by Meryle Secrest
Knopf, 416 pp., $35
I want a short life but a full one.
Amedeo Modigliani got his wish. In 1920, at age 35, he died, toothless, of tubercular meningitis in a Parisian pauper’s hospital. It was a sordid end to a confident stride into the trenches of la vie maudite. The romance of heroic nonconformity, vital to the cult of bohemia, absorbed the squalor and blessed it. Léopold Zborowski, Modigliani’s primary dealer, declared him “made for the stars.” Clement Greenberg, writing under the pseudonym K. Hardesh, beatified him as one of the “martyrs of bohemia.” Meryle Secrest raises him into a parallel pantheon: that exalted roster of frail consumptives, sanctified through illness and death, who flutter through 19th-century French literature. If our martyr stank of brandy, ether, absinthe, and hashish, it was but cover for his stigmata.
The credibility of Secrest’s portrayal depends on how much porosity you permit in the distinction between facts and atmospherics. This book is significant less for what it tells about Modigliani than as a primer in the devolution of rules of evidence. Facts are few. Dedo, as the family called him, was born in Livorno on July 12, 1884. According to his daughter Jeanne, named after her mother, little more than that can be said with certainty. Her own 1958 study of his life, faulted by Secrest for being too cautious, is prudently concise. Jeanne’s contention that a definitive account “does not and never will exist” has not fazed a legion of subsequent hagiographers.
Modigliani was the fourth child of cultivated, middle-class Sephardic Jews. Coddled at home, the boy was resilient enough to survive typhoid in the epidemic of 1898 and an early bout of tuberculosis. With TB an omnipresent killer at the time, his constitution required a heedfulness that his temperament refused. Charm and good looks opened a door to precocious sexual exploits. His taste for drugs and art advanced in tandem. So did a sense of exemption from social constraints. He wrote to a fellow art student: “We . . . have different rights from normal people, for we have different needs which place us above—one has to say it and believe it—their morality.” By the time he arrived in Paris, 22 and differently moraled, he was on the qui vive for the smart set, café philosophy, and women to put him up for a time. Life is a cabaret, old chum. To prove it, Modigliani produced “at least three” illegitimate children.
He struggled to establish himself as a sculptor before concentrating on painting. Recognition remained elusive. The conventional strains of making do did not sit well with an artist fond of quoting D’Annunzio: “Life is a gift from the few to the many, from those who Know and have to those who do not Know and have not.” Modi slid from dandysme to dereliction, his last years one long morning after. An ugly drunk, he rambled around Montparnasse in a stupor, sometimes sleeping in gutters. He stayed stoned on Nietzsche and Lautréamont, the lure of the abyss, and whatever narcotic was handy to spur—as he believed it would—his creativity. Within two days of his death, Modi’s last bedmate, 22-year-old Jeanne Hébuterne, nearly nine months pregnant with their second child, threw herself out a sixth-floor window. The immolation added an exquisite frisson to his posthumous status as a totem of bohemia. His funeral was princely, funded, and garlanded by his brother Emanuele, the “eminent Socialist.” Someone—Emanuele?—pulled strings for him to be buried alongside French luminaries in Père Lachaise. Modigliani’s ascent to coffeetabledom had begun.
That is the short of it. The long of it unrolls like an ornate megillah, a familiar tale embellished, fancifully, in the margins. Secrest’s chronicle arrives too late in the jour for any compelling archival discoveries. Instead, she picks through hearsay, memoirs, contradictory anecdotes, and the thicket of previous biographies, not to penetrate canonical ardor but to extend it. Modigliani: A Life follows Jeffrey Meyers’s exhaustive 2006 biography, which bore the identical title, and the Jewish Museum’s tendentious 2004 exhibition and monograph Modigliani: Beyond the Myth. That exhibition’s raison d’être was the supposed influence of the artist’s Sephardic heritage on his art. An unconvincing effort, it nevertheless refreshed his mystique by shifting ground onto identity politics. It was a consequential move. Claiming Jewishness as a determinant of Modigliani’s art silences misgivings, removing it from judgment except at peril to the critic.
