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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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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

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