Modigliani and the Modern Portrait: Nassau County Museum of Art’s landmark exhibition

Modigliani and the Modern Portrait: Nassau County Museum of Art’s landmark exhibition
Patrons view a Modigliani painting featured in the Nassau County Museum of Art's latest exhibit. (Photo by Cameryn Oakes)

A man walks into a bar with an Amedeo Modigliani painting under his arm. The bartender looks at him and asks: “Why the long face?”

Modigliani – a world-renowned Italian artist known for his unique portrayal of his subjects with absurdly elongated faces – is being displayed in a landmark exhibit at the Nassau County Museum of Art.

“Modigliani didn’t necessarily try to give exact portrayals or likenesses to his sitters,” exhibition curator Kenneth Wayne said. “He wanted to instead turn his sitters into Modiglianis.”

Two women observe a Modigliani painting at the Nassau County Museum of Art. (Photo by Cameryn Oakes)

Museum Director Charles Riley said this is the most exciting exhibition the museum has held in its history.

“This county deserves a great museum,” Riley said. “And with this show, we hit that level. We hit it all the way out of the ballpark with this particular show.”

Riley said Wayne is the world’s leading expert on Modigliani and to have him curate the museum’s show is a “huge triumph” for the museum.

Wayne, who is also the founder of the Modigliani Project, spoke at the exhibit’s opening Monday evening, where he shared the above joke as he described Modigliani’s history and his own work in curating the artist’s legacy.

He said that while he has been curating the exhibit for the past year, it is really an accumulation of his work over a 40-year span specializing in Modigliani.

Wayne said he was approached by Riley to create a Modigliani exhibit for the Nassau County Museum of Art, but he wanted to do something different. The curator said many Modigliani exhibits had been mounted recently but that they had all been monographic in nature.

Rather than just show Modigliani, Wayne said he wanted to focus on his unique approach to portraiture and display his influence on the subject through other modern and contemporary artists – including Modigliani’s peers Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

A Pablo Picasso painting featured in the exhibition. (Photo by Cameryn Oakes)

“There are so many great portrait artists over the last 100 years, and I think Modigliani inspired them,” Wayne said.

Hence the exhibit’s thesis: “Modigliani and the Modern Portrait.”

The exhibit features masterworks of Modigliani alongside paintings and drawings from his Parisian contemporaries and modern-day portrait artists.

Wayne said Modigliani specialized in imposing his style on the portraiture of the people who sat for his paintings, which has become his legacy and the approach to portraiture that he has imparted to many other artists.

“And they owe it all to Modigliani,” Wayne said.

His nonprofit, The Modigliani Project, authenticates the artist’s paintings and drawings, two of which now featured in the museum’s show have recently been proven genuine by the organization.

One of the two paintings fell into Wayne’s lap five years ago when a woman called him about a Modigliani painting she inherited from her great aunt. When Wayne asked who her great aunt was, she said Greta Garbo – an acclaimed Swedish-American actress during Hollywood’s Golden Age who retired early to devote herself to art collecting.

The unnamed painting, which is on loan to be featured in the exhibit, was determined by Wayne’s nonprofit to be of Modigliani’s girlfriend Beatrice Hastings. She was a common subject in a number of his paintings.

“I think she had a major influence on his art,” Wayne said. “She was a poet, a writer, an activist, a suffragist, she was an intellectual, obviously, and I think that Modigliani and she had a very tempestuous relationship… She’s someone to take very seriously.”

Modigliani came to Paris in 1906, Wayne said, around the same time that other notable artists like Picasso were arriving in the city.

Despite the common perception that he didn’t achieve major recognition in his lifetime, Wayne said Modigliani was actually quite successful from the beginning and his work was being collected, exhibited and reviewed early on in his career.

Modigliani had only one solo exhibition during World War I, a series of nude portraits. He died shortly afterward in 1920 at the age of 35.

Despite his short life, Wayne said his legacy continues on and his impact within the art community resounds.

Modigliani’s “Portrait of a Woman” featured in the exhibition. (Photo by Cameryn Oakes)

The exhibition, which spans two floors in the museum, held its grand opening Saturday and will be on display through Nov. 22.

Tickets for the show can be purchased online.

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  1. Great exhibit, great art! This exhibition definitely puts the Nassau County Museum on the MAP!! People from all over are coming to see the show. Wow, so proud of the museum! It does us proud!

  2. It is a thrilling experience to walk through the elegant Ogden Codman-designed mansion filled now with the elegant, enigmatic faces of Modigliani, who arrived in Paris shortly after Lachaise departed for the United States, and yet continents apart, these Modernists, and their contemporaries, and the contemporary artists who join them, share so much in common, and leave a legacy we all can enjoy through November 5th!


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