Biographies often have a bias, a point to prove; few remain entirely neutral. Jeffrey Meyers appears to have two points to prove to his readers in his new biography, Modigliani, the first of the artist to appear in several years. They are that Modi, as he was affectionately known, was an important sculptor and painter, and that he was a desperately unhappy and self-destructive creature.
Having always loved the work (especially those long female faces) of Modigliani, born in Italy in 1884, I looked forward to reading his life’s story. But the story is painful, full of illness, addiction and loneliness. Far more interesting and captivating (even, sometimes, uplifting) is the life of the Parisian art scene at the time.
Amadeo Modigliani was born in Livorno, “the ugliest place in the most beautiful province of Italy.” In one of his somewhat sensationalized statements, the author writes of his childhood, “Like most twentieth-century artists and writers, Modigliani had a strong mother and weak father.”…
Also like most aspiring and talented artists born in Europe and in the U.S., in the early 20th century, Modigliani gravitated toward Paris, the center of the art world. Although Modi was always poor, often starving, he was not poor for lack of stimulating, creative companionship: his compatriots included Pablo Picasso, Bernard Utrillo, and Constantin Brancusi, and a series of passionately devoted lovers -- poets, artists and feminists among them. Alas, the sculptor/artist had too much fondness for drink, absinthe, ether and hashish and was often out of control. In addition, he had lifelong tuberculosis, never treated, which eventually aided in killing him at the tender age of thirty-five.
As were many artists of that time, Modi was completely true to his art. He did no other jobs; he painted, using live models, selling artwork occasionally to pay the rent and buy his alcohol and drugs. He, as did several other Parisian artists, lived in humble, even filthy conditions so he could continue to express himself, harboring no regrets about how he spent his time.
This biography is sad indeed. Not much light entered this artist’s life except for the light he included in his portraits. The reader keeps wondering why his friends and/or family didn’t help him more when he was in such desperate need. Friends did not help him out, even shunning him in his great time of need, and his mother, who might have helped, was too far away. But almost to the end he remained attractive, seductive to women, fathering a child in his last years. His last love, Jeanne Hebuterne, committed suicide shortly after his death, jumping out a window when she was
eight months pregnant.
The book held my interest in great part because of the story of the Paris of the
'20s and '30s, a glamorous time portrayed to be a bit rougher than I previously suspected. Nevertheless, the City of Light was, and is, romantic and inspirational to artists from around the world. Despite all the sadness (horrifying accounts popped up in almost every chapter) and the lack of critical recognition this artist received, I was relieved for the final paragraph in Meyers’ gripping biography: if I had felt a bias toward the painter’s self-destruction, the author came back around to be fair to his subject in his entirety:
“His physical beauty, glamour and charm, his great talent and frenzied work, his self-destruction and early death made him a legend. Modigliani’s life was tragic, but he had great courage as an artist… He could not entirely fulfill his artistic destiny, but he left us some of the most beautiful and original paintings of the twentieth century.”
This is not Meyers’ first biography of an important creative figure of the 20th century; he is also the author of books on such people as Katherine Mansfield,
D. H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, and the “Impressionist quartet”: Manet and Morisot, Degas and Cassatt. Meyers’ forty-five books have been translated into eleven languages, and he is currently writing a biography of Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century British writer and critic.