An experienced biographer of notables in the arts, Secrest understands the terrain. She opens with an excessive curtsy to Marc Restellini, the French art historian charged with publishing the definitive catalogue raisonné of Modigliani’s work. Gratuitous mention of the scholar’s “French Jewish mother” admits ethnicity into his qualifications. It is the first in a parade of red flags. Restellini introduced Secrest to French collectors with an interest in Modigliani. One was Noël Alexandre, son of physician Paul Alexandre, who had been both patron and pusher, supplying Modigliani with drugs and acquiring his production. Noël is heir to, among other things, the hundreds of drawings Modigliani gave his father. Noël authored his own promotional tract, The Unknown Modigliani (1993), based on the father’s recollections: “The popular version of Modigliani as a drunk, with women and drugs—people have invented a personality that didn’t exist. . . . [He was a] man who lived his life nobly.” Secrest angles to reconcile assertions of nobility with the women and drugs that certainly did exist.
She and Restellini attended exhibitions and conducted interviews together, “laughed and argued,” and made pilgrimage to Modigliani’s old apartment. The coziness of the relationship (“the best friend a biographer could ever wish for”) raises antennae: Allegiance to Restellini’s intention to rehabilitate Modigliani’s image cancels all but a pretense to journalistic detachment. The fragile art of biography, like the historical spirit that informs it, is critical. But the burden of Secrest’s narrative is devotional.
Restellini’s catalogue raisonné, on which fortunes depend, and Secrest’s Life both appear in 2011. To shortcircuit any chariness on that point, Secrest volunteers that Art was her sole muse: An “interior stir,” felt amid the Modiglianis in Washington’s National Gallery, prompted the book. “Monumentality—otherworldliness—the transcendental—such thoughts rose to the surface and whirled around my head.” It was a Pauline moment, a revelation that points of view “would be turned upside down and transformed.” Secrest snubs testimony uncongenial to her predetermined agenda but includes it nonetheless. Reported speech is notoriously unreliable except when it is not. Modi was a high-minded, generous intellectual except when he was not. The result is a clever blend of special pleading, applied belle-lettrism, insinuation,
Her argument is an edifice of conjecture, clogged with the catchwords of supposition. Here, Secrest divines that Modigliani “may even have had” a near-death experience, an extravagant gamble based solely on Katherine Anne Porter’s description of her own tubercular visions. There, she speculates that he “could have” stumbled across Schopenhauer’s theories; if so, they “would have been” attractive. On it goes, surmise and improvisation engineering a mood to camouflage material gaps. Among the probablys and perhapses, one is decidedly telling: After describing Modigliani’s magnetic effect on women, Secrest adds, “Perhaps he was also loved by men but there is no evidence of this.” Quite so—a groundless comment. But useful for working an audience.
Things proceed by elegant bluff: “His death was bad enough, but hers was almost Greek in its tragic dimension. . . . They were star-crossed lovers whose brief, haunted lives seemed made to order for the ‘vies romancées’ and ‘vies imaginaires’ so popular in the 1920s.” That sentence typifies the feints on which the narrative is built. It affirms the myth and belies it at the same time, seeming to observe it from a critical distance. Nothing is known of Modigliani’s 1906 arrival in Paris. Undeterred, Secrest dips into the New Historicist kettle for sensations of verisimilitude:
Perhaps [Modi] was ready to start work but feeling, as John Dos Passos did a decade later, that the day was “too gorgeously hot and green and white and vigorous.” . . . Or perhaps, like the American art student Abel Warshawsky two years later, Modigliani arrived one rainy night in the cheerless darkness . . . smelling gasoline mingled with roasting chestnuts.
Maybe it was spring; maybe fall. Tone stands proxy for fact. Little is known of the progress of Modigliani’s ill-health. His daughter placed little emphasis on it, and he did not seek treatment. Secrest, by contrast, grants TB its own chapter. “The Blood-Red Banner” diagnoses Modigliani by analogy to one Howard Olmstead, son of an astronomy professor at Yale in 1837 (“the hemorrhage returned in all its violence”), Edvard Munch (“I could feel the blood rolling inside my chest”), Katherine Mansfield (“I cough and I cough”) and Keats (“Youth grows pale . . .”). Thomas Mann’s Hans Castorp, Chopin, Emerson, Goethe, Schiller, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sidney Lanier, even James Joyce, among others, are called to the examining room. Only Thérèse of Lisieux is missing. The 19th-century lore of early death and redemptive suffering carries the aura of tragic inevitability conjured for Modi.
