Modigliani: A Life

  • Meryle Secrest
  • Knopf
  • 416 pp.
  • May 17, 2011

Amadeo Modigliani lived the myth of the modern artist as counter-bourgeois hero.

Reviewed by Mary Morton

As generally told, the life of Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) neatly fits the contours of the myth of the modern artist as counter-bourgeois hero, originally sketched by Gustave Courbet in the mid-19th century and brilliantly elaborated by Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. All of these men were wholly devoted to the making of art as a spiritual and moral mission as opposed to a stable career. They were unfit for marriage and family; were constantly plagued by financial need, their radically progressive art hopelessly misunderstood by the public; were partial to drugs and alcohol and passionate, fleeting affairs with women. They all died young, or youngish, from the effects of hard living and disease.

The biographer Meryle Secrest has experience in peeling away the surface of art-world myths, having tackled such characters as Frank Lloyd Wright, Bernard Berenson, Salvador Dali and Joseph Duveen. Her talent for transforming heroic narratives into more nuanced stories using information drawn from not only archival sources but living sources as well is displayed in Modigliani: A Life. Secrest moves beyond the volume of literature and cinematic entertainment inspired by Modigliani to focus on the impact of tuberculosis on the artist’s life. She casts in a new light his notoriously bad behavior, his alcoholism, drug use and early death, as well as, more poignantly, his artistic drive.

  The author begins with a thorough account of Modigliani’s maternal and paternal ancestry: in the highly cultured, scholarly Garsin, and the financially astute Modigliani, both established Jewish families in the Italian port town of Livorno, on the western edge of Tuscany. Nurtured through frequent bouts with illness by his loving mother, Amedeo was a beautiful if frail boy, with delicate features that attracted women of all ages. As a teenager, he responded to Nietzschean meditations on the privileged position of the artist in society, above the moral order of the middle class.

In 1906, after training in Florence and Venice, the young man arrived in Paris to make his way as an artist. He fell in with the avant-garde crowd in Montmartre, staying up all night drinking cheap coffee and debating art theory with Picasso, Braque, Derain, Vlaminck, Valadon, Utrillo and Gris. This “refuge of nonconformists and rebels, the indigent, the working poor and all the other untouchables” and the lifestyle of transience, squalor and despair seem to have fueled Modigliani’s creativity, while depleting his physical reserve. Material comfort was not only a low priority but artistically counterproductive. Modigliani himself was incapable of holding on to money for long, showing a preference, conscious or subconscious, for living on the edge. The artist’s productive career was remarkably short. Between 1909 and 1913, he focused on sculpture. Alongside his friend and mentor, Brancusi, he became inspired by African art to simplify figural forms in an effort to penetrate to a perceived essence. In painting, which moved to the center of his production in 1914, he sought to revive portraiture with a similar mission, to extract from his sitters a distillation of their personalities and translate it into “pure” forms. He achieved a unique, personal style, elegant and vaguely classicizing, from which he rarely wavered. The same year he moved to Montparnasse, the new quartier of the avant-garde — marking the true beginning of, as Fernande Olivier put it, his “vie maudite.”

Modigliani’s violent mood shifts from charming and lyrical to haughty, rude and spiteful were the result, Secrest argues, of advancing stages of TB, exacerbated by self-medicating effects of alcohol and opium-laced laudanum. Modigliani himself cultivated a personal myth of addiction as a cover for his fatally contagious state, so afraid he was of  being shunned. “Here was no shambling drunk but a man on a desperate mission, running out of time and calculating what he had to do in order to go on working and concealing his secret for however long remained. … It must have been a courageous and lonely masquerade.” Secrest maintains that TB was an artistic impetus as well, drawing on accounts of other inspired victims — Keats, Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, among them — compelled by a passionate energy to live and create. She credits a “rapturous response to the beauty of life” born of the sharp sense of imminent mortality for Modigliani’s 1917-18 painted series of scandalously erotic, sensual nudes.

The artist’s fatal secret, kept by those who knew in order to preserve Modigliani’s place in this intimate and incestuous community, provides the underlying drama of Secrest’s account. The disease was the leading killer in France circa 1900, and it is hard to believe that people would not have recognized the afflictions of Modigliani. In the multitude of first-hand accounts the author uses as primary material, there are relatively few direct references to the artist’s illness. In her effort to set the record straight, Secrest patiently wades through accounts written from memory by players in Modigliani’s life of episodes infused with drugs and alcohol, high posturing and heated passion. While these stories are quite colorful and frequently compelling, maintaining the line between fact and fiction proves a terrific challenge.

  Modigliani was able to surround himself with loyalists, people like the doctor Paul Alexandre and the dealers Paul Guillaume and Leopold Zborowski, who were attracted to his charismatic personality and believed in his conviction that he was an important artist, a treasure to be preserved. Women adored him, mothered him, paid his bills. In his final years, he managed his own income through sales of paintings, and lived with the young, fragile Jeanne Heburterne, with whom he had a child. Jeanne was devoted to the artist, but seems to have been quite passive in the face of Modigliani’s increasingly erratic behavior, as his illness developed into tubercular meningitis, a disease of the membrane covering the brain and spinal cord. Modigliani’s death in January 1920 was met with some shock, but no one could have been genuinely surprised. Two days after his death, poor Jeanne, pregnant with their second child, jumped to her death out of a window of her parents’ apartment, sealing the romantic tragedy of the Modigliani myth with a gruesome flourish.

Prices for Modigliani’s art instantly exploded. Between 1920 and 1960, no artist’s work increased more in value, and few have been more frequently forged. The problem of attribution is further complicated by the disregard with which the artist treated his own work, passing out drawings and paintings at cafés and hotels to pay his bills. There are titillating stories of his work left behind, neglected and destroyed, given away or sold for a pittance, only to become in later years ludicrously valuable. In June 2010, Christie’s sold a stone head for $52.8 million dollars. In November 2010, one of his nude paintings sold for $68.9 million at Sotheby’s.

Secrest does a valiant job of bringing this over-hyped, over-blown story down to earth with a professionally attuned ear to sifting through unreliable information. She accomplishes this while maintaining a reverence for Modigliani’s artistic accomplishments, which she describes with aesthetic sensitivity (although sadly without the support, in most cases, of color reproductions.) The book is as even-handed a contribution to the passionately contested, often treacherous record as we can expect.

Mary Morton is curator of French paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

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