The Magazine

God in a Dustbin

The brief, tumultuous life of Amedeo Modigliani.

Jul 17, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 41 • By DIANE SCHARPER
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Modigliani

A Life

by Jeffery Meyers

Harcourt, 288 pp., $27

After a night of drunken revelry, Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) was awakened by someone pulling his sleeve. When he opened his eyes, he could see street cleaners laughing at him. Then he realized that he couldn't move. He had spent the night forcibly thrust in a large trash can with his knees bent under his chin. He stank, was covered in filth, and had lost his pale blue sketchbook as well as his identity papers. Modigliani stood up and tried to laugh it off, calling himself "a god in a dustbin."

Only five feet five inches tall, this dustbin god was extraordinarily handsome with thick, dark hair, hot, lustrous eyes, and a strange mixture of brooding melancholy and Latin lust. As Pablo Picasso's mistress put it, Modigliani's beautiful Roman head and nearly perfect features compelled attention. So did his art and life. One of the 20th century's most gifted artists, Modigliani may be the greatest Italian painter since the Renaissance. Yet when he died at age 35 of tubercular meningitis in a charity hospital, he had received almost no recognition for his work.

Modigliani did not paint still lifes, abstract pictures, or animals. He painted a few landscapes à la Cézanne, but concentrated on full-face portraits and nudes presented in a dramatic and confrontational style. With their fluid lines, warm tones, coiled bodies, and elongated necks, his paintings are voluptuous and sensual as well as soulful. Among his subjects were some of the greatest artists and writers of his time.

Although Modigliani didn't keep track of his sculptures and paintings, 25 statues and about 350 paintings have survived--including 36 nudes, 15 portraits of Beatrice Hastings, one of his many lovers, and 23 portraits of Jeanne Hébuterne. Hébuterne was his common-law wife who, nine months pregnant with the couple's second child, committed suicide the day after Modigliani died by throwing herself backward out of her parents' fifth-story window.

In Modigliani, Jeffrey Meyers tries to capture the "protean artist" and show how chaos fueled Modigliani's "alluring and strangely tranquil art." A tall order but, despite the difficulties involved, Meyers generally succeeds.

Modigliani left behind only a few primary sources, including some letters to his mother and friends, several frayed documents (some indicating he intended to marry Hébuterne and adopt their illegitimate daughter) and several poems, which brim with suggestion and ambiguity but not with facts that could be used in documenting a life. In addition, much of his art did not name a model, nor was it signed or dated. Some of it was lost.

Telling Modigliani's story, Meyers distills information from other biographies. The best include Amedeo Modigliani (1952) by Jacques Lipchitz, a close friend of the artist; Modigliani (1967) by the sculptor Pierre Sichel, arguably the most complete portrait of the artist, whose focus is on the relationship between art and chaos in Modigliani's life; and Modigliani: Man and Myth (1958) by the artist's illegitimate daughter, Jeanne, now deceased.

Since much of the high drama has already been covered in numerous books and films, Meyers only touches on the bohemian excess of the artist's life. So if one is looking for a what-happened-between-the-sheets biography, this isn't it. Instead of emphasizing Modigliani's relations with his paramours (including Anna Akhmatova, and Simone Thiroux, as well as those already named), Meyers focuses on the art that developed from these relationships.

He enlivens the book's disappointing black and white reproductions with commentary by art historians and critics, as well as his own detailed descriptions of the paintings. Meyers also emphasizes the places where Modigliani worked and lived, and while this tends to slow the narrative and keep readers at arm's length from the artist, it also grounds the subject, making him seem more alive.

Modigliani's reckless, convulsive, and brief life began in Livorno in 1884. The youngest child of Sephardic parents, Amedeo Clemente Modi gliani, called Dedo by his family, was a mama's boy.

His father was a mild-looking, mild-mannered man who played an insignificant role in the family partly because he was often absent on business. His absences increased when an economic crisis in Italy bankrupted the family business.

Dedo's mother, Eugenia, was trilingual, educated, well-read, and cosmopolitan. An able, though not necessarily inspired, writer, she wrote poetry and earned extra money by translating poetry and reviewing books. His mother's darling, Modigiliani was precious, precocious, frail, and spoiled.