Prince of Painting

That fabled slice of Paris known as Montparnasse, where art and bohemianism flourished in the early years of the 20th century, was often called a "little international republic," and an "artistic Babel." These descriptive terms referred to the presence of a precocious, talented and highly ambitious band of foreign painters who made the neighborhood their artistic home in the first, formative decades of the last century.

One of the most original of that group of artists — perhaps not the king, but surely a prince of one sort or another — was Amedeo Modigliani, who came to Montparnasse in 1908 or thereabouts, and set about reinterpreting the world by means of his unprecedented artistic vision. The painter is the subject of a new biography, called simply Modigliani: A Life, by veteran biographer Jeffrey Meyers, who has produced 45 books in his long career. His newest one is published by Harcourt.

Modigliani has always been characterized by those conversant with the details of his brief, intense life as the model for the peintre maudit, or "cursed artist." Startlingly handsome, a compulsive womanizer with a terrible weakness for whatever drink and drugs were on hand, he would appear, from Meyers' biography, to have been at the mercy of his self-destructive tendencies. He also appears to have been actively involved in cultivating the myth that grew up around him, which his premature death at age 35 only enhanced.

Meyers has a field day with the destructive side of Modigliani's personality, while in his early chapters he rather stiffly maps out his subject's Italian-Jewish background and the influences, both familial and artistic, on his development. The book gets a definite boost once Modigliani leaves Italy for Paris and settles in Montparnasse, where he gets to know most of the other great painters residing there, among them Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi and Chagall. But its the many women he pursued (among them the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova), his numerous addictions and the health problems that eventually killed him, which bring the real writer out in Meyers. The book not only loosens up, it takes off at a relentless clip that doesn't let up until the work's final pages.

'Good Looks, Charismatic Personality'
Modigliani was born in Livorno, Italy, in 1884, into a Sephardic family made up of intellectuals, businessmen and teachers. After Rome, Livorno had the second-largest Jewish population in Italy, and after Amsterdam, it had the second-largest synagogue in Western Europe, where Modigliani became a Bar Mitzvah in 1897. The Jews thrived in the city's open and accepting atmosphere, and its cosmopolitanism, Meyers emphasizes, gave Modigliani both a sense of pride in his origins, Jewish and otherwise (which he carried with him always), and a worldliness that served him well once he settled in Paris and began to create art (for example, according to Meyers, he arrived with a solid command of the French language, thanks to his highly literate, French-born mother's influence).

Much of Modigliani's success with people and in life — even from a young age — was due to his undeniably striking appearance. "Though only five feet five inches tall," writes his biographer, "Modi [as Meyers persists in calling him] had the darkly attractive looks of the young Marcello Mastroianni and the feverish eyes of a consumptive. He dressed in a corduroy suit, a checkered shirt, red scarf and belt, large black hat and scarlet-lined cape. Fernande Olivier, Picasso's sharp-eyed mistress, admired his commanding presence. He was 'young, strong, his beautiful Roman's head compelling attention by the astonishing purity of its features.' The critic Michel Georges-Michel, emphasizing his exotic appearance and hot, lustrous eyes, called him 'a tall upright young man, who had the lithe, springy gait of an Indian from the Andes. He was wearing espadrilles and a tight-fitting sweater. And in his pale face, which was shadowed by a shock of thick hair, his eyes burned beneath their sharp, rugged brows.' "

His looks were catnip to women, and in France his "foreign" appearance provided an added dollop of intrigue. As Meyers notes, Italians were supposed to be more emotional, romantic and sexy than the French. "Modi … made the most of his good looks and charismatic personality. … His method of seduction, according to his writer-friend André Salmon, 'was to accost a girl with a certain formality, and then take her home with him, gently but firmly.' His strange mixture of brooding melancholy and Latin lust was irresistible."

When Modigliani first arrived in Paris, he was a very different person from the tortured individual who died there nearly 15 years later. According to his biographer, at first, he "drank moderately and did not smoke, dressed well and had good manners, looked healthy and prosperous, and loved to discuss art, literature and philosophy. The painter Ludwig Meidner, born the same year as Modi in Silesia, in eastern Germany, the son of a Jewish textile merchant, also arrived in Paris in 1906 and soon befriended him. Meidner praised his attractive qualities, which appealed to both men and women, and recalled that he was 'at that time immaculately dressed and a good-looking, ironical, brilliant young man of 22 … always lively and enthusiastic; highly-spirited, full of imagination and ever inclined to paradoxical moods. … Never before had I heard a painter speak of beauty with such fire.' "

But soon after his arrival in Paris, Meyers writes, Modigliani's personality, dress, behavior and habits changed almost completely. "What accounted for this transformation — from the elegant Italian Dedo to the ragged French Modi? The Parisian avant-garde was notorious for its ability to shock, for its bizarre and often offensive behavior, and he followed the prevailing fashion. In the beginning, Modi's outrageousness (as Picasso later suggested) was something of a pose, an attempt to fit in. He felt he had to renounce his middle-class comforts and conventional values in order to become a real artist. He once told Salmon, with a certain irony, 'I used to be a bourgeois!' He deliberately set out to be a Bohemian and then was trapped by poverty. He chose, as Nietzsche and D'Annunzio had urged, to live dangerously."

Before leaving Italy, the young artist had imbibed ideas from other writers he admired concerning the proper behavior and role of the artist. For example, Meyers tells us that Modigliani drew from Oscar Wilde that "all men kill the thing they love," an idea that had "tragic implications" for the numerous women the painter became involved with near the end of his life.

'Artificial Paradise'
The poet Rimbaud provided Modigliani with "the aesthetic justification for what Baudelaire called the 'artificial paradise' of hashish. Rimbaud had demand-ed an artificially induced, self-destructive, deliberate derangement of all the senses that would enable the tormented, sacrificial, even insane artist to become 'the great invalid, the great criminal, the great accursed' and to plunge into unknown, unheard of, unnameable spiritual visions."

Modigliani gave in to all these temptations, and the combination of excesses with his physical maladies, especially the tuberculosis that ravaged him, eventually killed him at far too young an age.

None of this would mean anything — and Meyers describes the excess in all its excess — if Modigliani had not created works that are touched by an impermeable quality, both of beauty and excellence. His legend is one thing, his artistic legacy another. Writes Meyers in this well-proportioned biography: "In our time Modi's reputation as well as his prices have continued to soar. In the early 1960s a curator at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard declared that Modi's late drawings 'descend directly from the greatest master of the line, Leonardo da Vinci.' … Modi belongs with the major painters — from Giorgione and Raphael to Van Gogh, Seurat and Lautrec — who died in their 30s. Their work, achieved but not completed, suggested the alluring possibility of future masterpieces. But it's not at all clear that Modi would have gone on to create greater works if he'd survived his fatal struggle with tuberculosis. Toward the end, drink and disease had caused a noticeable decline of his artistic power. If he'd recovered his health, he might have continued his career, but this is unlikely. If he stopped drinking he could not paint; and if he drank he became violent and self-destructive. He might not have been able to arrest the downward spiral, even if he gave up alcohol, and may have been too far gone to regain his creative impulse."

It's a sad ending to a short, truncated life. But then, his indeliable art continues to live on.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here