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Book review: 'Modigliani: A Life' by Meryle Secrest

A museum encounter with a Modigliani sculpture sent the author on a quest to learn the secrets of the artist known for mask-like faces. A more complex understanding results.

February 27, 2011|By Suzanne Muchnic | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Amedeo Modliglianis Portrait of Anna (Hanka) Zborowska, from 1916.
Amedeo Modliglianis Portrait of Anna (Hanka) Zborowska, from 1916. (Jewish Museum / Associated…)

Modigliani

A Life

Meryle Secrest

Alfred A. Knopf: 400 pp., $35

Amedeo Modigliani occupies a paradoxical place in art history. The Italian painter and sculptor who rose to fame in early 20th century Paris is both revered and disdained for his trademark style and wildly romanticized life story.

As an artist, Modigliani is known as a portraitist who elongated noses and necks, rounded shoulders and turned eyes into almond shapes. As a personality, he has been mythologized as a tragic figure who died of tubercular meningitis at 35 and whose pregnant mistress leapt to her death two days later.

His work is represented in collections of major museums and commands huge sums at auction. Last June, a limestone sculpture of a woman's head brought $52.6 million at Christie's Paris; in November, a painting of a female nude was sold for $68.9 million at Sotheby's New York.

But Modigliani gets little, if any, attention in art survey books and encyclopedias. Many scholars and critics view him as a minor artist who doesn't begin to measure up to his international School of Paris colleagues, including Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Constantin Brancusi and Chaim Soutine.

"A pleasant mediocrity who occasionally touched a resonant sentimental chord, he is not well served when surrounded by his artistic betters," wrote Christopher Knight, The Times' art critic, in a review of "Modigliani and the Artists of Montparnasse," a traveling exhibition that appeared at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2003.

Meryle Secrest, author of a new biography of Modigliani, is among the artist's admirers. Happening upon a small display of his work a few years ago at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., she was impressed with what she saw as "a powerful sensibility." The painted portraits struck her as more than "a probing of personality" or mere experiments with composition and form. The single sculpture on display, an abstract head carved from a rectangular block of stone, seemed to resonate with spiritual force.

"An artist capable of inciting such thoughts had to be something of a magician," she writes. "And yet, was this someone one would have to know well in order to know him at all? I had to find out."

An engaging writer and highly accomplished biographer of Frank Lloyd Wright, Stephen Sondheim and Salvador Dali, among others, she left few stones unturned as she attempted to fill gaps and separate fact from fiction. Was Modigliani a debauched, deeply tormented character who drank himself to death? Did he deserve to have his nickname, Modi, transmuted to maudit (French for "accursed")? No, but Secrest wasn't able to get to the bottom of every anecdote. The book is almost as much a tale of her search for the real Modigliani as a revelation of the artist himself.

Despite her passion for the project, it soon gets bogged down in details of family history, the artist's childhood and the horrors of tuberculosis. By Page 80, when Secrest is trying to figure out why Modigliani's mother presented him with an Oscar Wilde poem before he set off for Paris, readers may wonder whether she will ever get around to writing about the art that so inspired her.

She does. But she's more interested in the notion that Modigliani's battle with a dreaded disease — and, more important, his compulsion to hide it — is an essential clue to his reportedly erratic behavior and the mask-like faces in his art.

Born in Livorno in 1884, Modigliani grew up in genteel poverty, the youngest of four children in a Jewish family. Thanks to a doting mother and uncle, he got more than his share of the family's limited resources for education and travel. But that didn't protect him from several bouts of serious illness. At 16, he knew that he would be an artist and that he had contracted a disease that would kill him.

In 1906, with his tuberculosis in remission, he moved to Paris and settled into artists' colonies, initially in Montmartre and later in Montparnasse. Although he had little money — and no inclination to use it wisely — he had plenty of charm, a flair for fashion and an aristocratic air that set him apart.

Influenced by Brancusi's work and African sculpture but determined to develop his own style, Modigliani concentrated on carving heads in limestone from about 1910 to 1913. But he never stopped drawing and painting. His portraits constitute a gallery of fellow artists, friends and mistresses, including Jeanne Hebuterne, who was so intertwined with him in his final years that she took her life after his demise.

As Modigliani's work matured, he gained support from dealers but didn't have a one-man exhibition until 1917, three years before his death. By then, Secrest contends, he was desperate to make the most of his remaining time while concealing his secret. Her argument that psychic scars of illness have obscured his artistic legacy probably won't change scholarly opinions of his work, but the man she portrays is far more complicated and interesting than his popular image.

A former Times staff writer, Muchnic is the author of "Odd Man In: Norton Simon and the Pursuit of Culture."

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