A Modigliani exhibition was ending at the Helsinki Ateneum, and P. and I had to see it before I left for New York. We met at 4 pm in front of the museum, a building with rows of arched windows, some held up by caryatids, and a peaked classical roof.

It’s wonderful to enter such a solid building, with windows already lit up yellow against the winter dusk.

To get to Modigliani you climb two flights of a wide stone staircase, holding onto the curved wood railings. Finland — wood and stone. They’ve even made a little Paris café up on the third floor, with tables and high-backed chairs with potted plants here and there. Maybe so that the ghost of Modigliani will feel at home, in a space that looks like the Paris of 1906, when he first moved there from Italy.

The café was lit up but closed.

Back home Trump would become president in three days. The day I would fly back.

Modigliani painted all his subjects with an oval head, long neck and narrow sloping shoulders. There were five rooms of them. Like they were all part of a family, last name Modigliani, or he saw them that way, although the angles of the heads and the mouths, some very little, gave them clear attitudes, different from each other’s.

He got this kind of stylization from Cycladic totemic figures and African masks, as did his friends Picasso and Brancusi. The museum helpfully puts examples in one of the rooms. I love these stylized faces with their features barely there, or else overdrawn. In my long-ago dark days in Europe, numb from my mother’s death, I lingered once in a Salzburg toy museum, where the faces of the homemade humans stared back cheerfully, impassively. A Salzburg poster still hangs above my bed: two white-faced wooden soldiers, quick black lines for eyes and mouths, feathers sprouting out of heads, mounted on red wooden horses with wheels for legs.

At the Modigliani exhibition I photographed one Cycladic head in a clear plastic box — it was just a white disc, mounted on a stem. No eyes or mouth, but you didn’t need them to know it was a face. In the photograph I’m a shadow holding up my iPhone behind the white face.

© Elizabeth Kendall
© Elizabeth Kendall

Modigliani even painted himself as one of the Modiglianis, a long reddish face mottled with green, and those horizontal oval eyes, long nose and tiny mouth, black skull cap, long neck sticking up from a white lace collar. “Self-portrait as Pierrot.”

In Italy in the Middle Ages, a painted cart arrived in town, pulled by a donkey. Townspeople ran to the Square to see the same old story, yet again. The same characters: the Master, the Master’s Daughter, the Servant, cunning or sad, wearing those clothes, equivalents of masks — black cloaks, white suits, patched dresses. The players on the cart declaimed, danced, kissed, shouted, fought, made up. Commedia dell’arte.

When I look in the mirror, I see myself as forlorn. Does the mirror show one’s true self?

In France, Pierrot was the Servant, but the sad version, with drooping white sleeves and skullcap. He holds communion with the faraway moon. His trickster double and sometime enemy was Harlequin, with his suit of colored diamond patches and short stick. Harlequin scampers but Pierrot wilts. Pierrot is the one with the soul. Harlequin doesn’t have time to have a soul. He’s always in motion, always escaping. I would love to have a piece of clothing made of diamond patches.

Actually, several of my garments fit that description.

Obama is a Pierrot, I suddenly thought in front of Modigliani’s self-portrait. I could see him in those long loose white sleeves, figure drooping onstage. Purity, and melancholy, and a long face with a mobile mouth. In the story, Pierrot loves Columbina, the warm one, the down-to-earth one in the patched dress, but he never gets her. In our lives just now there was a reversal. Our Pierrot got his Columbina and kept her: she — Michelle — was wise enough to claim the melancholy one.

The villain was often Pulchinella, a blend of servant and master, he of the big stomach. He wore a big white blouse buttoned over the stomach and a belt buckled under it, from which hung a coin purse. Everyone understood that the coins made him callous and cruel.

In England Pulchinella became the puppet Punch, of Punch and Judy — those scary shows, supposedly for children. Punch has a long hooked nose curved over his jutting chin. He carries a stick as big as himself called a slap-stick. And pretty much all he does is hit people with his big stick. Especially his wife, Judy. He hits her over and over, in a frenzy. Of course Judy hits Punch back, with her own stick. But she has reason to! Punch has mislaid the Baby. Or even worse, he’s fed the Baby into the sausage machine!

Comedy of misrule.

We stepped from museum into dark winter night. Even in good times, a vague dread descends as one prepares to be flown across an ocean to another continent. My three-days-hence plane would fly into a tunnel of darkness. Into a kingdom of misrule.