By Meryle Secrest
Knopf, 387 pages
Some artists are recognizable by their subject matter, others by their mannerisms, but with a tiny handful the mannerisms are so pronounced as to become the subject itself. So it was with Amedeo Modigliani, whose portraits (he painted little else) all seem variants of one primal archetype: an elongated, sinuous body that tapers to a cylindrical neck and a cocked head, upon which are set a rather anemic face, pupilless eyes, a long chiseled nose, and wryly pursed lips. Once Modigliani realized his mature style, he maintained it with remarkable consistency until his death in 1920 at the age of 35.
That death was the stuff of legend. The day after learning the news, his mistress Jeanne Hébuterne, eight months pregnant with their second child, flung herself out of her apartment window. The trio of deaths sealed Modigliani’s image as a kind of tragic bohemian Falstaff with a bountiful appetite for wine, women, and hashish, and a gift for beguiling patrons, landlords, and a long string of artist’s models. He was also a Jew, a fact usually mentioned only as an afterthought. Now his Jewish identity is given considerable attention in Meryle Secrest’s new biography, which seeks to correct the caricature of Modigliani as a clownish bohemian and to show how much his behavior was shaped by the chronic tuberculosis that eventually killed him. In the process, she reveals much about the artist, his family, and the world he inhabited—although, in the end, not nearly as much about his art.
Amedeo Modigliani was born in the Italian city of Livorno in 1884 to a downwardly mobile bourgeois family (their lucrative lead mine in Sardinia had gone bankrupt the year before). His mother was the dominant personality. Born in Marseilles as Eugénie Garsin, she was a vivacious woman of lively intellectual interests who wrote a witty family history that reached back to the 18th century and even claimed a distant relationship to Spinoza. Secrest draws heavily from this history and shows Eugénie’s children inherited her intensity (Modigliani’s older brother became the publisher of a socialist newspaper, for which he spent time in prison).
Even in his earliest photographs, Modigliani was spectacularly handsome, and he learned the easy charm that comes with great good looks. He began to study art at the age of 14, absorbing a late provincial form of impressionism and, in the process, tuberculosis (along with three fellow students). After further study in Florence and Venice, and some contact with the creators of futurism, he arrived in Paris in 1906, then at the outset of what would be the richest and most turbulent decade in the cultural life of the city. Apart from some brief visits to Livorno, he would remain there for the rest of his life.
Modigliani did not find his footing at once. He was drawn to the fauves, those self-styled wild men whose deliberately primitive drawing appealed to him, even as their garish color and compositional sense offended his sense of order. His distinctive sense of form seems to have come from his interlude as a sculptor, which began in 1909. Modigliani tackled sculpture not as an academic, modeling in plaster or clay, but rather carving directly in stone, and he used the physical effort as a way of giving expressive force to the sculpture, as in primitive art. For several years, he made abstracted and highly stylized figures, whose elongated forms and slender chiseled noses are reminiscent of his later paintings. These owe much to the sculptor Brancusi, who had convinced him to take up the art in the first place, but they also show a keen awareness of African art, which Modigliani had come to admire.
After having some success, Modigliani abruptly abandoned sculpture in 1913, perhaps because the inhalation of limestone dust stressed his already weakened lungs. He eventually hit on a method for realizing the forms he had come to master in two-dimensional art in stone. He would first make a life drawing and transfer it to another drawing by means of carbon paper, tracing over it in a loose manner that eliminated detail and simplified the outlines. Here he created the smooth continuous contours, seemingly drawn without the brush ever having been lifted from the canvas, that are the mark of his mature painting. In his portraits, the outlines swing gracefully and rhythmically, as if flicked like a lasso.
Modigliani’s charm and his intriguing portraits soon attracted patrons, particularly Paul Alexandre, a wealthy physician who provided commissions and lodging. He also hosted a weekly literary salon in which the works of Baudelaire and Verlaine were read and analyzed (although a photograph in the book depicts a rather unbuttoned affair, with a turbaned Alexandre directing a nude model with a baton while several couples look on languidly). Like so much else, this ended in 1914, when Alexandre was called to the front. For the duration of the war, Modigliani oscillated between solvency and penury, while remaining cheerfully impervious to adversity.
Secrest’s real interest seems to be the social and not the artistic life of Modigliani. And his social life was unremitting. She devotes considerable attention to his lovers, two of whom were also writers: the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and the journalist Beatrice Hastings, each of whom wrote a memoir of Modigliani. Of the two, Hastings was the more flamboyant. A South African divorcée who was even more of a libertine than Modigliani, she arrived in Paris in June 1914 to found the literary journal New Age. They soon met and she was captivated from the start; the oblique references to him in her weekly column suggest a teenager’s coy Facebook postings (“the bad garçon of a sculptor . . . the pale and ravishing villain”). They soon moved in together.
Modigliani and Hastings were a conspicuous couple during those wartime years when the diminished cultural life of Paris consisted of foreign-born artists such as Juan Gris, Diego Rivera, and Pablo Picasso (the only cultural figure of note to spend both world wars pleasurably in Paris) or wounded veterans like Georges Braque or Blaise Cendrars. Most were present at the tumultuous dinner party in which Modigliani and Hastings ended their affair. In one version, her new lover fired a shot at Modigliani but missed, after which Hastings flung Modigliani down the stairs. In any event, he had already moved on to Jeanne Hébuterne. Ultimately, Hastings would follow her successor into suicide.
