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Look him in the face

Amedeo Modigliani is known for his stylized portraits and for his bohemian life. But new exhibitions, including one visiting L.A., dig deeper.

June 22, 2003|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Amedeo Modigliani has two claims to fame.

As an artist, he is the painter of highly stylized portraits whose melancholy subjects have long necks, round shoulders and almond-shaped eyes. As a personality, he is the dashing, Italian-born, Paris-based bohemian who died of tubercular meningitis at 35, on Jan. 24, 1920. Two days later, his pregnant mistress, Jeanne Hebuterne, threw herself out of a fifth-floor window, leaving their 14-month-old daughter an orphan.

As aficionados of Parisian cemetery lore know, Modigliani was buried at Pere Lachaise, the eternal home of France's most luminous artists, writers, thinkers and public figures. Hebuterne was laid to rest in a less prestigious setting. But in 1930, her remains were exhumed and buried with Modigliani's.

This is the stuff of which art world legends and tourist treks to Pere Lachaise are made. But it doesn't impress the scholars, curators and critics who build artists' reputations through research, writing and exhibitions. Modigliani's iconic images are adored by the public and command enormous prices -- up to $16.7 million at auction. They also occupy places of honor at major museums, but the artist tends to be given short shrift in professional circles.

Grove's 34-volume Dictionary of Art credits him with creating some of "the finest portraits in early 20th century art" but grants him less than three pages -- compared with 18 on Pablo Picasso, 11 on Henri Matisse and five on Georges Braque. A standard textbook, H.W. and Anthony F. Janson's 998-page "History of Art," doesn't even mention Modigliani.

"He is one of those artists who is out there in the public aura but is not really known," says Carol S. Eliel, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

And much of what is known is untrue, says Marc Restellini, a Modigliani authority who directs the Musee du Luxembourg in Paris. "He was an intellectual artist and an important member of the avant-garde, but after his death, his image changed. He was under a malediction, a curse."

Modigliani had a string of love affairs and -- like many fellow artists -- indulged in alcohol and drugs. But Restellini says that "disputable anecdotes" and "apocryphal sources" created a "sulfurous legend" that portrays him as a one-note artist who lived hard and died young. Popular as that image may be, Restellini adds, it has obscured his artistic achievements and deprived him of the attention he deserves.

But Modigliani is finally getting his due in a parade of projects that has surprised even his most ardent admirers. Three large traveling exhibitions, two in the United States and one in Europe, have taken up the challenge of examining his aesthetic contributions, and two films about the artist are in the works.

First came "Modigliani & the Artists of Montparnasse," a show consisting of 54 paintings, drawings and sculptures by Modigliani and an additional 22 works by his contemporaries, which will open next Sunday at LACMA. Organized for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., by curator Kenneth Wayne, the exhibition opened there in October, then moved to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, before coming to Los Angeles for its final engagement.

No sooner did that show get going than "Modigliani: The Melancholy Angel" opened in Paris. The 120-piece retrospective, billed as the largest exhibition ever of the artist's work, is the creation of Restellini. After its inaugural run at the Musee du Luxembourg, the show traveled to the Palazzo Reale in Milan, where it will continue through July 6.

As those shows are wrapping up their tours, the Jewish Museum in New York is preparing to put yet another view of Modigliani on the road: an exploration of the artist's heritage as an Italian Sephardic Jew. Organized by the museum's curator, Mason Klein, and tentatively titled "Modigliani," the 60-piece show will debut at the Jewish Museum, May 21 to Sept. 19, 2004, then travel to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, Modigliani is making his way from art museums to movie theaters. Bauer Martinez Studios in Largo, Fla., recently went into production of a film starring Andy Garcia. The author of the screenplay, Mick Davis, is directing it in the Romanian capital, Bucharest. Sergio Premoli, an Italian artist who lives in Los Angeles and has compiled a few minor film credits as an actor, also has written a script for a Modigliani film, which he says he plans to start shooting in Rome in September.

Why the sudden interest in Modigliani? No one can account for the convergence of all these projects, but scholars offer several reasons for why it has taken so long.

Some contend that the popular version of the artist's life has gotten in the way of serious study. Beyond that, Modigliani's independent nature and the fact that his figurative art is at odds with School of Paris abstraction have cast him as an eccentric character on the fringe of his era.

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