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.

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:

Evoke? Hubhub

Great silent hubhub

In the soul's midnight

O silent cries!

Bayings, calls, melodies,

High, high toward the sun.

Diane Scharper is professor of English at Towson University.

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