Solving the man-vs.-myth mystery surrounding Amedeo Modigliani led Kenneth Wayne to a Paris flat for an interview with the woman who last posed for the artist, in 1919; to the apartment of a New York City collector whose identity remains a secret; and to a house literally a stone's throw from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
There also were countless exchanges of e-mails and letters with museums, collectors and dealers, and side trips to places where little-known works by the famous impressionist were said to be squirreled away.
Indeed, there was far more to the making of "Modigliani and the Artists of Montparnasse" than meets the eye. Assembling an exhibition of such quality and scope can require years of dogged investigation and help from unlikely sources.
The lead detective in this instance was Wayne, curator of the Albright-Knox blockbuster now playing to large audiences on Elmwood Avenue and to rave reviews from around the nation.
His pursuit of the artworks comprising the first major Modigliani retrospective in the United States in more than 40 years led this personable scholar-sleuth on a trail that extended from private collections in Europe and the United States, to the artist's birthplace in Livorno, Italy, and to that home near the Albright.
Pulling the art together, and telling "Modi's" story in the 224-page catalog accompanying the show, needed voluminous correspondence, old-fashioned horse trading and a measure of good fortune.
Debunking the myth
The story began about 15 years ago, when Wayne's scholarly interest in early 20th century European art led him to Modigliani, whose standing among the great impressionists had been tainted by his reputation as a playboy more interested in drugs, alcohol and women than in putting his prodigious talent to work.
Was that actually so?, Wayne wondered.
During a career cut short by his premature death, Modigliani "clearly was ambitious," Wayne concluded, after much investigation. "You don't have exhibitions all over the world - New York, Rome, London - unless you make it happen. He was consciously trying to leave an imprint on art history."
Legend aside, "something about his paintings mesmerized me," Wayne said. The more he explored Modigliani's journey from Livorno, where he had grown up in a family of Sephardic Jews, to Paris, where he and fellow impressionists like Constantin Brancusi, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Chaim Soutine seemed to hit their creative stride together in the Left Bank section known as Montparnasse, the more Wayne was drawn in.
Moreover, the artist was that rare individual who was accomplished in three media - drawing and sculpture as well as painting.
"His life story interested me. He was Jewish, I'm Jewish. It was just intriguing," Wayne said.
Meeting a muse
And then, while working on his doctoral dissertation in Paris in 1994, Wayne struck gold. He learned that the last person known to have posed for the artist, Paulette Jourdain, was living near him in the Fifth Arrondissment.
Soon Wayne was sitting with the 96-year-old woman in her apartment, sharing her vivid memories of the artist, whom she had met through his art dealer while working as a model in a Montparnasse art school. She sat for "Portrait of Paulette Jourdain" in December 1919, a month before Modigliani died of tubercular meningitis at age 36.
That session had obviously been the high point of Jourdain's long life. As she spoke, Wayne noticed, she was seated "in exactly the same pose, with her hands clasped," that Modigliani had depicted on canvas. Hanging on the apartment walls were photographs of the artist, and a large poster of "Paulette Jourdain."
She remembered Modigliani as "a complete gentleman - not drugged out, drunk or obnoxious," Wayne said. "She even said he had an aristocratic, very cosmopolitan, bearing. It was nice to hear from someone who actually knew him that the Modigliani myth wasn't all true."
The young art historian, "knowing I'd do a Modigliani show someday," began accumulating files on the artist. Scouring even the most obscure journals for references to unknown works, he traced nearly every one of Modigliani's approximately 350 paintings and all 27 sculptures. Name a work and he can tell you whether it is owned by a museum, private collector or dealer.
Planning for "Modigliani and the Artists of Montparnasse" started right after Wayne came to the Albright-Knox from the Portland Museum of Art in Maine in 1999. Letters and e-mails eventually went out to about 100 museums asking whether their Modigliani paintings or sculptures might be made available. Other queries went to art dealers, auction houses and - often through an intermediary - private collectors.
"I asked the owners to contact me, and either I heard from them or I didn't," Wayne said. Many institutions and individuals are understandably reluctant to part with such extremely valuable assets, especially for a traveling exhibit.
