The problem is, Modigliani's myth isn't actually visible in his work. There may be melancholy, but there's no histrionics, suffering, or anger. His sculptures are elegant and poised, his drawings keen, and his portraits serene. Ease and isolation emanate from Modigliani's work, a geometry of stillness and composure.
This crowded but wonderfully condensed exhibition of eight primitivistic sculptures, 44 mostly excellent drawings, and 47 paintings of varying quality—including a great portrait of a limp-wristed Cocteau, and five reverberating nudes—allows you to glean why Modigliani might have been driven to drink after that day in the Bateau-Lavoir. Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Mondrian, even Klee, revered the past but were forced to overturn it out of sheer frustration. Modigliani was frustrated too, but he consciously preserved his connection to the past. He wanted newness without cubism. This ties him to the more conservative wing of modernism, and makes him a better, more universal version of Oskar Kokoschka or Elie Nadelman—closer to Chagall, although Chagall's colors, compositions, space, and surfaces are more adventurous. Modigliani combined influences like Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, early Picasso, Fauvism, and Brancusi, as well as archaic Greek and Renaissance sculpture and African and Cycladic carving to invent a race of long-necked, oval-faced, hollow-eyed beings who exist in shallow tilted space. These beings and that space have bewitched viewers ever since. Still, something's missing.
The opening Modigliani quote in the show's catalog inadvertently sheds light on what that may be:
"The man who cannot find new ambitions and even a new person within himself, who is always destined to wrestle with what has remained rotten and decadent . . . is not a man."
Certainly, Modigliani's art is neither rotten nor decadent. It is filled with elegiac love and numinous longing. However, except for the nudes, sundry portraits, and a number of the drawings, his art is formulaic. In his defense, you could say that unlike in his life, in his art Modigliani found something, settled down, and perfected it. True, there is amplification in his work, but there's sadly little perfecting. He overturned convention, then settled into one of his own making. Perhaps Modigliani wasn't confident or conscious enough to plumb the extraordinary implications of his art—the collapsing space, the frontality, his ideas of finish and elongation, or his striking mix of the primitive and classical. As a result, you don't need to experience his art over and over in order to "know" it. Modigliani's art lets us know that, far from being habituated to risk, he avoided it.
Amedeo Clemente Modigliani (July 12, 1884 – January 24, 1920)