Between Deeds and Dreams: Identity as Phantasm (A Case Study in Diasporic Identities)

  • Abstract:

    My presentation addresses key works of Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) and Marc Chagall (1887-1985) in relation to intensifying debates over national identity that pervaded early-twentieth-century France. I show how their work both addressed and undermined the dominant visual culture, which was widely-disseminated through physiognomic caricatures and anti-Semitic tracts. This visual culture constructed a normative, white Europeanism against which non-European identities were, and continue to be, defined as different. A static figure of the Jew was explicitly targeted as the paradigm of “difference.” Modigliani’s and Chagall’s contrasting bodies of work reflected their diverse formations in the worlds of Ashkenaz and Sepharad, thus revealing the fluidity of Jewish identity and imploding any temptation towards essentialism. Specifically, I show how Chagall’s Jew series (ca. 1911-15) destabilized fixed Jewish stereotypes via color and form. In contrast, Modigliani’s early, racialized portraits gave way to an eradication of race altogether in his later portraiture (c. 1916-19). This utopian gesture emerged from his Italian-Sephardic heritage. Both artists’ work approached prevailing visual culture from marginalized Jewish perspectives, and addressed salient issues facing an otherwise multifaceted people scattered throughout the world. Their imagery directly countered the ethno-centrism and anti-Semitism that, coursing through Post-Dreyfus France, would have widespread and devastating consequences on Jews and other fringe populations throughout Europe in the decades to come. What is more broadly at stake here is that both artists reveal identity itself as a phantasm: an illusion that operates both individually and collectively. Despite their immateriality, phantasms are linked to the social realm. They emerge from a web of cultural influences, create social roles and identities, and can result in unspeakable violence. Lastly, Chagall’s and Modigliani’s subversive portraits reveal the power of art as a means of both producing and transfiguring notions of identity within dominant visual culture.