Modigliani, Giving Tradition the Brush

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2005

Imagine growing up as an artist surrounded by all the glories of the Italian Renaissance. Imagine studying Michelangelo in Florence, Raphael in Rome, Titian in Venice.

Could anything be more paralyzing? To this day, so-called contemporary galleries in Florence and Rome are mostly full of Leonardo wannabes.

You could argue that almost all the art of Amedeo Modigliani was wrapped up in trying to get out from under the influence of that glorious Italian past. And in trying to live up to it.

A touring show that opened this weekend at the Phillips Collection, "Modigliani: Beyond the Myth," gives a decent survey of the Italian artist's very brief career. His mature period lasted little more than a decade, beginning around his 25th birthday in 1909, when he'd more or less absorbed the artistic ideas in play in his new Parisian home, and ending with his death by TB and drink and drugs in 1920.

The show includes a handful of unimpressive works made while Modigliani (the G isn't pronounced) was still a student in his native Livorno.

Then comes a large plinth displaying five of the two dozen or so stone heads that Modigliani made in Paris between 1909 and 1914, after he'd come under the strong influence of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

The Phillips show has a lovely gallery full of studies on paper for a series of stone caryatids--female figures used as columns--that Modigliani ended up never completing.

And then the exhibition ends with four rooms of the painted portraits and nudes that filled Modigliani's last years--the kind of images most people think of when they hear his name.

Conservative Italian roots, a moment of French-fueled rebellion, then some kind of an attempt to bring the two together--and finally a premature death that keeps us from seeing what might have come next. That seems to be the arc of Modigliani's career.

The rebellion, on view in the sculpted heads, is impressive. Modigliani may have been heavily influenced by Brancusi, but the Italian's work sometimes moves ahead of the Romanian's. Brancusi tends to err on the side of a kind of pared-down art deco elegance. At his best Modigliani pushes toward rugged solidity. His heads can have a tough, barely roughed-in quality, borrowed from some African, Asian and prehistoric models, that you can read as a kind of negation of the Renaissance poise that was all around him growing up.

The caryatid studies have a more traditionally European flavor than the heads. Strictly speaking, the caryatid, as an architectural form, comes out of ancient Greece, where graceful female figures were sometimes used as structural elements. And the crouching, straining bodies in Modigliani's studies are based on Renaissance images of the muscled titan Atlas struggling to support the globe. But combining the two, so that a bodybuilding woman labors to hold up a crushing weight, makes for a work of modern art that barely registers as part of the tradition. Or that at very least seems to be a thorough, knowing revamp of it. Shaking up traditional ideas about what the sexes are supposed to do was one way for the Parisian avant-garde to push back against 19th-century proprieties, and Modigliani was on top of the trend. (Rethinking ideas of fidelity, promiscuity and sobriety was another standard gesture of avant-garde rebellion: Modigliani seems to have been out in front on that one.)

When Modigliani definitively made the switch to painting about 1914--prompted by ill health, market pressures and a shortage of materials--there was a very interesting moment of confusion in his art. He tried to find a voice in two dimensions that was as strong and independent as what he'd briefly found in three, and the struggle led to some promising experimentation.

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