Meryle Secrest's Modigliani: A Life:drugs, alcohol, sex, TB, plus fabulous sculptures and paintings.

Reading between the lines.
March 9 2011 10:21 AM

Torrid Life, Transcendent Art

It's awfully hard to revise the romantic myth of Modigliani.

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While there seems little evidence that Modigliani's family suffered from overt anti-Semitism, Secrest uncovers other signs of stress and underlying tension. Financial setbacks plunged the family "from wealth to want" just before Modigliani's birth in 1884. One of his mother's sisters committed suicide, while another was institutionalized for mental illness. His brother Emanuele, a major figure in the Italian Socialist Party who was imprisoned for his views as a young man, was later forced to flee the country when Mussolini rose to power. Modigliani's youthful bouts with life-threatening diseases, including typhoid and scarlet fever, were part of a larger pattern of family suffering. Nonetheless, his mother, a literary translator and novelist, understood his vocation.

With her richly textured account of his family origins and training, Secrest persuades us that Modigliani was indeed a hardworking and ambitious artist who was determined, against all obstacles, to succeed in Paris. But Secrest's primary aim is not a fresh take on Modigliani's art. Instead, she wishes to destroy, once and for all, what she calls the "legend" of his life. "It is axiomatic," as she sums up the prevailing view, "that Modigliani was a brilliant young artist who ruined his health and died prematurely." This Modigliani myth, she contends, "is based on a tragic misconception." Modigliani was not self-destructive, she argues, but was instead a heroic survivor of a series of devastating illnesses, before succumbing, after a long battle, to TB. She sounds like a defensive family member when she claims that Modigliani "only drank in moderation," "experimented with hashish along with everyone else," and didn't inhale.

In her view, Modigliani deliberately erected an elaborate smoke screen of increasingly flamboyant behavior—drinking, drugs, and womanizing—in order to conceal his true secret, tuberculosis, the shameful fin-de-siècle equivalent of AIDS, transmitted, it was thought, through "contamination," dirty bed-sheets, and squalor. "The received wisdom is that he drank himself to death," she writes. "The reverse is the case; alcohol and drugs were the means by which he could somehow keep functioning, the necessary anesthetic, as well as hide the great secret that must be kept at all costs." He was, in her view, a brilliant actor. "Here was no shambling drunk but a man on a desperate mission, running out of time and calculating what he had to do in order to go on working and concealing his secret for however long remained. He was gambling, and willing to take the consequences. It must have been a courageous and lonely masquerade."

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It's actually Secrest who sounds a bit desperate here, turning up the volume to conceal a thin and unconvincing theory. Isn't it possible that Modigliani was in fact a shameless drunk and drug abuser—"a craving, violent bad boy, overturning tables, never paying his score and insulting his best friends," as Hastings wrote—who also tried to hide his fatal illness? Couldn't he have been both self-destructive and a serious and gifted artist who worked hard in the time allotted to him?

The real irony of Secrest's revisionist view of Modigliani is this. After all her labor to destroy the myth of Modigliani as a self-destroying artist who died young, she has managed to substitute the oldest of all the tragic myths of the bohemian artist: the consumptive painter dying for art in his garret. She repeatedly aligns Modigliani's fate with the famous consumptives of 19th-century art, especially Keats, "that fellow sufferer," and Chopin. She invokes the doomed heroines of La Traviata and La Bohème. Ultimately, it's not from the realm of legend that she wants to rescue Modigliani. She just wants a different legend, one that reflects better on the man she rightly admires.

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Christopher Benfey is Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke. His latest book, A Summer of Hummingbirds, about writers and artists in Gilded Age America, has just been published by the Penguin Press.

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