"A year on the road is a long time to give up a major work," Wayne observed. For some museums, a Modigliani might be one of only a handful of major works in its collection. The private owner is left with a blank space to stare at until his prized possession returns.
While some collectors enjoy the ego boost that comes from contributing to a major exhibition, others prefer anonymity.
Wayne's pursuit of one work took him to an apartment on Manhattan's wealthy Upper East Side whose occupants remain unknown to him. "I tried to see the name on the mailbox, but couldn't make it out," he said. "I never saw them. I dealt with their lawyer and an assistant."
For the receiving museum in an undertaking like "Modigliani," which drew art from all over Europe and the United States, there are major insurance and logistical concerns.
Each work must be accompanied by a courier, who watches over it from the moment it leaves the owner to the moment of installation to the moment of departure. It's a role Wayne, fellow curator Douglas Dreishpoon and associate curator Claire Schneider often fill in reverse when the Albright sends works out on loan.
Last year, for example, Wayne escorted Albright's famous Picasso, "La Toilette," to Paris for the exhibition "Picasso Erotique."
Of course, insurance premiums for valuable paintings, sculptures and drawings can be prohibitive. For "Modigliani," the Albright-Knox was awarded a certificate of federal indemnity by the National Endowment for the Arts. It is believed to be the first time the NEA agreed to share the risk for a Buffalo exhibit.
Gathering important works was further complicated when a Modigliani exhibit covering roughly the same time frame was scheduled in Paris. Add to that the fact that 30-some major works owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia never leave those museums. "That's about 30 percent of Modigliani's oeuvre," Wayne pointed out. "It's one of the reasons there hadn't been a big Modigliani exhibit in this country for such a long time."
In the end, slightly fewer than half of the Modigliani owners that Wayne contacted responded to his overtures; some flatly rejected them.
But more than enough said "yes" to meet his goal of obtaining 30 major paintings and three sculptures for each site housing the exhibit. After leaving Buffalo in January, "Modigliani" will travel to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
"Each museum got 36 paintings. We got seven sculptures, the other museums five each," Wayne said. "I never had to go to the "B' list."
Wayne secured an additional 22 works by Modigliani's contemporaries from Montparnasse, including Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi and Soutine.
Having a world-renowned museum like the Albright-Knox in his corner was a huge plus, said Wayne, who earned his Ph.D. in art history from Stanford University.
"One thing that helped is that so many museums owed us," he said. "There was a lot of deal-cutting. We called in some past loans, and traded with museums for current loans. For example, we've loaned the Guggenheim Museum lots of things over the years, and they gave us two spectacular works for this show.
"Whenever possible, it's nice to have leverage," added the curator, who organized such earlier exhibitions as "Picasso from the Collection of the Albright-Knox;" "A Day with Picasso: Twenty-four photographs by Jean Cocteau;" "Picasso, Braque, Leger and the Cubist Spirit, 1919-1939;" and "Impressions of the Riviera: Monet, Renoir, Matisse and their Contemporaries."
Luck of the draw
Old-fashioned good luck played a role, too. Back in Paris not long ago, Wayne was discussing his plans for the exhibit when a colleague interrupted: "Did you know there is a great Modigliani drawing in Buffalo?" That was news to this Modigliani scholar. The moral, according to Wayne: "It pays to let people know what you're working on."
On returning to Buffalo, Wayne excitedly called the drawing's private owners, who invited him to come over for a look. When he asked for directions, they told him they lived just behind the Albright-Knox.
The result of all this spadework is what critic Jed Perl, writing recently in the New Republic, called "a project fueled by scholarly passion, not by business calculation," and "an unforgettable museum-going experience."
Such critical praise, coupled with the exhibition's drawing power - more people came during opening week than for any show since "Monet at Giverny" in 1999 - surely must be gratifying. But seeing Modigliani's work spring to life against a stunning blue background in the museum's 1905 building has been Wayne's true reward.
"It's a real pleasure to just walk around and see these sculptures and those paintings, with their incredible luminosity," he said. "It underscores what a great colorist he was."
And, what a formidable artist Modigliani was in his time, among his peers.
Wayne will discuss the making of "Modigliani and the Artists of Montparnasse" from 6 to 8 p.m. Dec. 6 in the gallery's Garden restaurant. Admission will be $35. Reservations are required.