Secrest alleges that he was a good enough actor to keep his condition secret and disguise symptoms of a highly recognizable disease. If true, was he not cold-bloodedly endangering everyone around him, especially lovers? Yes, but—here comes a shrug and a wink—Modi, a “born aristocrat” to Paul Alexandre, was just a typical Italian peacock when it came to women. And naturally he refused medical attention; he needed the excitement of Paris, not a sanitarium. D’accord?
Secrest suggests that Hébuterne’s death was a personal rebuke to all who neglected Modi: “The event took on the dimensions of a Greek tragedy. . . . now she had repaid them for their indifference; ‘every suicide is perhaps a repressed assassination’ as Gustave Flaubert commented.” Literary effect gilds a rancid lily. There is a less epic explanation for the suicide. Hébuterne’s parents were not the better sort that Modi’s family represented. Unpoetic French Catholics, they initially rejected his mother’s request to have their daughter, buried in Bagneux, dug up and installed alongside Modi in Père Lachaise.
Why thwart maternal sentiment? Secrest pins the tail on the father: “One imagines Achille was the one who resisted. After all, his daughter was a suicide and a baby killer. How could she deserve a place of honor?” It is a nasty, misleading shot in the dark: Hébuterne’s father had no reason to gratify Eugénie Modigliani. Her son, callous and unfaithful, was the agent of his daughter’s lethal degradation. Modi had reneged on his many promises to marry Héburterne, leaving her, the child she was carrying, and baby Jeanne nonentities under French and Italian law. (Art historian Carol Mann, writing in 1980, tells of him getting too drunk to make it to the registry office to acknowledge paternity.) Again, it was left to Emanuele to use his resources, this time to finagle eventual legal status for the child.
The real question is: On what grounds did Modigliani deserve his place of honor? Little, in the eyes of leading art historians of the period. Modigliani is absent from Meyer Shapiro’s authoritative survey, Modern Art. Kenneth Clark’s classic study The Nude ignores him. The Visual Arts: A History, by the eminent Hugh Honour and John Fleming, makes no mention of him. Collective silence testifies to the formulaic monotony of an artist who never equaled his sources: Cézanne, Picasso, and Brancusi. Secrest notes the omissions but rushes to attribute them to the prodigious number of forgeries on the market. The politics of fakes distracts from the issue of Modigliani’s status as a minor modernist. Yes, Modigliani is one of the most counterfeited modern artists. Like Willie Sutton, forgers go where the money is. (“Nude Sitting on a Sofa” sold at Sotheby’s last November for $68.9 million.) The huge number of fraudulent Modiglianis has held up publication of the catalogue raisonné for nearly a decade. But that bears on the market, not the life. (The single plum in this book is Gary Tinterow’s admission that the Metropolitan Museum has never risked having its Modiglianis subjected to forensic analysis.) The high-stakes minefield of attribution is outside a biographer’s domain, but Secrest plays referee, eager to discredit Jeanne Modigliani (her drinking, her bad haircut) and Restellini’s rivals in judgment. Her presumption of tubercular intrigue is less plausible than Carol Mann’s insight into her subject’s slow suicide: “There must have been a moment when Modigliani saw with great clarity the dead-end his art was heading for, and it must have terrified him.”
Much has washed under the cultural bridge since Secrest’s 1979 biography of Bernard Berenson was shortlisted for a Pulitzer. By now, we are used to the claim that there is no truth; there are only readings. A less partisan reading of Modigliani’s life would skip surges of ornamental erudition and go straight to Paradise Lost. Milton understood bohemia before its 19th-century manifestation. His Lucifer was the first bohemian: “Non serviam,” bohemia’s primordial cry. It was the lesion on Modigliani’s will, not his lung, that shaped his end.
Maureen Mullarkey, a painter who writes on art and culture, keeps a blog at www.studiomatters.com.