Modigliani's balanced primitivism

Jean Cocteau hit the nail on the head when he described Amedeo Modigliani's portraits as "not the reflection of his external observation, but of his internal vision...." Today, decades after surrealism made art out of subconscious impulses, this assessment might seem a truism. Since when was art not about "internal vision"?

But the Italian-born artist's short career ended in 1920 (before surrealism truly began), and his art was seen as a significant part of the avant-garde revolution that shook traditional concepts to their roots in the early 1900s.

Modigliani was linked fraternally with such principal shakers of the time as Matisse, Picasso, Derain, Soutine, De Chirico, Vlaminck, and, portrayed here, the sculptor Lipchitz. Many of these daring "Parisian" artists, like him, were foreigners; many were also Jewish, as he was. They lived and worked in the area of Paris called Montparnasse. Modigliani made portraits of many of them.

The current exhibition, "Modigliani and The Artists of Montparnasse," is at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, until May 25. It seeks to contextualize Modigliani in his milieu and time - and to demythologize him. The notion persists that Modigliani, like Van Gogh, was a romantic visionary whose career ended before he received any recognition.

Not so. Modigliani gained considerable fame in his lifetime; sales and critical notices greeted his work not only in France, but also abroad. His works were even shown in New York.

His portraits conform to his style rather than to a need for accurate likeness. And this style was inspired by, among other things, African masks, Egyptian sculpture, and Cézanne. But these sources of inspiration, coupled with a deep feeling for the traditions of European art, meant that his "modernity" was never as extreme as the cubism of his friends. He was motivated by a strange yet balanced primitivism that still makes his work potent and arresting in 2003.

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