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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

"Scholars of high Modernism have tended to pooh-pooh Modigliani a bit because he isn't so evidently cutting-edge for that moment," says Eliel, who has coordinated LACMA's presentation of "Modigliani & the Artists of Montparnasse."

But "he wasn't a crazy loner," says Wayne of the Albright-Knox Museum, who has studied Modigliani for 15 years. "He was part of a community. He has been considered like Van Gogh, sad and unrecognized, but that's not true. While I was working on my catalog, I found that his work was in 18 exhibitions during his lifetime -- in London, Zurich and New York as well as in Paris -- and I have discovered others since it was published."

He was often sickly

Born in Livorno, Italy, on July 12, 1884, the youngest of four children, Modigliani didn't go to school until he was 10, but not for lack of means. Coddled by his mother, Eugenie Garsin Modigliani, and educated in art, literature and philosophy by his erudite grandfather, Isaac Garsin, the boy grew up in an environment that nurtured his artistic proclivities.

His first formal training in art -- drawing lessons begun when he was 14 -- came to a halt when he contracted typhoid fever and developed pulmonary problems. Upon his recovery, he gave up other studies to devote himself to art. But he fell ill again in 1900, suffering the first of the tubercular attacks that eventually took his life. During his convalescence, his mother took him to southern Italy and on a tour of Italian museums. When his health improved, he studied art in Florence and Venice, then took off for Paris, the Mecca of the avant-garde.

Upon his arrival, in 1906, he enrolled at the Academie Colarossi and rented a studio in Montmartre. Except for a year in Nice during World War I, Modigliani lived in Paris for the rest of his life. Supported by his family, dealers Paul Guillaume and Leopold Zborowski, and Paul Alexandre, a young doctor who collected his work, he eked out a living but often existed on the edge of poverty. He also moved frequently, but he became a prominent figure in the expatriate artistic community of Montparnasse.

The Left Bank neighborhood was a special place for foreign artists in the first decades of the 20th century, says Wayne, whose exhibition places Modigliani in a cosmopolitan creative enclave. Among the international mix of artists who gathered there were Picasso of Spain, Giorgio de Chirico of Italy, Elie Nadelman of Poland, Jules Pascin of Bulgaria, Diego Rivera of Mexico, Joseph Csaky of Hungary, Piet Mondrian of the Netherlands, Constantin Brancusi of Romania, Jacques Lipchitz of the United States and Chaim Soutine of Russia. Works by many of them are included in the LACMA show.

Many of them also became subjects of Modigliani's portraits. Picasso appears in one painting and two drawings. Essays in the exhibition catalogs point out correspondences between Modigliani's and Picasso's work that have been overlooked.

"They have been perceived as oil and water," Wayne says, "but they had a lot to do with each other and exhibited together."

Among Modigliani's contributions was his early interest in Egyptian and African art, which influenced Picasso, Restellini says. "He was an intellectual. He looked. He studied. Then he made a synthesis of Eastern, Western and African art."

During his first years in Paris, Modigliani's goal was to be a sculptor, and his acquaintance with Brancusi probably offered encouragement. But Modigliani abandoned stone carving in 1914 and turned to painting, apparently at the behest of dealer Guillaume, who may have thought there would be a better market for his paintings.

Scandalous paintings of nudes

An exhibition of Modigliani's first series of nudes, in 1917, was a scandalous affair, with Parisian police threatening to confiscate the paintings on the grounds of indecency. That show has become a part of what Restellini calls the Modigliani legend. But the artist ultimately became much better known for his portrayals of artists, lovers, friends and dealers.

These likenesses border on caricature, but he was most interested in conveying the spirit of each individual, Restellini says.

"There's a famous story about his portrait of the Surrealist painter Leopold Survage, whom he painted with one eye open and one eye closed," the curator says. "When Survage asked him why, he said, 'Because with one eye you see the world outside, and with the other you see inside yourself.' When Modigliani painted children, they usually have open eyes because they are watching the world. But when he painted artists, poets and other people he considered exceptional, they have one eye open and one eye closed."

And Modigliani wasn't afraid of expressing his opinion. A gray-green portrait of Russian Cubist sculptor Leon Indenbaum is "very cold" and includes his name with one of the letters upside down because "he didn't like Indenbaum or the art he represented," Restellini says.

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