made Modigliani a part of the boho avant-garde in Montparnasse wasn’t his artistic output per se — his work didn’t fit neatly into any of the modern movements, though he can certainly be lumped in with artists of the so-called “Paris School.” Like Modigliani and Brancusi, artists such as Chaim Soutine, Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau, and Pablo Picasso rejected the formalism of the academy while striving to create a type of art that reflected the fast-moving, high-powered modern age; Modernism was their vehicle.

No, fellow traveler Modigliani is now forever linked with the Montparnasse art community because of his personal relationships within that sphere, especially with Brancusi, Soutine, and the women of Montparnasse. Impossibly handsome, promiscuous, addicted to alcohol and drugs, stricken with lung disease, a stranger to success, dead by 35, Modigliani now easily slides into the role we’ve imagined for him as tragic-romantic Parisian. Later generations have always loved and collected his work, if only because of his cult appeal, but it’s been 40-plus years since his last stateside retrospective. Enter: The Kimbell Art Museum.

With the Kimbell’s latest exhibition, Modigliani and the Artists of Montparnasse, the museum has done a crack job of gathering some of Modigliani’s and his neighbors’ most emblematic works (with help from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo) and displaying them in a smart, accessible way. The entrance to the show is stocked with background info on Montparnasse — large photographs of the town’s players are accompanied by thorough wall texts, full of famous names and historical tidbits. The exhibit proper begins with Modigliani portraits of some of Montparnasse’s denizens whose works, paintings or sculptures, rest nearby. The show ends, appropriately, with the artist’s portraits of working-class folk (models were, at this point, way out of the poor bohemian’s price range). The tragedy is that Modigliani was at the height of his talent when he fell fatally ill in 1920.

The big idea coming out of Modigliani is that the artist was in love with sculpture. Taken together, the works on exhibit create for the viewer a micro-universe in which perspective reigns supreme. The melting pot that was Montparnasse surely deserves credit. Taking in and giving off otherwise foreign ideas and accents and looks — and perspectives — loosened Montparnasse’s artist habitants of their preconceived and pre-modern notions of place. The sensation that no two sides of a given object or image could be said to be similar inflects each Modigliani with a new world view of almost global proportions. Cubism came close to appropriating place as a visual conceit, but Modigliani’s modern portraits, like the best Brancusi or Picasso sculptures, in keeping with this embryonic globalism then taking hold, artfully considered every side of every story.

The sad part is that sculpture wasn’t so crazy about Amedeo. The type of sculpting he enjoyed most was stonecutting, which was both expensive and, in producing fine limestone dust during shaping, detrimental to someone with a chronic lung condition. The artist, who reportedly told fellow artist Ortiz de Zárate that he “painted only for lack of something better,” completed only a couple dozen sculptures (not including the ones he cast into an Italian river after hearing criticism of them from some artist friends). What we’re left with instead are numerous preparatory sketches, like the few marvelous caryatid drawings now hanging in the Kimbell. During Modigliani’s stay in Paris, all of Europe was energized by primitive and classical art. The faces in Modigliani’s portraits bespeak African mask-making while his sculptures say Egyptian and Oceanic art. His desire to design caryatids, which are female figures serving as columns, likely stems from his having been exposed to much primitive and classical art during his Montparnasse years and his youth in Italy. The caryatid drawings on view can be seen as either sketches or fully realized works of art, their tonalities and poetics are so precise. The chubby red women twisting beneath imagined weights come straight out of Michelangelo’s book on serpentinata forms and the Khmer people’s book on temples.

Considering all we know of art and artists, we’ll probably never be able to separate Modigliani the myth from his work. But that’s OK — contextualizing a great artist rarely detracts from his genius. Yes, Amedeo Modigliani was a frustrated sculptor, yet the independent-minded artist probably would have appreciated our forgetting that fact and viewing him and his work without pity or scorn. The Kimbell is the place to do this right now.

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