Down and out in turn-of-the-century Paris, painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani played the bohemian to the hilt, living on next to nothing, socializing with the likes of Picasso and Jean Cocteau. He took a string of lovers, the last of whom, Jeanne Hébuterne, threw herself from a sixth-story window, while pregnant, just days after his death.
Supposedly, this is the stuff of the “great men” that biographer Meryle Secrest previously pursued, penning the lives of Frank Lloyd Wright, Salvador Dalí, and Joseph Duveen, among others. In her latest, Modigliani: A Life (Knopf), published Mar. 1, she advances the theory that the common perception of Modigliani as being dissolute is based on widespread misunderstandings and even on the artist’s own dissembling. She relies on evidence that the artist suffered from tuberculosis as a child, and he may have used alcohol as self-prescribed cough suppressants. Modigliani had only modest success in his lifetime, and died long before his works achieved the renowned status they hold today.
Art in America spoke with Secrest recently about her findings and her theories about Amedeo (translation: “beloved of God”) Modigliani.
BRIAN BOUCHER: Your research involved as much investigation as analysis, with visits to archives and surviving relatives and so on. How long did the research and writing take?
MERYLE SECREST: It took about three-and-a-half to four years. This, I can say, has to be the most difficult thing I’ve ever attempted. First of all, he died 90 years ago—not smart, Meryle! Not only do you have no witnesses; you don’t even have grandchildren of witnesses. But I was sure I was going to find some letters. And practically speaking, there were none. So you do what journalists do—you write around the person, and there’s lots of stories about him. How reliable are the stories? That is when I really stubbed my toe. They are totally unreliable. Witnesses have been constructing a false persona for 90 years, and it’s gained the status of fact.
BOUCHER: You point out the misrepresentations of the artist in previous biographies and films. What do you think are the most absurd or pernicious myths about Modigliani?
SECREST: That this man was a dissolute womanizer, a drunk, a worthless personality who happened to paint a few pictures. The worst is that he was a drunk. That’s a lie.
BOUCHER: What is very poignant, as you lay it out in the book, is the relationship between Modigliani’s perceived alcoholism and his battle with tuberculosis—which, you believe, he kept a secret.
SECREST: Nobody saw it. Nobody thought about it. In fairness to earlier chroniclers, there were two things happening: First, when people saw him drinking, they’d think, “he’s fine.” Second, there was a taboo. You didn’t talk about TB even if you suspected it. Everyone tiptoed around it because everyone was so scared of it. In the book, I try to explain how extremely common it was. My grandfather died of tuberculosis at 35.
BOUCHER: Would you call it ironic that Modigliani’s celebrated nudes began as a suggestion by his dealer? That these fantastic paintings result from a purely mercenary proposal?
SECREST: At that point, this guy is desperate to earn some money. He devotes four years to making stone heads, which are pretty hard to carry if you’re moving from place to place every six months, and nobody wanted to buy them. Nobody understood them. Then [Paul] Guillaume came along and said, “If you really want to sell something, how about doing naked ladies?”
BOUCHER: You take a new tack on the masklike appearance of faces in his portraits. In your opinion, was this a formal innovation, or a metaphor?
SECREST: I don’t come to it from an art-historical point of view. My interest is in the relationship between the art and the life. The theme of the mask is a very interesting one. Modigliani came from an elegant family that was down on his luck and didn’t want that to be generally known. They found it shameful. Second, it’s just a theory, but I think he himself was wearing a mask. He was pretending to be healthy when he was really ill.
BOUCHER: Naturally, one imagines conversations between Modigliani and others that went unrecorded. If you could be a fly on the wall at one or two of such meetings, which exchanges with what people would you most want to observe?
SECREST: What went on between him and Jeanne Hébuterne that week or 10 days when they had no heat and when he was barely conscious and dying. What were they saying to each other? That is the most baffling thing in his life. What caused this darling girl to throw herself out of a window a few days later? Was he telling her, it’s going to be perfectly easy, all you have to do is jump out of a window and we’ll be together forever? Or that he almost died once and it wasn’t that bad? He was once given up for dead. It’s hard to understand why she would do that with a baby about to be born.
BOUCHER: Beyond possibly obscured illness, how much truth is there in the common re-telling of Modgliani’s penury and drunkenness?
SECREST: When he arrived in Paris, with some money, he went to a nice hotel. Soon the money was all gone and he couldn’t pay to leave. So the hotel took his paintings in lieu of payment, and he would have been there forever but for one incident that he very cleverly exploited. Some of the ceiling fell on his bed during the night and he realized that this was his way out. He really went after the owner, saying he would sue, that he could have died and so on. And the owner finally said, Get out and take your rotten paintings with you.
I think it gave him an idea. Who knows how much of this [drunkenness] was a very cleverly rehearsed show to get out of paying for a meal or booze or whatever it was? I think we’re dealing here with a brilliant man. He’s an actor, he’s a philosopher, he’s extremely well read, he’s got this fantastic gift, and he’s living on the very edge with this horrible disease always hovering over his head. And he does what he has to do, I think.