- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2011

By Meryle Secrest
Knopf, $35, 387 pages

If you missed Paris this spring, or in the heady era a century ago when it was the center of the art world, let Meryle Secrest take you there. This is the Paris of the young Picasso and the aging Proust, of Gertrude Stein and Jean Cocteau, of Utrillo, Braque, Leger and Matisse. Perhaps it was the city that Fitzgerald and Hemingway read about as young swells and went on to lionize in the 1920s. Certainly it was an extraordinary city, a world capital of beauty and war, of genius and squalor.

Nevertheless, Paris of the years bracketing World War I, where much of “Modigliani: A Life” takes place, was very messy, and the man himself was a consummate shambles. Chronically ill, he abused every intoxicant and opiate he could lay his hands on: alcohol, whether fermented or distilled; opium; hashish, whatever. He was alcoholic, exhibitionistic and violent. He was also romantic, charming and, as the dust-jacket picture proves in a flash, gorgeous.

Most important, as Ms. Secrest illuminates in this captivating biography, Modigliani was a seminal creator, a major contributor to the art and the sensibility we call “modern.” Posthumously, he proves to have been one of the most popular ever. Given that plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery and counterfeiting a sure proof of value, he “is one of the ten most faked artists in the world.”

By birth he was an Italian and a Sephardic Jew, scion of a family that claimed descent from Spinoza. Girded with pretensions to aristo elegance, the Modigliani clan prospered and failed, dusted off their pride, prospered and failed again. Young Amedeo (“Beloved of God,” called “Dedo” in famiglia) was a frail and febrile child, almost terminally sickly, who found a reason to live in making art. He left Livorno in his teens, funded by doting kin, to enter Paris as a pampered dandy and dedicated sculptor.

Enchanted by the African objects that were gaining cachet, he worked directly in stone and carved several magnificent heads before that work exhausted him physically. Then, having exhausted his family’s largesse, he lived a life of squalid extravagance in Montparnasse, penniless much of the time, relying on the kindness of lovers and strangers, supporting himself largely on his charm and becoming the prototypical starving artist.

When he died young and his very pregnant, lunatic wife threw herself from a window days later, he was immortalized as the very paradigm of the starving creative genius. In this view, he was driven to fatal depths of drink by a tormented soul and dire circumstance, etc., etc., an image that was replicated like poster art in articles, books and a movie. Friends called him “Modi,” a nickname that puns on maudit, French for “accursed.”

Ms. Secrest says it isn’t so. The man she reveals was much better than that, a genuine genius who was hobbled (not crippled) by abundant mortal and moral failings and doomed by a fatal secret, which he kept hidden until it killed him. While conventional wisdom called him a lush, Ms. Secrest discovered through her exhaustive research that he drank to ease a chronic and socially horrific disease, tuberculosis. The HIV/AIDS of its time in terms of taboo, TB was as universally fatal as the scourge of the late 20th century yet more insidious in being contagious without benefit of intimate contact. Alcohol didn’t cure “consumption,” but it kept the sufferer from coughing and giving himself away. Thus, in part at least, Modigliani drank throughout his waking hours to treat the symptoms and self-medicated all the more as his disease worsened, with predictable results.

Ms. Secrest makes a convincing case for her diagnosis and in so doing contributes a solid datum to art history, though it is not the most interesting aspect of the book. A highly successful and seasoned biographer, she has again written a life that projects the place and period of her subject, one that explains his world and some of ours.

An adoptive Washingtonian, she opens at our National Gallery with an epiphany at discovering the power of an original painting not found in reproductions. Honoring the gallery’s patrons Maud and Chester Dale, she writes of “Nude on a Blue Cushion”: “Whatever I had seen or remembered of this work from catalogs was again a pale reflection of the work’s power. … At close range one discovers so many of these unexpected touches: the smidgen of blue on a wrist which picks up the color of the cushion, the patch of pink on a knee, the dot at the corner of an eye.” Displaying Modigliani’s signature sense of line, the picture amazes Secrest with its unique and catholic humanity: “An artist capable of inciting such thoughts had to be something of a magician.”

The biographer herself is something of a phenom, having written biographies of 10 premier figures in our cultural pantheon, among them Bernard Berenson, Salvador Dali, Frank Lloyd Wright and Leonard Bernstein. Inevitably if perplexingly, then, writing here about another 20th-century icon, she occasionally refers to one of her previous subjects without acknowledging whether she is quoting herself or using grist from an earlier work.

In this respect, she resembles a great journalist at the top of her game, recycling material and experience in a new context and to good purpose. (For the record, this reviewer first knew her personally as a society reporter ages ago when we both worked on another local newspaper.) Generously, lyrically and expertly, she makes every reader the beneficiary of her hard work and hard-won knowledge. And in this volume she gives us Paris too, in its grit and glory.

Philip Kopper, who writes on Americana and culture, is the author of several museum histories, including “America’s National Gallery of Art, A Gift to the Nation,” and the ghosted memoir, “A Museum of Their Own, National Museum of Women in the Arts.”

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