Experiment Station readers may recall the Modigliani: Beyond the Myth exhibition at the Phillips in 2005. The past ten years has seen an increase of interest in Modigliani who was the subject of the Phillips show and three other major traveling exhibitions. Recently, D.C.-based biographer Meryle Secrest, who specializes in books on art world figures, such as Salvador Dali, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Sir Kenneth Clarke, completed a biography of Modigliani.
Secrest’s biography of Modigliani walks the tight rope between a scholarly and popular read. Secrest’s scholarly goal is to reveal that Modigliani, infamous for his self-destructive behavior that included prolific drug use and dissolute living leading to his tragic death at age 35, has not been properly recognized a tuberculosis sufferer. This disease, from which he suffered first as a child and ultimately contributed to his death, nearly killed him before he reached his 15th birthday. Consequently, Secrest writes about the disease extensively. One learns in great detail not just how tuberculosis afflicted Modigliani the reason it was known as consumption: “because that’s what it did; immediately or by slow degrees, it would consume the lungs and infiltrate the body until the flesh had burned away and the victim could count his ribs.”
As an avid admirer of Modigliani and someone who tries to read everything I can about him, Secrest’s book was intriguing to me not because she offered new insights on his work, but rather because she helped me see his work in a new light. I have always found Modigliani’s portraits of friends and associates of Montparnasse remarkable for the way in which he transformed them into visages of incredible depth and beauty idealized to resemble semi-divine beings from which he drew inspiration: early Renaissance angels, Cycladic figurines, African deities, images of living gods such as Egyptian pharaohs and Khmer God-Kings. Yet each portrait is also recognizable as an individual, a Jean Cocteau, Juan Gris, or most often his equally doomed mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne.
It never occurred to me to consider Modigliani’s art as a psychological talisman against the ravages of tuberculosis and other diseases from which he and so many others suffered at the beginning of the 20th century. Perhaps Modigliani’s art was a means to emotionally preserve the best of those he knew and lovingly, but never sentimentally, rendered. His art ignored or downplayed the harsh world. After all, in addition to tuberculosis Modigliani lived through the devastating effects of World War I, about which he could do nothing. His portraits reveal little of the poverty, war, blood, fever, pain, disease, and delirium from which he and many of the School of Paris suffered. He sought something else in his art, something eternal, noble, and exalted. Modigliani once wrote of his artistic goal to a friend: “I will try to reveal . . . the metaphysical architecture—to create my own truth on life, on beauty and on art.”