School’s Out

A Modigliani Caryatid (1913-14), on view at the Jewish Museum.Photo: Scala/Art Resource

Curators sometimes behave like conscientious schoolmasters. But it’s more interesting when, intentionally or not, they make the familiar unfamiliar again, restoring freshness, mystery, and even a certain innocence to their subjects. Right now, several exhibitions of painting in New York are bringing some welcome shade to the usual light.

Hardly anything in modern art is more familiar than a Modigliani painting. Who cannot immediately call to mind the feline woman with the elongated body, the geometric curves, and the masklike face? Even people who dislike modern art like Modigliani (1884–1920). It sometimes seems that he created just one picture, which became a postcard. The sad story of his life—he died in Paris at 35, and his pregnant lover committed suicide the day after his death—is second only to Van Gogh’s in bohemian star appeal. Modigliani: Beyond the Myth, now at the Jewish Museum, is an attempt to complicate this view of the artist’s life and work, with a provocative catalogue that challenges the “dismal state of Modigliani studies.”

“Beyond the Myth” emphasizes the artist’s grounding in sculpture, especially his great debt to Brancusi. Modigliani’s early, remarkable images of caryatids (female figures that serve as columns) are sometimes as strong as his later portraits. Made from sinuously curving forms, the Modigliani caryatids, bearing the weight of the world, look both ancient and fetal. His subsequent art seems to emerge, almost literally, from this classical pillar. In the portraits—of men, as the exhibit emphasizes, as well as women—Modigliani retained the tension between the classically abstract on the one hand and the distinctively individual on the other. Each figure has a Modigliani mask but also a unique character. (Sometimes, Modigliani borders upon caricature: His Jean Cocteau is a dandy rooster.) Does this balancing of the universal and the particular derive, in part, from Modigliani’s experience as an Italian Jew from a forward-looking family? Not everything a Jew does is Jewish. But the show’s emphasis on that sort of exploratory question is worth more than the usual Montparnasse romance. Like many other painters of the time, Modigliani was searching for the proportions of modern character—for the man in Everyman.

Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy, which recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, follows a particular thread of naturalism in Italian art that commenced with the arrival of Leonardo da Vinci in Milan in 1482 and, around a century later, emerged in fresh, turbulent form in the art of Caravaggio. The theme is interesting because, while Leonardo and Caravaggio may have shared a passionate interest in the world of appearances, the realities they present could hardly be more different. In the end, though, the impact of this show has little to do with its theme. “Painters of Reality” contains the work of many less-familiar painters, some very talented (among them the female portrait and still-life painter Fede Galizia), but what stands out, what appears truly real, is the difference between good and great art.

“ ‘Constable’s Skies’ at Salander-O’Reilly is one of the finest gallery shows in years.”

Early in the exhibit, you can compare a Leonardo drawing of two visi mostruosi (grotesque faces) with a fine version by a disciple. What’s different? The disciple’s drawing has everything but Leonardo’s rapt concentration. At the end of the show, the curators have placed three Caravaggios on a single wall. Their power turns the other work in the room to dust. One of Caravaggio’s greatest works—Supper at Emmaus, from the National Gallery in London—is flanked by a meditative portrait of Saint Francis and a fierce image of a man yanking out a tooth. The three pictures seem to be carrying on a private conversation, silently discussing, among other things, the many different meanings that a pair of hands can express.

Exhibits of private collections are usually ragtag, which is why they’re valuable. Because of their eccentricity and the varying quality of the work, they let viewers escape momentarily from the overbred sterility of the art-historical pantheon. Pierre Matisse, a New York art dealer who died in 1989, was a son of the French painter and had access during his life to many of the great artists of the era. Not surprisingly, The Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Collection, now at the Met and part of a promised gift of more than 100 works to the museum, contains important art from some of the great lights of modernism, notably Matisse and Miró. But some byways and corners of the tradition are also on display, and as in the “Painters of Reality” show, provocative comparisons occur by happenstance. For example, many critics believe that André Derain, after his early Fauve period, declined into an increasingly dry, academic painter. But his marvelous Black Feather Boa, from 1935, gives new meaning to the idea of sexy black. Hanging beside the Derain is an early self-portrait by Giorgio de Chirico, a painting of otherworldly green in which the artist’s eye, his clothing, and the sky itself rhyme eerily with one another.

Constable (1776–1837) is as familiar a figure, in his way, as Modigliani. His lush paintings of the English countryside are renowned for both their quasi-scientific study of natural phenomena and their almost Impressionistic brushwork. The immensities of earth and sky appear, in the best-known landscapes, to be conjoined in perfect harmony. For his major paintings, Constable also made many preparatory studies, however, including closely observed studies of clouds. Some have a horizon line. Others show only sky. In one of the finest gallery exhibits in many years, Constable’s Skies at Salander-O’Reilly, 29 of these works are being displayed. Their combined effect is extraordinary. Of course, the pictures anticipate modern art; the cloud forms seem almost abstract, especially when the image includes no suggestion of land. But that’s not what’s exciting. Together, the cloud studies capture, in a seriously offhand way, the savor of a forever-momentary existence. They do so successfully because, in part, there is nothing pretentious—nothing airy-fairy—in Constable’s treatment. The sky is there, and it’s palpable. The spirit has body, the body spirit. At the same time, something truly uncanny occurs when the pictures are brought together, perhaps because some include a swatch of land or sea while others do not. As you move from image to image, you seem almost to leave the ground, to lift off. In their dreams, many people can fly. Here too.

School’s Out