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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He was also a beautiful child: A photograph taken of the one-year-old boy already shows the thick, dark hair, full sensual lips, and large penetrating eyes that made the adult Modigliani so attractive. By his 14th birthday, however, he had contracted typhoid fever, tuberculosis, and pleurisy, and he had the feverish eyes of a consumptive which, Meyers suggests, made him all the more alluring.

According to family lore, Modigliani, delirious with fever, had fantasies of the masterpieces in Italy's churches and art museums and dreamed that he would become a great artist. Dropping out of school when he was 14, Modigliani studied art in a Livorno academy influenced by the Italian Impressionists. He also attended life-drawing classes; both experiences inspired his later work. But no sooner did he make progress in his chosen vocation than he again became seriously ill.

To help him recuperate, his mother took him to Italy's warmer south, where Rome captured Modigliani's imagination.

"Its [Rome's] feverish delights, its tragic landscape, its beautiful and harmonious forms," he wrote to a friend, "all these are mine through my thought and my work." But Modigliani never completely recovered from tuberculosis, and because he lived a profligate life, his health was always poor. (He had to give up sculpture because the dust harmed his bad lungs.) At best, Modigliani was subject to frequent respiratory illnesses; at worst, he experienced debilitating episodes of hemorrhaging.

After studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, then in Venice and in Rome, Modigliani moved to Paris in 1906 and opened a studio in Montmartre. Two years later, he relocated to the less expensive Montparnasse, where he tried to augment his mother's monthly allowance by selling his paintings and drawings in cafes. Modigliani became friends with many of the important artists of the time, including Picasso, Marc Chagall, Lipchitz, Jacob Epstein, Chaim Soutine, and Maurice Utrillo. He also became enamored of African sculpture and Byzantine art, and both exerted major influences on his work. The tranquil features of African sculpture led Modigliani to simplify and exaggerate his models' faces. The sinuous, elongated figures, dark skin, tilted heads, almond-shaped eyes, tiny mouths, and sharp noses of Byzantine icons also inspired his style.

But Paris also propelled Modi gliani's tendencies to dissipation and self-destruction. Soon the handsome, dreamy youth turned from a mama's boy into a womanizer and peintre maudit.

Lunia Czechowska, a friend and model and one of the few who refused to be seduced by him, described Modigliani's method of painting and drinking:

I can see him now, in his shirtsleeves, his hair tousled, trying to put my features down on canvas. From time to time his hand would extend towards a bottle of cheap brandy. I could see that the alcohol was having its effect, he was getting increasingly excited; I no longer existed, he only saw his painting. He painted with such violence that the painting fell on its head as he leaned forward to look at it more closely.

Although not known as a poet, Modigliani wrote verse and loved Dante; he would declaim passages from the Inferno from memory. Inspired by Anna Akhmatova, the great Russian poet who would become his first muse, he read and studied Russian poets and the French Symbolists like Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. Lipchitz was once awakened at three in the morning by Modi gliani's pounding on the door, demanding a volume of poetry by François Villon. When Lipchitz gave him the book, the drunken artist settled in a chair and began to read the poems aloud. The neighbors complained vociferously, but he continued to read and drink, his voice growing louder to drown out the discordant noise around him.

Modigliani took increasingly to alcohol, opium, hashish, absinthe, gin, and anything "he could get down his throat." His patrons used wine and whiskey to increase his productivity. One art dealer would lock Modigliani in a basement with a model and a bottle of cognac. But even as his relationships, finances, social status, and health deteriorated, his creative powers remained until nearly the end of his life. At that time, Modigliani wrote several obscure and untitled poems in French in which he tried to cope with his sense of impending doom. One of them muses on the failure of his artistic ambitions; another contemplates death as an escape from illness; still another, echoing St. John of the Cross, refers to the tortured artist's own "dark night of the soul."

It is ironic that Modigliani wrote poetry to say what he could not express in art. Here he captured his own madness and method, as well as the whole scope of his art and life: