“People like us . . . have different rights, different values than do ordinary people because we have different needs which put us . . . above their moral standards.” —Modigliani
Amedeo (“Beloved of God”) Modigliani was considered to be the quintessential bohemian artist, his legend almost as infamous as Van Gogh’s. In Modigliani’s time, his work was seen as an oddity: contemporary with the Cubists but not part of their movement. His work was a link between such portraitists as Whistler, Sargent, and Toulouse-Lautrec and that of the Art Deco painters of the 1920s as well as the new approaches of Gauguin, Cézanne, and Picasso.
Jean Cocteau called Modigliani “our aristocrat” and said, “There was something like a curse on this very noble boy. He was beautiful. Alcohol and misfortune took their toll on him.”
In this major new biography, Meryle Secrest, one of our most admired biographers—whose work has been called “enthralling” (The Wall Street Journal); “rich in detail, scrupulously researched, and sympathetically written” (The New York Review of Books) —now gives us a fully realized portrait of one of the twentieth century’s master painters and sculptors: his upbringing, a Sephardic Jew from an impoverished but genteel Italian family; his going to Paris to make his fortune; his striking good looks (“How beautiful he was, my god how beautiful,” said one of his models) . . . his training as an artist . . .and his influences, including the Italian Renaissance, particularly the art of Botticelli; Nietzsche’s theories of the artist as Übermensch, divinely endowed, divinely inspired; the monochromatic backgrounds of Van Gogh and Cézanne; the work of the Romanian sculptor Brancusi; and the primitive sculptures of Africa and Oceania with their simplified, masklike triangular faces, elongated silhouettes, puckered lips, low foreheads, and heads on exaggeratedly long necks.
We see the ways in which Modigliani’s long-kept-secret illness from tuberculosis (it almost killed him as a young man) affected his work and his attitude toward life ; how consumption caused him to embrace fatalism and idealism, creativity and death; and how he used alcohol and opium with laudanum as an antispasmodic to hide the symptoms of the disease and how, because of it, he came to be seen as a dissolute alcoholic.
And throughout, we see the Paris that Modigliani lived in, a city in dynamic flux where art was still a noble cause; how Modigliani became part of a life in the streets and a world of art and artists then in a transforming revolution; Monet, Cézanne, Degas, Renoir, et al.—and others more radical—Matisse, Derain, etc., all living within blocks of one another.
Secrest’s book, written with unprecedented access to letters, diaries, and photographs never before seen, is an extraordinary revelation of a life lived in art . . . Here is Modigliani, the man and the artist, seemingly shy, delicate, a man on a desperate mission, masquerading as an alcoholic, cheating death again and again, and calculating what he had to do in order to go on working and concealing his secret for however much time remained . . .
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Meryle Secrest was born and educated in Bath, England, and lives in Washington, D.C. She is the author of ten biographies and is the recipient of the 2006 National Humanities Medal.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Sigh out a lamentable tale of things, Done long ago, and ill done. -John Ford, The Lover's Melancholy
My search for Amedeo Modigliani began a few years ago in the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. I had always known about this Italian artist, who lived in Paris at the same moment as Romaine Brooks did, an American expatriate with a similar passion for portraiture, about whom I wrote. Both took singular paths but moved in different circles, to put it mildly. There were other differences. Whereas Romaine Brooks's success in 1910 was immediate-Robert de Montesquiou called her "A Thief of Souls"-Modigliani's achievements took decades to be appreciated. Whereas Romaine Brooks is a minor art historical footnote nowadays, Modigliani's reputation continues to soar, to judge from the prices paid for his paintings. Romaine's work, with its monochromatic palette, came, as Hilton Kramer wrote, at the end of the Whistler inheritance; Modigliani's was outside every movement. Yet one could perceive a searching intelligence at work in both, infusing their images with the same rigorous intensity. I was slowly becoming as interested in him as I had been in her. Then I found his art.
In contrast to the neoclassical National Gallery created by John Russell Pope, with its elegant detailing and hushed, inviting galleries, the East Wing's rigorous spaces of pink granite, steel, and stone, and its chasms of glass, inhibit, rather than welcome, an aesthetic response. Machines for living are one thing, habitations of the spirit another, and so I wandered one day by accident into one of its rooms off the main concourse. There I came upon eight Modigliani paintings and one sculpture, tucked away unobtrusively in a diamond- shaped room. The matte-finish walls in a grayed-off cream, the ceiling spotlights, and the industrial-weight carpeting had the negative virtue, at least, of not competing with the presence of these hidden jewels.
The collection had been assembled by Chester Dale, who, like many other great collectors, was a genius at financial prestidigitation, was small, large-featured, and plain. Having a sense of style, he compensated for this handicap with flamboyant hats, heavy and expensive rings, and an indefatigable willingness to offer himself as a model to such artists as George Bellows and Diego Rivera. Perhaps the most telling portrait that resulted was by Salvador Dalí, who depicted the collector looking out complacently from the frame, bearing a solemn and unmistakable resemblance to his poodle. By then Dale was acquiring paintings as relentlessly as he had once pursued stock options, thanks to his first wife, Maud. She nagged and prodded her husband to buy Modiglianis by the dozen at a moment, in the early 1920s, when they could almost be had in job lots.
The Modigliani room was being patrolled by a taut-looking, gum-chewing guard with a Fu Manchu moustache and a wary expression. When asked how much he liked being in that room, he said, "I don't." A few people were wandering through, a couple speaking Russian and a short Japanese man in glasses and a black shirt. I stopped first beside Modigliani's portrait of Monsieur Deleu, painted in 1916, which I had seen in reproduction but which I could almost say I had never seen, since the work itself was so startlingly different. Instead of what looked, from picture books, to be an uninteresting study of a heavyset, black- haired man with a pursed mouth in flat planes of gray, black, and russet, this was a revelation.
