Admittedly, I know little about art beyond contemporary art. And though I love to visit museums with all kinds of art, I am especially out of my depth analyzing any art made prior to, say, Duchamp’s later readymades. That is why when I visited the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and saw their vast array n of Modigliani works, I instantly recalled the place I had last seen a Modigliani: not in any art museum, but in the penultimate Bond movie, Skyfall.
The work, whose name and artist I did not know when I first watched the film, is incredible. Even to the untrained eye, it is clearly of immense value. It is unveiled to the viewer in the photo at a private showing at a luxury hotel in Shanghai, as James Bond and another look on. The camera lingers on the work, likely because of the man’s importance to the plot, and one can’t help but develop a fascination with the painting.
So many similar works by Modigliani are at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Begun by a wealthy American art collector in the 1930’s, the foundation (called a foundation rather than a collection due its educational mission) has a huge trove of art from around the world, especially of art from European masters like Van Gogh and Picasso. Modigliani has a number of paintings in the collection, and the building even houses one of few Modigliani sculptures.
Modigliani’s portraits stand out by dint of one feature: the elongated faces of his subjects. Though he died young and rarely received critical praise during his lifetime, Modigliani’s works are now rightfully revered as treasures. Characterized by their hazy, modern style, even without the elongated features the portraits are excellent. But to any new viewer, the central innovation is clear.
The problem, I learned, is that the elongated features are not his own innovation. Rather, they are an innovation of, among other cultures, the Fang people of West Africa (one such example of a Fang mask below). Modigliani, was shown the masks by another artist and never looked back. Here, then, is the true source of Modigliani’s innovation.
This phenomenon is not limited to Modigliani. Picasso, another artist with works at the Barnes Foundation, is said to have taken much of his cubist cues from African works at Paris’s Musée d’Ethnographie. Constanin Brancusi and Paul Klee are also said to be inspired by distinctive African art. All of them are artists of immense talent, but incorporate many artistic innovations that clearly were not their own.
In this way, my visit to the Barnes Foundation was a reminder of the lack of credit given to African artists for artistic innovations. Importantly, the Barnes Foundation notes in their description of Modigliani’s work that his technique is inspired by African masks. But their remains a larger problem in the art world of seeing African art as a base upon which European artists can dream up new artistic creations. As recently as January of 2017, a Vienna museum defended describing African artworks as “primative” by arguing they donate “a fundamental, aboriginal understanding of the world.” This aspect of exhibition, designed to exalt the African artworks that so many, ended up doing the opposite.
And, most obviously, the power dynamic under which Modigliani created his portraits is so tainted by colonialism and appropriation that to imagine artists freely and equally interchanging techniques is difficult. The same year that Modigliani painted Madame Hanka Zborowska accoudée à une chaise, his native Italy had begun to formulate the ideology that would later justify its colonial ambitions in Africa. Not only are so many works waiting to be repatriated to their homes, so much European work owes its genius to African artists. The tangled task of decolonizing art history remains.