Moving the Needle at the Jewish Museum

“Je suis Modigliani. Je suis Juif.” 

am Modigliani. I am a Jew,” was the audacious introduction used by Amedeo Modigliani. It was simultaneously bold and dangerous since he could have been arrested for far less. But it was also key to understanding the man and his work. Modigliani was an Italian Sephardic Jew who lived in Paris, penniless, at the turn of the 20th century, painting some of the most luscious, resplendent portraits and nudes in the history of art. In 2015 when his “Nu Couché” (Reclining Nude) sold at Christie’s for $170.4 million, he swept past auction records for Van Gogh and Renoir and joined the hallowed ranks of the exclusive $100-million club of artists like Warhol, Cézanne, de Kooning and Klimt, who’ve crashed that price point.

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“He belongs in that club,” declared Claudia Gould, director of Manhattan’s Jewish Museum. While the fascination with wealth and the lure of beautiful women rendered luxuriantly in charcoal, paint and stone via the language of Modernism will draw crowds, there’s a more nuanced story the museum wants to share in Modigliani Unmasked. Modigliani’s tale is one of a bad boy, bon vivant, living louche in Paris, frequenting Gertrude Stein’s salons and vying with Picasso at the beginning of the 20th century. But there were perilous external undercurrents running through his life. “He arrived in Paris in 1906 and the city was still very much rolling with anti-Semitism after the Dreyfus affair and the influence of foreign émigrés,” Gould explained.

The exhibition’s curator, Mason Klein, presents some 150 works, including an extensive display of drawings from the collection of Dr. Paul Alexandre, an early patron and friend of Modigliani. In addition, 12 paintings and a group of sculptures display the artist’s mastery of sensuous lines and curves, positive and negative space, abstraction and emotion. What won’t be apparent inside the frame, but can be experienced through the exhibition, is a sense of menace and injustice.

Gould and Klein felt it was important to face that, particularly with the state of the world now. “There was a lot of anti-Semitism at the turn-of-the-century. There’s a lot of anti-Semitism now in France and in the United States against synagogues, against Jews, against so many people…Mason Klein is really making a point of talking about that in the exhibition,” Gould said. “Art doesn’t often change the world but it is certainly a part of a piece that helps how we look at things differently.”

But don’t look for a dark portrait of art from Gould. She’s too much of an aesthete for that. The exhibition will show “how flourishing and how abundant and how incredible it was to be an artist at that time.”

Gould is uniquely equipped to bring contemporary realities to Modigliani’s work as well as the museum’s exhibitions and collection. Before starting as director of the Jewish Museum in 2011, she had a career of some three decades directing museums and creating exhibitions of cutting-edge work at institutions like Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art and New York’s Artists Space and PS1. Now she helms a repository of 4,000 years of Jewish history and culture. The jump from modern to ancient was no problem. “It’s the same language but it’s expanding on it. If you’re fluent in a language, you’re fluent in it.”

While her experience is wide and deep, Gould credits a handful of key influences: her mother’s paintings filling the home, a third-grade teacher who bent the rules to include lessons on art history and an early stint working with architectural pioneer Giuseppe Zambonini. Her sense for structures has come into play at the Jewish Museum, where Gould has overseen the remodeling of the café and shop, and is in the midst of designing Scenes from the Collection, a major remounting of the permanent collection—the first in a quarter century. She’s also restructuring the museum philosophically. She’s inviting contemporary artists to make commissioned ritual objects and has brought more diversity to the museum by including Chinese, Saudi, Korean, Buddhist and Christian artists in exhibitions like last year’s Take Me (I’m Yours) and the upcoming Unorthodox.

Gould claimed it’s “very easy” to create a balance of pleasure, seriousness, history and inclusiveness within the Jewish Museum. “We try to make the exhibitions fun so everybody walks out smiling. We’re moving the needle without moving the mission and I think that’s very important.”