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Modigliani lesser than his equals

June 30, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

In the most riveting portrait in "Modigliani and the Artists of Montparnasse," the traveling exhibition that opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a lowly working-class servant at a fancy Parisian establishment is presented as a brilliant swirl of furious brushwork. His crimson uniform bleeds across the canvas like a ferocious gash. The outstretched palm of his hand is a gesture of benign openness, while also soliciting cash. His crumpled face -- studded with hollow black eyes, heavy brows and big, lopsided ears -- shows a pitiful figure of twisted regret. Indignity, struggle and profound humanity jostle one another.

At once cruel yet tender, the portrait is rendered with tactile bravura -- Rembrandt gone rancid. It's hard to take your eyes off it. Indeed, about the only disadvantage to this powerhouse performance is that Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), putative subject of the LACMA exhibition, did not paint it. Chaim Soutine did.

Soutine was Modigliani's pal -- a fellow indigent carouser and foreign-born artist relocated to France, trying to make his way in the budding world of avant-garde art early in the 20th century. Soutine's "Pageboy at Maxim's" is one among 19 examples by other painters and sculptors in the show, included to illuminate the context within which the Italian expatriate developed.

Picasso, Brancusi, De Chirico, Leger, Rousseau -- one peculiarity of the show is that, in case after case, the artists providing context are so far superior to Modigliani that his own tepid work seems even further diminished. A pleasant mediocrity who occasionally touched a resonant sentimental chord, he is not well served when surrounded by his artistic betters.

Modigliani was born into a prosperous family in the bustling port city of Livorno, Italy (near Pisa), where he studied art in a variety of local schools. Michelangelo was his hero, becoming a sculptor his ambition.

When he moved to Paris at age 22, he settled in the 19th century artists' neighborhood of Montmartre, at the far reaches of the city's Right Bank. He remained in Paris, except for travels, for the remainder of his life. He carved stone sculptures for the relatively brief period when he could afford the more expensive materials and find the necessary studio space; mostly, he painted.

Around 1909, he began to spend increasing amounts of time across town, in the Left Bank neighborhood of Montparnasse. This is the crux of the story told in the exhibition, and it contains a variety of fascinating if underdeveloped ideas. Montparnasse was replacing Montmartre as a meeting ground for progressive artists. It became the crucible in which a modern "school of Paris" aesthetic would be forged -- one characterized by cosmopolitan verve and sheer indifference toward French history, literature, art and, not least of all, bourgeois xenophobia.

As the exhibition points out, the neighborhood's international array of artists was part of a larger influx of immigrants to France in the years leading up to World War I. In addition to the Italians Modigliani and Giorgio de Chirico, there were the Spaniards Picasso and Juan Gris; Elie Nadelman from Poland; the Bulgarian Jules Pascin; Mexico's Diego Rivera; Joseph Csaky from Hungary; Piet Mondrian from the Netherlands; and the Romanian Constantin Brancusi.

There were also numerous Americans, including Jacob Epstein, Morgan Russell and, from Los Angeles, Stanton Macdonald-Wright (whose name, alas, is misspelled in the show's catalog). And from a variety of regions in Russia came perhaps the largest contingent, including Alexander Archipenko, Sonia Delaunay, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz and Soutine.

Dealers, collectors and critics in Montparnasse also represented an international array. They ranged from the Polish critic Waldemar George to the German dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler. Pivotal were the American collectors Gertrude, Leo, Michael and Sarah Stein. The new cosmopolitanism of Montparnasse would become the model that, for the rest of the 20th century, would characterize the emergence of a city's mature artistic milieu -- starting with New York in the 1940s and '50s and then Los Angeles and London in the 1980s and '90s.

At LACMA, one almost wishes for a big exhibition devoted to that vastly intriguing larger subject, rather than to the narrower one of Modigliani's place within it. There hasn't been a full Modigliani survey in 40 years, and this one doesn't really qualify. Of its 34 paintings, 26 were made between 1916 and 1918. Modigliani's career was brief -- he died of tubercular meningitis at the tender age of 35, just 14 years after settling in Paris -- but not quite that brief.

Still, it is possible here to secure a sense of his minimal development -- perhaps because it was so modest and repetitive. Think of Modigliani's style as Mannerist Cubism.

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