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We all know that Modi, Amedeo Modigliani, was a talented and stunningly handsome bohemian who died at 35.
There hasn't been a biography of him for decades. Now, a writing machine named Jeffery Meyers has published Modigliani - A Life (Harcourt, 171pp., $27), which tells us in no little detail what we already knew: that Modi drank himself to death while making all those who loved him absolutely miserable.
Meyers has written more biographies than many people have had hot dinners. The rather mechanical approach to this book and its stereotyped descriptions of all the poets, lovers, artists and dealers who had anything to do with Modi explains how.
While Meyers details the degradation and squalor in which the drunken and poverty-stricken artist worked, particularly in his final years, he seems unaware that these were the years in which Modi produced his very best canvases, among them the 17 oils of his spineless and besotted mistress, Jeanne Hebuterne. No two are the same; each poses and solves a different compositional equation.
The couple had an infant daughter, also named Jeanne (whom I once met in Jerusalem), and Hebuterne was nine months pregnant when she walked backwards out of a fourth floor window several days after Modi's death. Her suicide and the large number of her portraits suggests a great love between them. But Modi, a serial wencher, his weakened condition notwithstanding (he also had TB), was cheating on her till the end.
Modigliani was born into an educated Jewish family in Livorno (Leghorn) and was fluent in French before he reached Paris. He quickly became friendly with every single painter of importance in Paris. Handsome, well dressed, educated and amusing, he was a magnet for women. Among his countless lovers were Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova, feminist Beatrice Hastings and later, Simone Thiroux.
He lived first in Montmartre and later in cheaper Montparnasse, with several drying-out periods in Livorno. He tried drugs, but his great weakness was absinthe. Eventually, he could not paint without swigging from a bottle, and his dealers Guillaume and finally Zoborowski kept him supplied in order to keep him working; he made them a great deal of money. He lived in poverty, but within a year of his death, his canvases were changing hands for huge sums.
In his early days, Modi had perfected a way of making fashion drawings by retracing his stylized forms until he got them right. His real compositional breakthrough was via his sculptures, when he seized upon his language of stylization. The elongated noses and necks, not to mention the sightless eyes, of his mature canvases, are all derived from his sculptures.
Modi usually worked from a model or sitter, but never copied them; they were basically just a point of departure. Marvelously true, his portraits convinced you that they were precisely the character of the sitter. Yet what was wonderful about them was their composition and lively handling. Modi painted quickly, using turpentine to produce thin layers of oil paint, which was often scumbled onto the canvas. This and the perfect pitch of his linear compositions resulted in a painting that was as lively as it was personal; there is no mistaking the immediacy of a Modigliani, nor the identity of its creator. His late work is as lively today as when it was painted.
Modi's daughter Jeanne did not inherit a scrap of his talent or vision. Four decades ago, she had a show of her inconsequential little paintings at the Nora Gallery in Jerusalem. They were all signed Modigliani. I usually shun contact with artists but I could not resist the chance to chat with her. She was pleasant, modest and incredibly ordinary. She had never known her parents but had grown up on the same Modi myths we all knew. The best that one could say of her show was that she had not attempted to imitate her father.