Jewish?The Jewish Museum in New York is currently hosting an exhibition titled “Modigliani: Beyond the Myth” (until September 19th). The Jewish Museum? Modigliani? Why you ask? Because Modigliani was a Jew of course!

This issue was discussed in a very informative article in Zeek magazine titled “How Jewish is Modigliani?” where it was asked: “Given the location of the exhibition, questions remain regarding the significance of Modigliani’s Italian-Jewish background. How Jewish was he? How did it influence his art? And how Jewish do you have to be to be in the Jewish Museum?”

By all accounts, Modigliani benefited from a rich Sephardic heritage, aided by the fact that the part of Italy he lived in (Leghorn) had no ghetto walls and was extremely tolerant towards the Jews. “He is known to have frequently announced “je suis Modigliani, juif” — “I am Modigliani, the Jew” — and to have vociferously attacked anyone who made an antisemitic remark.” He had a Bar Mitzvah and a Rabbi officiated at his funeral. So why the question? Isn’t art created by a Jew, Jewish art by definition?

Apparently it’s not so clear. For instance, unlike his contemporary Chagall (“widely considered a Jewish artist”, Modigliani never experienced a strong measure of anti-semitism growing up. Modigliani made little use of Jewish themes in his work – no evocative shtetl scenes, no accoutrements of ghetto life, no use of “Jewish imagery and myth” etc.

“Perhaps Chagall’s art is “more Jewish” because Chagall’s Jewish roots include experiences of persecution and shtetl life. Perhaps it is because Chagall lived longer. Or perhaps it is because we do not recognize Modigliani’s comparatively cosmopolitan subjects and concerns as ‘Jewish’ in the same way as Chagall’s shtetl-dwellers are. Whatever the reason, the apparent dearth of Jewish subject matter in Modigliani leaves one in the uncomfortable position of having to determine if, how much, and in what way, Jewish background and identification makes art “Jewish.” It is this question which seems unanswerable. Unless a Jewish artist elects to make Jewishhness a topos of his or her art, even ironically, we are left with ambiguity.”

Well, it’s ambiguous if Judaism is defined on the basis of ghetto life and anti-semitism. That however is a very Eurocentric approach that ignores the historical experience of many Jews that was not defined by similar experiences of anti-semitism. It is also reflective of a very contemporary, secular Jewish approach whereby Jewish identity, stripped of most of its Jewish tradition, is left with only anti-semitism as a focal point of its distinctiveness.

I always thought that a Jewish identity based primarily on anti-semitism and victimhood kinda, well… sucked. The implication is that but for anti-semitism, one would never have opportunity to express one’s Judaism. I also think that the issue of Modigliani’s Jewishness diminishes his particular Jewish upbringing – a typical response from a primarily ashkenazic Jewish society almost blind to the existence of different Jewish experiences. Modigliani’s sephardic Jewish upbringing was by all indications very cosmopolitan and bereft of the influence of a society closed to his kind. His art work reflects this open minded, worldly sensibility. Why is that any less Jewish than fiddlers on roof tops and flying goats? So, to answer the question – How Jewish is Modigliani? Well… at least as Jewish as Chagall. Just as Jewish as any Jew. Why is that even a question?

The exhibition continues at the Jewish Museum in New York until September 19th. Two other exhibition sites follow: The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, October 23, 2004-January 23, 2005; The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., February 19 – May 29, 2005.

About the author


Founder and Publisher of Jewlicious, David Abitbol lives in Jerusalem with his wife, newborn daughter and toddler son. Blogging as "ck" he's been blocked on twitter by the right and the left, so he's doing something right.