Modigliani: A Life

Biographer Meryle Secrest tackles the messy, "cursed" life of Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani.

Modigliani: A Life By Meryle Secrest Knopf 416 pp.

His friends called him “Modi” but behind his back they grimly joked that it should have been “maudit” – accursed.

As it has been most commonly told by his biographers, the life of Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani is a study in decadence. Although he eventually managed to achieve a reputation as one of the great Europeans artists of the early 20th century, Modigliani is also remembered today as a drunkard and drug addict, a man who lived in squalor and begged for money, a heartless seducer and abandoner of women (who nonetheless seemed to find him irresistible). He died – in terrible pain and perhaps starving – at the age of 35.

For a biographer it’s a life at least as messy as it is colorful. Meryle Secrest, however, is no novice when it comes to tracking unusual lives. Secrest is the author of 10 biographies – her subjects include Bernard Berenson, Salvador Dali, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Stephen Sondheim – and a recipient of the 2006 National Humanities Medal. She approaches Modigliani: A Life with a conviction that the record of his decadence is exaggerated – and yet her telling of his life seems to re-enforce the legend at least as much as it challenges it.

Modigliani grew up in Livorno, Italy, in a Sephardic Jewish family living in “an atmosphere of genteel poverty.” As a child, the boy was “beset” with various illnesses, at least two of which were considered life-threatening and one of which (tuberculosis) would plague him for the rest of his life.

His mother, devoted to helping him in every way possible, was the first to suggest art as a vocation. He studied art in Florence and Venice and as a young man finally made his way to Paris.

Paris, of course, was a splendid place for a young artist to be in 1906. Modigliani turned up in Montmartre and was soon rubbing shoulders with a society that included Picasso, Duchamp, Braque, Gris and others.

Café life was rich but what many would later remember about Modigliani was the way he wanted a drink the minute he arrived at a café. And as he had few resources – his parents supported him to the best of their ability but it was years before his art started to sell – he was generally hoping that someone else would buy. He often traded portraits for drinks and some café patrons said they dreaded the sight of him, portfolio under arm, preparing to swap art for alcohol.

And yet “Modigliani” is laced with testimonials to the artist's charm – at least, when he wasn’t drunk. He is remembered as “brilliant, alive, full of interest.” He was said to be “a charming companion [able to] laugh like a child … making one love and understand him.”

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about “Modigliani: A Life” is that we are always hearing about him – often in fairly superficial terms – from others and we almost never hear anything in his own voice. For much of his life Modigliani doesn’t seem to have written letters and he wasn’t the type to go in for manifestos. (When it came to his art – which progressed from sculpture to the mask-like, elongated oil portraits for which is best remembered today – he would tell those who wondered that his only “ism” was “Modigliani.”)

When it comes to any sense of responsibility to others, he appears – like Frank Lloyd Wright – to have subscribed to the Nietzchean belief in the rights of the extraordinary artist. “People like us … have different rights, different values than do normal, ordinary people because we have different needs which put us – it has to be said and you must believe it – above their moral standards,” Modigliani wrote to a friend as a young man.

Perhaps that explains why, later in life, he was capable of turning his back on two of the three illegitimate children he is believed to have sired. He did seem to adore the little daughter he had with Jeanne Hébuterne, his beautiful and talented young mistress, toward the end of his life, but he did little or nothing to secure the well-being of his little family. When he died, Hébuterne, eight months pregnant, killed herself and their unborn child.

Secrest sustains that in writing about Modigliani previous biographers have bought too fully into the myth of his decadence and have failed to take into account how badly he suffered from illness – and how much he needed alcohol and drugs just to keep going and also to shield himself from vulnerability.

She may be right. But Modigliani leaves behind so little of himself – outside of his art – that there’s really no way of knowing.

Secrest brings much to this book, including rigorous research and a gift for storytelling. What she delivers is an absorbing read, complete with a lively depiction of the Parisian art scene. But as for Modigliani himself, sadly, in so many ways the image of the artist remains as mask-like and mysterious as his portraits.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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