It was back in 2004 when the Jewish Museum mounted its blockbuster Modigliani exhibition, a show that memorably had art lovers waiting in lines 100-strong and the museum extending its hours.
Now, the Manhattan institution offers another component to its examination with “Modigliani Unmasked,” the first American exhibit devoted to the artist’s early work.
A sweeping exploration filled with drawings, sculpture and, yes, a selection of his beloved paintings, “Modigliani Unmasked” focuses on the Italian-born artist’s work after he arrived in Paris in 1906, while simultaneously delving into the importance of his heritage as a Sephardic Jew to those creations.
His beliefs, which Modigliani refused to hide, made him an outsider in a troubled culture. It was, we learn, a time when France was caught in the aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair, an 1895 scandal that led to a surge in anti-Semitism, and was also struggling with accepting waves of foreign immigrants.
As exhibition materials explain, “Modigliani’s art cannot be fully understood without acknowledging the ways the artist responded to the social realities that he confronted in the unprecedented artistic melting pot of Paris.”
But Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), who had a French mother, embraced his identity and the early drawings here reflect an awareness of the role of ethnicity and race in society.
He would develop his modern approach, his signature style of elongated figures that echoed the 16th century’s Mannerist movement, during this period that also found him living as the proverbial struggling artist.
It was Paul Alexandre, a young French physician who became not only Modigliani’s friend but also a strong advocate of his work, who acted as his first patron. Alexandre would preserve some 400 Modigliani drawings created between 1906 and 1914, which serve not only to trace the evolution of his style but also reflect his society.
“Modigliani Unmasked” features some 130 drawings, many from the Alexandre collection and shown for the first time in this country, joined by work from collections around the world. There are also 12 paintings and seven sculptures by Modigliani, rounded out by work representative of the multicultural art that inspired him during this period of life within the Parisian avant-garde.
Throughout, visitors journey through Modigliani’s Paris, are introduced to the women in his life and explore his rare commission work.
Modigliani reportedly was not interested in working to please a client. The often-protracted process is explored through the series of studies for 1909’s “L’Amazone,” a work that ultimately displeased its subject, the Baroness Marguerite de Hasse de Villers, and was, in the end, purchased by her soon-to-be-ex-lover’s brother, none other than Alexandre.
It’s easy to get swept into the fabled history of Modigliani, a handsome man who long battled illness and would die at age 35 of tubercular meningitis.
In one of art’s moments of great drama, his common-law wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, pregnant with Modigliani’s child, committed suicide the following day.
As Mason Klein, senior curator who organized the exhibition and has written the accompanying “Modigliani Unmasked” (Yale University Press), said during the preview, he hopes the show proves a source of “new insights into one of the world’s most popular artists.”
“Modigliani Unmasked” continues, with related programming, through Feb. 4 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. in Manhattan. For more, visit TheJewishMuseum.org.