Sunday, November 28, 2004

Modigliani: Beyond The Myth

My wife and I drove down to the AGO to see this highly-praised collection of Modigliani works - some 85 pieces, with scant few narrative interruptions from the show's producers. Highly recommended from the Prajer point of view as well. I left with my brain a-swim in Modigliani-mode, which is what I was after. The display did a good job of showcasing the artist's development from the reckless but fiercely talented youth who scribbled portraits on lousy paper (with a 2H pencil, I'm guessing) for his drink and food, painted on cardboard and, when he could afford it, canvas for bigger coin.

One of the first plaques to greet the viewer claims this show is devoted to "moving beyond the myth." Too bad for me - Philistine that I am, I was familiar only with his nudes and knew nothing about the cad who painted them. Now I'd love to get into the myth, because I found his work compelling and the bits of personal history so vague (except when indicating who had committed suicide, when) that I thirsted for more tangible stuff: who was this guy? Bald facts: Italian Jew, fully immersed in Parisian bohemian life, versed in artistic modes of the time (african elongation of form), proud of his jewish heritage, fascinated by the occult, indulgent, defiant, consumptive, prodigious. As presented, the show's minimalism winds up buttressing the myth, not "going beyond it." But then I couldn't quite bring myself to spend another fifty bones on the (Yale) catalogue, which might have pulled off that feat, so I'll have to do a little time in the public library.

Two overheard comments that sum it up for me:

"His sketches are so ... inspirational." Yes! They have a disarming simplicity that is naturally appealing. You are keen to identify with them, and you are keen to go home and try your own hand at it.

"How does he manage to bring out unique character in each of his portraits, while limiting his details?" How, indeed? In an odd bit of kismet, I think part of the answer lies in Jonathan Franzen's recent New Yorker meditation on the art of Charles M. Schulz, here. You might be weary of Franzen, and completely tapped-out by Schulz, but it is a rewarding read. Here's Franzen talking about Schulz's style:

Scott McCloud, in his cartoon treatise “Understanding Comics,” argues that the image you have of yourself when you’re conversing is very different from your image of the person you’re conversing with. Your interlocutor may produce universal smiles and universal frowns, and they may help you to identify with him emotionally, but he also has a particular nose and particular skin and particular hair that continually remind you that he’s an Other. The image you have of your own face, by contrast, is highly cartoonish. When you feel yourself smile, you imagine a cartoon of smiling, not the complete skin-and-nose-and-hair package. It’s precisely the simplicity and universality of cartoon faces, the absence of Otherly particulars, that invite us to love them as we love ourselves. The most widely loved (and profitable) faces in the modern world tend to be exceptionally basic and abstract cartoons: Mickey Mouse, the Simpsons, Tintin, and, simplest of all—barely more than a circle, two dots, and a horizontal line — Charlie Brown.

Modigliani works in the same mode: an invitational simplicity for the viewer to enter into. And yet Modigliani managed to capture such a diversity of yourself in his work...

Not to be missed.


DarkoV said...

Congrats on making it to the 2 Blowhards...again. You offered Michael B some relief from the recent outrage at his Bush/Kerry piece. I believe h'e trying to distance himself from the venom.

Whisky Prajer said...

Thanks - an M. Blowhard mention is always an honour. I, too, noticed the avalanche of commentary after his Right/Left posting. The US political arena has its elements of gruesome fascination, but I tend to agree with Tom Waits' recent assessment: "I think we really have a one-party system with two heads on it." If that's the case, the issue is which head do you want to present to the world at large? Lamentable, that.