The expression, at first glance a caricature, was in fact full of dexterously applied details, such as a touch of light in the left eye, a shadow under an eyebrow, and the play of volumes around the mouth and chin. What had seemed superficial was in fact full of nuance. Was he frowning slightly, or mulling a point, or drawing back from life itself?
The sense of enigmatic intent extended to the dappled light and shade on the sitter's jacket and the close attention given to what is usually least considered, i.e., the background. Each stroke of the brush seemed to have been placed with a feeling of finality, even inevitability. Here was a powerful sensibility at work, at once assured, vital, and subtle, qualities which no reproduction could adequately convey.
I had the same sensation of seeing a work as if for the first time with the portrait hanging beside it, Madame Amédée (Woman with a Cigarette), painted two years later. This depiction of a heavyset woman in a black dress, hand on hip and a cigarette dangling between her fingers, gives little clue in reproduction to the force of her personality at a distance of five feet. That air of disdain, those raised brows, the puckered mouth-could there be a hint of self-doubt in her pose? The impression is reinforced by the artist's sloping floor and the realization that his model is not actually sitting on her chair but floating above it. Hauteur, insouciance, pretense-all this melts before the penetrating gaze of the artist, who has made his feelings known with such delicate irony.
If it is clear that Modigliani disdained Madame Amédée, the same cannot be said for Gypsy Woman with Baby. This first attempt at a mother-and-child theme, painted in 1919, soon after Modigliani became a father himself, could not be more of a contrast. Instead of the heavy outlines and uncompromising pose, here are pastels that seem to float across the canvas. Fragile grays, going from blue to green, are harmoniously intertwined within outlines that have been softened and blurred, the paint broken up into thumb-like patches of color. The mother, hardly more than a girl, with her high coloring, skewed nose, pretty mouth, and sweet, lost look, presses her baby against her as if clinging to a life raft. The effect is poetic as well as endearing; no wonder it was one of the first Modiglianis Maud Dale persuaded her husband to buy. As a final, masterful touch, the artist has added, in his subject's otherwise neat coiffure, a single escaping wisp of hair.
I arrived at length at Modigliani's portrait of Chaim Soutine, who was still only a boy when he escaped from Russia and came to Paris to study art in 1913, meeting Modigliani shortly thereafter. Soutine, one of eleven children of cruel parents, barely escaped with his life. Penniless, crude, inarticulate, he was befriended by Modigliani, who painted his portrait a number of times. Here he is, staring out of the frame, a seated figure with tumbling hair and ill-matched clothes, his hands placed awkwardly in his lap, his eyes half closed and peasant nose spreading across his expressionless face. He is ugly, and yet. As Kenneth Silver wrote in The Circle of Montparnasse, "Modigliani manages . . . to convey a kind of poetic beauty in his sitter, that special brand of idealization for which he is justly famous."
This same ability can be found in Modigliani's chef d'oeuvre, Nude on a Blue Cushion, one of the painter's series of grand horizontals, painted three years before his death. Whatever I had seen or remembered of this work from catalogs was again a pale reflection of the work's power at close range; this one, in a frame of dull gold with inserts of black, dominated the room. The girl's limbs are softly rounded, her thighs full, and the outlines of her breasts delineated with a fine black line, nipples blushes of pink. She is half lying, half-raised on one arm, and a hand touches her face, which is turned toward the viewer with a smile. This is a girl who wants to be liked and is not at all sure of the reception, as is suggested by fastidious painterly details, such as the light and shade around the forehead, a touch of pink beside the nose, and the hint of a line under one eye. At close range, one discovers so many of these unexpected touches: the smidgen of blue on a wrist which picks up the color of the cushion, the patch of pink on a knee, the dot at the corner of an eye, and the same judiciously considered background.
All master portraits have a sense of inevitability about them-one thinks of the personalities so brilliantly memorialized by John Singer Sargent-but as I looked around the room it seemed that more was being said than a probing of personality alone, or even painterly experiments in compositional techniques and simplified forms. There had to be a clue to the riddle. I looked again at the single piece of sculpture, a limestone head of a woman, standing on a pedestal in one corner of the room. The head, carved from a rectangular piece of stone, was consequently elongated, its nose radically long, mouth barely indicated, eyes enigmatic and impassive. One thought, as Bernard Dorival wrote, of the religious power found in Khmer and Chinese sculptures. Monumentality-otherworldliness-the transcendental- such thoughts rose to the surface and whirled around in my head. As I knew, an interior stir was the first sign that one's point of view would be turned upside down and transformed by a new experience. An artist capable of inciting such thoughts had to be something of a magician. And yet, was this someone one would have to know well in order to know him at all? I had to find out.
The response Modigliani's work had aroused in me was hardly unique. In the years immediately following his death in 1920, a few dealers, critics, and collectors were determined to educate a more or less indifferent public. Maud Dale saw to it that her husband Chester would become the largest single collector of Modigliani's work and wrote a monograph. So did Giovanni Scheiwiller, a critic and dealer, whose connections with Modigliani's family began soon after his death. Paul Guillaume, one of his two dealers, wrote an appreciation, and others, among them Jean Cocteau, Adolphe Basler, and Louis Latourette, began to publish their own accounts.
In 1926 André Salmon, poet and journalist, published a seeming celebration of Modigliani's art that made frequent references to the artist's apparent addiction to drugs and...
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