"Mad, Bad Modigliani"

His iconic paintings and outrageous behavior defined modern art, but Brad Gooch says that a new biography of Modigliani upends our view of him as mere drug-fueled myth.

03.05.11 8:04 PM ET

"'Modi' was a favoured guest at Vassilieva's canteen, and of course she never charged him for anything," wrote the Russian Cubist Marevna, in an early memoir, of her mesmerizing and "mad" friend, the Italian artist Modigliani, and their years, down-and-out in bohemian Montparnasse, in the 1910s. "Sometimes, when drunk, he would begin undressing under the eager eyes of the faded English and American girls who frequented the canteen. He would stand very erect and undo his sash which must have been four or five feet long, then let his trousers slip down to his ankles…then display himself quite naked, slim and white, his torso arched."

A natural-born actor, Amedeo Modigliani, nude or clothed, but ever handsome—"How beautiful he was, my God, how beautiful!" ached Aicha, one of his models—made countless such walk-on (or stagger-on) appearances, often drunk (on milky green absinthe) or stoned (on hashish or cocaine) in the colorful accounts of the period. Certainly many facts of his life support his casting as the Jim Morrison of "the heroic period"—art critic Meyer Schapiro's term for a decade dominated by the Fauves and the Cubists. Modigliani's own signature portraits of melancholic oval heads atop attenuated necks, saturated in rust colors, or his scandalous nudes, barely sold. Two days after his death from tuberculosis, at age 35, his pregnant common-law wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, jumped to her death. "There was something like a curse on this very noble boy," opined Cocteau. "He was beautiful; alcohol and misfortune took their toll on him."

Finally taking on this favorite pun on Modigliani's nickname of Modi—"maudit," or "cursed"—and refreshingly suspicious of a life story that often sounds too neatly lifted from the "vie romancées" that were all-the-rage in 1920s Paris, is Meryle Secrest ( Duveen; Being Bernard Berenson) in her brisk, clear-headed Modigliani: A Life. Among the earliest to question the Modigliani painted, say, in the 1958 film, Modigliani of Montparnasse, as a sad-eyed victim of his own dumbed-down genius, was the art critic John Russell. Working backward from a body-of-work so obviously the legacy of a "profoundly serious and coherent artist," he warned, in a catalog essay for a Tate exhibition in the '60s: "Where myth and anti-myth take over from history, as has been the case with Modigliani since the day of his death, it is never easy to cut back to incontrovertible fact." Secrest has expanded Russell's thought bubble into a book.

Secrest finds the "serious" artist already nascent in the Italian boy, born in Livorno, in 1884, to a family experiencing a sharp reversal of fortune. But young Dedo had an inner GPS directing him toward his destiny: his mother in her diary records him already seeing himself at 12 years old as a painter; he cajoled her to let him take life-drawing classes in Florence, where he read and believed Nietzsche on the artist as superman. In Naples, he admired Greek and Roman sculpture in the National Archaeological Museum; in Siena, he discovered the Trecento sculptor Tino de Camaino, who strongly influenced his own frontal style. But Secrest also finds in his adolescence her passkey: teenage Modigliani contracted tuberculosis, and the medical story of this then-incurable wasting disease helps her to cleave fact from fiction.

"To say that he was loved by women is an almost laughable understatement. All his life, almost before one affair was over, another began."

Moving to Paris, in 1906, Modigliani gravitated, "with his usual perspicacity," to Montmartre, where the action briefly was, and possessing a natural aristocratic manner (though not backed by any family funds), cut a high profile on the streets of the quartier, or at the Lapin Agile, its seedy art hangout. "There's only one man in Paris who knows how to dress and that is Modigliani," said Picasso, of the Italian's uniform of a dark brown corduroy suit, matching vest, open-neck Cretonne shirt, and red kerchief. Secrest assures that "To say that he was loved by women is an almost laughable understatement. All his life, almost before one affair was over, another began." His great pang in Montmartre was the Russian poet, and legendary beauty, Anna Akhmatova. The soul of his output in this period: a series of 20 limestone heads, evocative of African sculpture. (The disappointingly flat market during Modigliani's lifetime has spiked remarkably ever since: one of these stone heads sold, in June 2010, for $52.6 million.)

Modigliani: A Life By Meryle Secrest 416 pages. Knopf. $35.

Anticipating Picasso's move by several months, Modigliani moved in spring 1909 to "newly fashionable" Montparnasse, shifting allegiance to the cafes Dome and Rotonde. Here he worked in earnest on his haunting portraits of mostly painters, poets, and working men and women, none smiling. "Many of his sitters give one a sense of life on the edge," writes Secrest, "They seem imbued with a pervasive sadness." (While avoiding heavy art crit analysis, Secrest describes paintings well, rightly pointing out, for instance, in a 1915 portrait of another lover of Modigliani's, Beatrice Hastings, her "wearing a hat that looks more like a boat.") He then had a daughter out-of-wedlock with his last tragic romance, the 19-year-old art student Hébuterne. Following his death in a charity hospital in the Latin Quarter on January 24, 1920, Modigliani was honored by a funeral cortege through Paris, trailed by Picasso, Leger, Soutine, and Jacob. Jeanne's body, secreted away, was only later reburied next to his, in Père Lachaise.

A tart biographer, whose last book, Shoot the Widow, deconstructed the family politics that bedevil the craft, Secrest uses her skepticism of sources to cool some of the received wisdom surrounding "the most mythologized modern artist since Van Gogh." Although Modigliani's death certificate lists the cause as "tubercular meningitis," axiomatic has been the certainty that here "was a brilliant young artist who ruined his health and died prematurely from drugs and drink." Secrest marshals a scenario to prove he was camouflaging symptoms: rather than coughing up blood, and facing eviction, Modigliani used the antispasmodics opium, brandy, and whiskey as self-medication. She also discovered new information from Luc Prunet, a grand-nephew of Jeanne Hébuterne, who after objecting to his aunt's portrayal in the book forbade any reproduction of her photos or paintings. In a Shoot the Grand-Nephew moment, Secrest directs the reader to a Google search or Wikipedia entry where all these images "are easily retrievable."

In place of the idée reçu of a shambling, self-destructive bad boy, Secrest restores the ambitious artist who fulfilled an aesthetic mission, especially in the 54 major paintings of his final year. She connects the dots of his "courageous and lonely masquerade"; even the wily Picasso wondered why no one ever saw Modigliani drunk on deserted Boulevard St. Denis but always at the highly public corner of Boulevard Montparnasse. Some of Secrest's theories are iffy—she claims the gaunt women of his portraits must be coded consumptives. Yet the upshot of the demythologizing is to leave a stubborn after-image of an even more compelling Modigliani, the purveyor of the purest line in modern art. As art historian (and Modigliani expert) Marc Restellini once promised: "Behind the legend of the sole ‘artist maudit' of the twentieth century stands a visionary artist with an extremely radical philosophical conception of his art."

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Brad Gooch is a professor of english at William Paterson University in New Jersey. His latest book is Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor