- The Washington Times - Friday, April 15, 2005

“Modigliani: Beyond the Myth,” the traveling show that packed visitors into New York’s Jewish Museum last summer, is packing Washingtonians into the Phillips Collection.

With nearly 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures, the exhibit offers the first major look back in 50 years at the tumultuous art and life of the modernist artist Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920). The show is mostly successful, albeit smallish for a retrospective, thanks to the artist’s brief career — just about 14 years — and the difficulty of getting Modigliani loan-outs.

What is the source of Modigliani’s evident popular appeal? Is it the romanticized “myth” of Modigliani as the handsome, starving bohemian artist who died at 35 of tuberculosis? Or maybe the artist’s legendary drinking and womanizing? Is it his struggle as a foreign-born Jew in the Parisian avant-garde of the early 1900s? All have been suggested.

On a recent afternoon, visitors lingered over the works, examining them carefully. Many used Acoustiguides. They seemed spellbound by the hypnotic, magical qualities of Modigliani’s art, especially the sculptures.

The artist found a new visual language in the aesthetic stylizations of African art and those from Cycladic, Greek, Egyptian, early Christian and Cambodian cultures, to which he was first exposed in Paris. Arriving from his native Livorno, Italy in 1906, he was especially fascinated by the powerful supernatural associations of the African art he encountered in Parisian shops, studios and museums.

The geometric forms — rectangles, cubes, circles and globes — and distillation of human and animal forms characteristic of African art quickly invaded Modigliani’s work. These haunting African rhythms became the hallmark of the artist’s style, whether in his sculpture, his appealing crayon and watercolor studies on paper of stone caryatids, his well-known portraits or the lilting curves of his erotic nudes.

The five direct-carved stone heads that introduce the show anticipate the almond-shaped heads and eyes and elongated necks of his masklike later portraits. Unfortunately, Modigliani’s sculpture, the linchpin of his style, is little known and rarely seen. He always considered himself a sculptor, but poor health and lack of funds kept him from pursuing that form after 1915.

The 1909 to 1914 caryatid studies featured in the following gallery — usually combinations of graphite, crayon and watercolor on paper — look forward to the later nudes. Unlike the nudes painted with oil pigment, they dance across the paper.

Modigliani’s unusual portraits confront visitors in the next space, the largest of the exhibition. Lacking individualization, these portraits of his friends, lovers and fellow artists evoke an uneasy sense of incompletion. A portrait such as “Anna (Hanka) Zborowska” is almost an abstraction of ovals, circles and spheres.

Many of the portraits retain the masklike qualities of his sculptures. The artist left many of his sitters’ eyes blank. Visitors who ask what’s behind these masks could get many answers.

However, Modigliani did individualize the portrait of his art dealer, Paul Guillaume, painting him with a tiny mustache, extended ears, off-center necktie and rumpled jacket. The perspectives of foreground and background clash. It’s as if the artist wanted to keep the stylizations of his African masks but identify with the idiosyncrasies of his friends.

The fabulous sexual nudes complete the show. Though inspired by idealized Renaissance nudes, Modigliani’s are unmistakably contemporary in their frank sexuality.

It’s important to remember that Modigliani was still reaching for a developed style when he died. Thus, the works here represent not a fulfillment but a mere foretaste, the beginnings of a style that was never to reach maturity. But what a tantalizing foretaste.

WHAT: “Modigliani: Beyond the Myth”

WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays, noon to 7 p.m. Sundays, closed Mondays. Through May 29.

TICKETS: $14 adults, $12 students and seniors, free for Phillips Collection members and visitors younger than 18. Call 800/551-SEAT.

WEB SITE: www.ticketmaster.com

PHONE: 202/387-2151

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