Art: Once nothing more than weak tea bags of womanhood …

    Modigliani’s madonnas actually suggest a far stronger brew, Waldemar Januszczak now realises

    Passing off this weak tea bag of femininity as a profound achievement requires chutzpah and invention. The Jewish Museum, startlingly, has provided both. Its new Modigliani show is the first exhibition in my lifetime that manages successfully to enhance his artistic reputation. Indeed, it completely rebuilds it. The show yanks Modigliani out of the clutches of the makers of pretty postcards and turns him, instead, into an unsettling Jewish mystic, whose cultural anxieties nourished his work continuously, productively and superbly. Who would have thought it? So superficially do we understand Modigliani that even acknow- ledging his Jewishness requires a deeper-than-usual knowledge of him. The other Jewish artists operating around him in first world war Paris — Chagall, Soutine, Lipchitz — were so much more obviously Jews. They came from Eastern Europe. They smelt of the ghetto. They spoke with thick foreign accents. Their work made Jewishness an issue and proclaimed it. Modigliani, however, smelt of cologne and privilege. He was the fourth son of a family of genteel and assimilated Sephardic Jews who had settled in Livorno, in northern Italy, and who brought up their offspring to be cultured and travelled. Modigliani spoke fluent French. Everyone in their memoirs goes on about how pretty he was, how elegant his hands were, how well spoken he could be. Thus, his Jewishness was of an entirely different order from the transgressive, second- commandment-breaking, shtetl-hardened Jewishness of his Montmartre buddies. But it was there all right. Spotting it so clearly is this show’s chief achievement.

    Modigliani arrived in Paris as a sculptor. He had studied marble-carving in Michelangelo’s old stamping ground of Carrara, though his preferred material was limestone — cheaper than marble and altogether grittier. A hacked- out limestone head begins these proceedings. The face is already one of Modigliani’s ovals, a nose as thin as an exclamation mark, with a tiny full-stop mouth and closed hyphen eyes. But these elegant feminine simplifications have then had a hammer taken to them. Bits of the head are missing. Chunks are gone from the nose. The neck has been battered.

    Modigliani seems to have perpetrated his own iconoclasm.

    I suppose his ambition was to make the thing look dug-up and ancient. But since we know it is not, the head connects instead with an un-Modiglianian sense of violence. Looking closer, I noticed something peculiar sticking out of a hole in the idol’s headdress.

    I peered in. There was a little face in there — a mini-idol who had taken up residence in the larger idol’s hair. The mini-idol was just sitting there, looking out, like a mouse in a skirting board. The keynote struck by this spooky opening piece is eminently peculiar.

    The exhibition ahead mixes Modigliani’s sculpture not only with his paintings but also with his drawings, the three of them marching side-by-side along the woman-signposted route of his notoriously brief life. As a painter, his opening style was derived from Picasso’s Blue-Period parade of whores and circus performers. Yet, interestingly, Modigliani’s Blue Period has more sense of confrontation about it than Picasso’s. An early nude in a hat, with droopy breasts and carelessly applied lipstick, stares out sullenly from her imaginary doorway and accuses you, I suggest, of being foul client material.

    Thus, a show you had expected to be wan and gentle all the way through seeks instead to give you a slapping from the off. It is the drawings, carefully positioned to provide irrefutable evidence of Modigliani’s spiritual turmoil at all the main junctures, that reveal most clearly the mystical origins of his anguish. We know from biographical evidence that Modigliani was dabbling with the occult and taking drugs in order to reach heightened states. The very first drawing in the show, produced while he was still in Italy, shows a man lying on the ground and yet simultaneously standing above himself in a creepy, out-of-body experience. Later on, quotations from mystical and occult texts begin to infiltrate the action. Six-pointed stars turn up; gnomic thoughts are scrawled in the margins. Sniffing the air, you smell the unmistakable mystic pong of the tarot.

    The first of the show’s spectac-ular revisionist set pieces features a collection of paintings and drawings centred on the image of the caryatid. Caryatids are the twisted figures in classical architecture charged with holding up roofs and lintels. Modigliani painted them obsessively, and I had previously found them tedious and repetitive. But here, this repetitiveness is revealed as a strength. The caryatid’s endless physical struggle is a perfect visual equivalent of Modigliani’s endless spiritual struggle. His painted caryatids, and the sculptures associated with them, have a coiled psychological power that I had stupidly missed in his work.

    As another deliberate counter to the myth of Modigliani as the supreme painter of pale women, the show also devotes a gallery to his intense portraits of men. The sitters are unhappy art-world types from his Parisian circles: the collector Paul Guillaume; the poet Max Jacob; dealers; drinking buddies. Because of the fascinating groundwork the show has already put in before we reach them, it is easier here to sense the voodoo in these unsmiling masculine portraits. In all Modigliani’s portraiture, an attempt is being made to transform the peripheral and the everyday into the immutable and the permanent. The louche art-world types have been granted the gravitas of ancient idols.

    But it is, naturally, the appearance of the familiar Modigliani women halfway through the procession, the ones with the long necks and the almond eyes, that really tests the mettle of this show. Can we see them afresh as the product of a handsome wandering Jew’s anguished spiritual journey? Alas, I’m not sure we can. Because this is the Jewish Museum, and all the exhibitions here have a proselytising religious ambition to them, Modigliani’s Jewishness is overpromoted as the source of his new-found religious power. The evidence of the show itself suggests that, while mystical Jewishness may indeed have been Modigliani’s original fuel, it was soon replaced by others. The Christian archetype of the gentle madonna was obviously the main pattern for Modigliani’s long-necked women.

    What I discovered in them instead was the nuanced subtlety of his colouring. Reproductions do Modigliani’s work no favours. They flatten his forms and reduce his outlines to a comic-book crudeness. Modigliani in the flesh is a master of glows and translucencies. His women have an inner light in them. They shine from the middle like Hallowe’en pumpkins.

    Ever so smartly, the show has saved its best room for last. The final gallery is devoted to Modigliani’s nudes. Half a dozen of them surround you and stare at you. These magnificent nudes pull off a marvellous trick. They manage simultaneously to be sexy and portentous. Their outlines seem sculptural. Simplified. Elegant. But their details are carefully observed. Practical. True. A couple of them even have hair under their arms. How Italian of him.