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.