The title of this exhibit alludes to the general idea of fiction surrounding Amedeo Modigliani’s life and works. Actually, he wasn’t larger than life, but rather lived a realistic and often harsh bohemian lifestyle at the beginning of 20th Century Paris. An Italian ?migr?, Modigliani grappled with poverty, addiction, illness and most of all, lack of recognition for his art during a time when Picasso reigned supreme. Perhaps, this recognition would have come in due time, but tuberculosis cut his life cut short at age 36.
Presented chronologically, the exhibit begins on the third floor of the museum. At the beginning it is easy to bypass much of Modigliani’s early work and start with the sculptures and sculpture sketches further into the room. Most interesting from this section are the caryatid sketches, which are evident of Modigliani’s tendency to combine contemporary and classical elements. Caryatids, which date back to ancient Greece, were idealized female sculptures used as support columns. Modigliani takes this prototype and makes it uniquely his own by exchanging the femininity for abstraction in the faces and stout muscularity of the bodies, creating gender ambiguity. This negotiation of forms crosses over to Modigliani’s portraits and nude paintings, which are displayed in the final four rooms of the exhibit.
About 100 paintings of Parisians, most from Modigliani’s intimate social circle, hang side-by-side. Each figure, whether it is a nude female, such as, “Reclining Nude,” or a seated portrait of his art dealer, like “Leopold Zborowski,” is created in a similar likeness, yet there is no sense of redundancy. Once again Modigliani is looking back to his Italian roots as he focuses on portraiture, a classical subject, and poses his subjects classically as well: in busts, three-quarter’s view and reclining. Modigliani then juxtapositions pink color planes in the face and hands with the more robust planes of dark reds, greens, browns and blues of the surrounding space. He further increases the drama with dark outlining.
The facial features remain though the most ingenious and memorable aspect of Modigliani’s style. In the majority of his portraits he chooses to leave the eyes blank, creating an effect of lifelessness, emphasized when the gaze of the viewer is only met by a void. He also replicates the oval-shaped face, geometric nose and elongated neck in his paintings, suggesting universality of the human figure.
In his nude paintings, there is no longer the innocence of the past as he audaciously displays dark patches of pubic hair and goes even further in “Nude with a Coral Necklace” who is shown pleasuring herself.
While the exhibit attempts to glamorize Modigliani’s tragic life, a life that for most laypersons does not overshadow the popularity of his signature portraits, it does present a comprehensive array of work from the artist’s short life and shows the inner pathos that was behind it.
Tickets are $14 for adults and $12 for students and can be purchased from Ticketmaster or at the museum. Modigliani will remain at The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. N.W., until May 29.