Klein frames the drawings as a kind of connective tissue between his early, more expressionistic paintings like The Jewess
(1908), a stunning
work from 1906, and his later portraits and nudes that have his trademark mask-like visages. Made largely between 1908 and 1912, the drawings range from preparatory sketches for his limestone heads and caryatids to rough illustrations of portrait sitters. Together, they show an openness to cultural hybridity, which was not by chance.
While most people may remember Modigliani as the consummate tragic bohemian, a hash-smoking, absinthe-drinking pauper whose death from tuberculosis at the age of 35 prompted his pregnant lover Jeanne Hébuterne to jump to her death, “the Hollywood popularization of his life doesn’t really consider the social imperatives that drove him to alight on non-Western art in his own manner,” says Klein.
Born to Sephardic Jewish parents in 1884 in Livorno, Italy, Modigliani was raised largely by his erudite French-born mother and aunt after his well-to-do family met financial ruin. When the family business went bankrupt, the two women opened a language school in town, and taught Modigliani French and English. They also nurtured his love of artmaking.
Sickly from a young age—he had pleurisy at 11, typhoid at 14, and tuberculosis at 16—the boy spent hours in bed memorizing Dante and reading the works of Nietzsche and pre-enlightenment Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who, according to Modigliani’s matrilineal family, was a distant relative. (This is widely disputed.) When he wasn’t convalescent, he went to art school and steeped himself in the Classical and Renaissance art that filled Italy’s museums.