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Modern Martyr

The brief, bohemian transit of Amedeo Modigliani.

Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By MAUREEN MULLARKEY
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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,
and guesswork.

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.

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