Esther Nussbaum
How Jewish is Modigliani?, p.2

In this section are the depictions of Madame Pompadour and several anonymous portraits such as The Little Peasant and The Servant Girl that point toward the section of "Portraiture" where the viewer is treated to the familiar and powerful figures that have dominated Modigliani's reputation. The elongated necks, the stylized almond- shaped opaque eyes, the slightly askew lips, give an exotic and haunting aspect to the subjects, many of them well-known figures in the artistic/cultural world of that World War I period. Poets, patrons, art dealers and artists are cast in a quasi-totemic visual idiom. One of the portraits is of Chana Orloff, the sculptor who came to Paris from Mandate period Palestine and was a close friend of Modigliani. On her portrait are the subject's name in Hebrew letters, Chana bat Raphael. The last gallery is filled with the group of "Nudes" that caused a sensation in the Paris at that time but seem placid and idyllic from a contemporary perspective.

Naturally, the curators chose "The Jewess" as the banner painting in the exhibit. Confronted at the entrance to the first gallery, the woman's head is slightly turned and her face has a contemplative, somewhat mysterious expression. Stylistically reminiscent of Cezanne, the painting held special meaning for Modigliani because it was the first painting he sold after settling in Paris. While he was included in many group exhibitions including the Venice Biennale and the famous Salon Automne in Paris, and had his patrons and admirers, he was not really successful during his lifetime. He was known and admired by the artists in Mandate-era Palestine and several artists' works reflect his influence.

Given the location of the exhibition, questions remain regarding the significance of Modigliani's Italian-Jewish background. How Jewish was he? How did it influence his art? And how Jewish do you have to be to be in the Jewish Museum?

Although Modigliani will be forever identified with Paris, he did not move there until 1906. Before then he was in Leghorn, although he did travel to other cities for brief periods to study art. Leghorn was a gem in the Jewish world, a city whose Medici rulers deliberately lured Jews from throughout the Mediterranian basin with promises of religious liberty and tolerance. The result was a flowering of Jewish culture in a cosmopolitan environment that knew no ghetto walls. Perhaps the most representative fruit of Livornese-Jewish culture was Rabbi Elie Benamozegh (1822-1900), who served as a rabbi and taught at Leghorn's yeshiva. Benamozegh wrote numerous works in French, Hebrew, and Italian that promoted a universalist theology anchored in Moroccan kabbalah but strongly influenced by European philosophy and open to contemporary Bible scholarship.

Modigliani's family was typical. They were traditional Sephardic Jews, although his mother, Eugenia Garsin Modigliani, came from a family with a decidedly intellectual bent. Like many of Leghorn's Jews, they had international connections. Modigliani had several relatives in Marseilles. They were also polyglot. Dedo, as the artist was known, spoke several languages fluently, including French and English, which later made it easy for him to to adapt to Paris and mingle with expatriates from different countries. We don't know if he received substantive formal religious instruction. There is a record of Amedeo's becoming Bar Mitzvah, but not of any other ritual practice, although when he died his friends thought it appropriate to have a rabbi officiate at the funeral.

[1]       2       [3]       [next->]

Top image: Amadeo Modigliani, The Jewess
Lower image: Portrait of the artist
August 2004

The Spiritual Foundations of Bushism
Jay Michaelson

Sex and the Golem
Joshua Axelrad

How Jewish is Modigliani?
Esther Nussbaum

Steel and Glass
Dan Friedman

No Matter What, I Wish You Luck
Chanel Dubofsky

Falafel Ghosts
Shaun Hanson

Our 500 Back Pages

David Stromberg

Zeek in Print
Spring/Summer 2004 issue now on sale!

About Zeek

Mailing List

Contact Us


Tech Support



From previous issues:

Zionism and Colonialism
Michael Shurkin

On Being a Leftist and a Zionist
Jay Michaelson

I'm Hearing Music from a Different Time
Zeek staff