Only at the end of the war did Modigliani at last begin to achieve public recognition, especially in England. In 1919 Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, the idiosyncratic collectors, brought a group show to London in which Modigliani was the surprise sensation. But by then, Modigliani’s tuberculosis had flared up again, and before the show ended his dealer ordered that all sales be suspended. It was a ghoulish move, based on the cold calculation that prices would soar upon his death. As indeed they did, even for the forgeries that immediately began to exploit Modigliani’s readily imitable style (and continue to do so today).
It is often the case with a larger-than-life figure, particularly one who is known chiefly through oral testimony, that the anecdotes crowd out the subject himself. And it was only natural, given his untimely death, enigmatic paintings, and charmingly erratic personal life that Modigliani would be the subject of wild stories. Many concentrate on the poverty or depict him besting landlords or cadging free meals, anecdotes of a generic type that can be assigned to any bohemian artist. But in a kind of literary Gresham’s Law, the more outlandish anecdotes invariably crowd out the more sober reminiscences, depicting Modigliani only at his most drunken, or most belligerent, or most squalid. The workaday purposeful artist is scarcely to be found. Much of the oral testimony out of which Secrest has composed her biography is of this mythic sort. To her credit, she brings a lively skepticism to the reading of these retroactive accounts, and she ekes out the thin factual material—the authoritatively dated incidents and events—with a great deal of background material about life in Paris, about the pathology of tuberculosis, about the sociology of suicide. But all the social history cannot disguise the void at the center.
Secrest is a professional biographer whose efficient and brisk biographies appear regularly, sometimes twice a year, and her subjects have ranged from Frank Lloyd Wright and Stephen Sondheim to Salvador Dalí and Leonard Bernstein. But while she is a gifted student of social milieu, she seems rather less interested in art. It is not even certain that she always has a clear picture in her mind of the paintings she mentions. For example, on one page we learn how Modigliani kissed a photograph of Cézanne’s Boy in a Red Vest whenever the artist’s name was mentioned; a few pages later, he astonishes Alexandre with his prodigious powers of recall by drawing Cézanne’s Boy in a Red Waistcoat by memory. Is this the same painting? (In French the title is identical, and it applies to at least four related paintings.) Presumably the feat is less stupendous if Modigliani had been kissing the image several times a day.
Nor does Secrest address the remarkable consistency of Modigliani’s work, its formulaic quality and sense of mass production. To be sure, many artists prefer to sail in narrow channels, exploiting the tools that have served them well. And had he lived as long as, say, Picasso, it may well be that his art would have evolved. Or not. Given the debauched life that Secrest details, the thoughtful assimilation of new influences may have been beyond him; it may be that all he could do was exploit his small but well-developed repertoire of devices.
The sources of Modigliani’s idiosyncratic style are not at all mysterious. But out of them he made something quite distinct. To some extent this distinctive quality derives from the cartoon-like nature of Modigliani’s portraits, with their absence of expression and nearly childlike drawing. But if cartoon-like, they are the very opposite of caricatures. A caricature works by exaggerating certain facial features, but his portraits suppress them, instead standardizing the faces and making them rather generic. Any individuality that lingers in his models is largely the result of their specific hairstyles and clothing, which—because they are the aspects of appearance over which people have the most control—we accept as representing someone’s personality. But if one masks over the hair and clothes in Modigliani’s portraits, it is striking how similar they are.
It is this curious tension between these specific markers of individuality and the schematic face on which they are affixed that gives Modigliani’s art its inscrutable appeal. Scholars use the term “archaic smile” to describe the peculiarly amused grin on early Greek statues that is applied to otherwise rigid faces. Modigliani, who admired archaic art, seems to have pursued the same goals.
Is there a distinctive Jewish component to any of this? While Secrest makes great claims for how Modigliani’s career was shaped by his disease, she has next to nothing to say about the impact of his religion. Of course, he was hardly the only Jewish artist drawn to Paris in the first decade of the twentieth century; there were also Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine, Jacques Lipchitz, Sonia Delaunay, and many others. But these were all of Russian origin, and he stood apart by virtue of his Italian upbringing and his bourgeois family. He himself did not stress his Jewish background, but he did not conceal it either. “I carry no religion,” he once told a Jewish friend from Palestine, “but if I did it would be the ancient Jewish religion of my ancestors.”
The fact is, the Jewish tradition in the arts has always shied away from the sensuous depiction of the human form, which is the central subject of Western art from classical antiquity to the Renaissance. The first Jewish artists of note, such as Pissarro or Chagall, found ways to make highly personal art without depicting the human figure, either by concentrating on landscape or by using graphic form. Here Modigliani was an anomaly, the first significant Jewish artist to paint voluptuous nudes, and to use the human form as an instrument of personal expression. One wishes that Secrest, in this otherwise poignant and rather haunting book, had made more of this.