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Jewish Journal

The Madman of Montparnasse

by Michael Aushenker

June 26, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Jewish artist Jacques Lipchitz and his wife, Berth, as interpreted by Modigliani in 1916.

Jewish artist Jacques Lipchitz and his wife, Berth, as interpreted by Modigliani in 1916.

Before his life was tragically cut short in 1920 at the age of 35, Amedeo Modigliani left an impression on every person he met. Take fellow artist Jacques Lipchitz, whom the possessed Italian Jew liked to visit at 3 a.m.

"We were suddenly roused from our sleep by a terrific pounding on the door," the late sculptor recalled in 1969 in his introduction for "Modigliani: Great Art of the Ages" (Harry Abrahms). "I opened. It was Modigliani, obviously quite drunk. In a shaky voice he tried to tell me he remembered seeing on my shelf a volume of poetry by Francois Villon and he said he liked to have it. I lighted my kerosene lamp to find the book, hoping that he would leave so that I could go back to sleep. But no; he settled down in an armchair and began to recite in a loud voice.... Soon my neighbors began to knock on the walls, on the ceiling, on the floor of my room, shouting, 'Stop that noise!'"

If Modigliani was a memorable drunk in life, his intoxicating artwork has had a more profound, longlasting impact. A retrospective of his shooting-star career -- including his celebrated oils known for their elongated, abstract figures -- begins June 29 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

While Modigliani constitutes the core of the 75-piece exhibit, "Modigliani and the Artists of Montparnasse" puts him in historical context by also displaying token works from such contemporaries as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, and Diego Rivera, with whom Modigliani socialized during his years in Montparnasse, then a hip Paris art quartier.

"This is a group of people that all posited themselves as outsiders [of the art establishment]," said Carol Eliel, LACMA's curator of modern and contemporary art, of the Montparnasse bunch.

For the first time in 40 years, LACMA will bring Modigliani to Los Angeles in a show that will include the familiar and the rarely seen.

"The sculpture and the drawings will be a real revelation to people," Eliel said of these lesser-known works, which includes a quarter of the avant-garde artist's sculptural output.

Unlike his aforementioned peers, Modigliani's curtailed life did not give the quasi-surrealist time to evolve aesthetically. The earliest among the 50 Modiglianis at LACMA dates back to 1912.

"There's not a long trajectory like with Picasso and Matisse," Eliel said. "He destroyed a lot of his early work."

Dedo, as Modigliani was nicknamed, was the fourth and youngest child born into a Sephardic family in Livorno on July 2, 1884. Modigliani's mother Eugena, direct descendant of the Spanish Jewish philosopher Spinoza, set the household's irreverent tone. In 1898, Modigliani's oldest brother, Emmanuele, was jailed as an anarchist.

His closest friends were Jewish, but as Eliel observed, Modigliani's Judaism did not surface in his work, "not the way you see with Chagall."

Yet Lipchitz remembered a man proud of his heritage.

"Modigliani was not a physically strong man," he wrote, "yet one day in a cafe, he attacked all by himself a gang of royalists, who in France are known for their soldierly courage. He wanted to fight them because he heard them speaking against the Jews in a dirty way. Modigliani was naturally conscious of his Jewishness and could not bear any unfair criticism of a whole people."

On Jan. 24, 1920, after a chaotic life rife with tuberculosis, alcoholism and dysfunctional, violence-laced relationships, the restless artist was stilled by tubercular meningitis. Two days later, in a tragic postlude, his common-law wife Jeanne Hébuterne, nine months pregnant, leapt from her parents' five-story house, killing herself and their unborn second child.

Contrary to belief, Modigliani did not lead a pathetic life a la Van Gogh, nor did his fame arrive, as with the Dutch impressionist, posthumously.

"This notion that he was the Van Gogh of his time -- shunned and rejected -- is something of a false mythic image," Eliel said, noting that hundreds attended his Pere Lachaise funeral.

Nearly 85 years after his death, Modigliani's accessible, deceptively-simple style continues to charm art lovers and historians alike.

For information on "Modigliani and the Artists of Montparnasse," June 29-Sept. 28, contact LACMA at (323) 857-6000 or visit www.lacma.org .

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