The romantic myth of the artist dies hard. Van Gogh in Arles, Gauguin in Tahiti, Caravaggio boozing and brawling in the mean streets of Rome! Wouldn't we much rather hear about the impulsive escapades of the bad boys of art than follow the incremental progress of a bourgeois toiler like Monet, turning out one more view of haystacks with the light striking them just so, or Cézanne, shifting the apples around on his table?
Among 20th-century artists, few can compare for sheer cinematic drama with the Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani, "probably the most mythologized modern artist since Van Gogh," according to the art historian Kenneth Silver. Scenes from the life of Modigliani might include "Modi" hobnobbing with Picasso in Montmartre, having a torrid affair with the married Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (before "the breath of art," as she wrote, had "charred … our two existences"), and ending his long relationship with the English journalist Beatrice Hastings when her new lover drew a gun on him at a drunken party attended by Picasso, Matisse, and Juan Gris.
Modigliani drank heavily, used cocaine and hashish, and, a gorgeous hunk of a man despite his modest height of 5 feet 3 inches, fathered an indeterminate number of illegitimate children. "To say that he was loved by women," Meryle Secrest writes in her well-informed new biography, Modigliani: A Life, "is an almost laughable understatement." Apparently, he had no need of pickup lines. "Sometimes, when drunk, he would begin undressing," a friend reported in a typical account of Modigliani misbehaving, "under the eager eyes of the faded English and American girls who frequented the canteen … then display himself quite naked, slim and white, his torso arched." When his life was cut short by tuberculosis at the age of 35, his final lover, Jeanne, eight months pregnant with their second child, threw herself out of a window. With a life like that, the art can seem like an afterthought. No wonder two biopics of the artist have been released.
The time is right, however, for a renewed appreciation of Modigliani's art. His lyrical portraits and languorous nudes, always more popular with the museum-going public than with art critics, combined the flat patches of color of Cézanne (who died in 1906, the year Modigliani arrived in Paris) with the sinuous grace of Botticelli. Modigliani's almond-eyed faces sometimes resemble masks, as Secrest notes, but his portraits of vibrant characters like Cocteau have a startling immediacy, the personality captured in an arched eyebrow or a mouth pursed just so. He was a sculptor of genius, working side-by-side from 1910 to 1913 with his close friend the great Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi. Secrest is dismissive of what she calls Modigiliani's "short career as a sculptor"—is four years short?—and repeatedly uses the word "experiments" for his work in stone. But critical opinion concerning the 27 or so vigorously conceived limestone heads in existence is on the rise. One that sold recently in France for $52.8 million arrestingly combines an impassive, vertical face with hair billowing back as though caught in the wind, like a Greek goddess turned Parisian flapper.
On the whole, Secrest seems more comfortable with details of Modigliani's life than with his art, often relying on remote sources for her insights. She dutifully follows his training with a succession of Italian artists and his growing interest in archeology and Renaissance art. But when it comes to an assessment of the results, she's at a loss. She incongruously compares one of Modigliani's sculpted heads—based on African masks and other "primitive" models—with Monet's water lilies for their "intimations of infinity." She approaches Modigliani's paintings as though they are filled with coded symbols drawn from alchemy or the occult (black means death; doors stand for rebirth), when the real power of these disarming and vulnerable pictures is right there on the surface, in the fleeting gesture or the gracefully turned neck.
Secrest is at her best in portraying Modigliani's own vulnerability as an outsider in Paris, precariously living hand-to-mouth and painting-to-painting. There is much to be said about Modigliani as a self-consciously Jewish artist. ("I forgot to tell you I'm Jewish," he told Akhmatova.) Modigliani was brought up in a large family of Sephardic origin in the port city of Livorno, with financial interests in banking and mining and close ties to France. He was among the extraordinary number of Jewish artists, many driven from Russia and Poland by pogroms, who settled in Paris during the opening decades of the 20th century. (Some 80 Jewish artists from Montparnasse, as Kenneth Silver has noted, are estimated to have died in the Holocaust.) Well-read and well-connected, Modigliani, who was often described as "aristocratic" by his friends, easily assimilated into French society, and served as a mentor for Jewish artists of the "School of Paris" (a slightly pejorative term reserved for immigrants, as opposed to the "French School" of Matisse or Derain) such as his rough-edged friend Chaim Soutine.