Life of troubled artist Modigliani explored in new biography

In 2004, a major exhibition of paintings and sculpture by Amedeo Modigliani was displayed at the Jewish Museum of New York. It was the first major presentation of the artist’s work since 1951 when New York’s Museum of Modern Art presented a retrospective show of his work.

The Jewish Museum presentation was accompanied by a beautifully illustrated catalog that contained 165 color plates and 50 black and white photographs. It also had several essays written in the ponderous style of art historians in which there was buried an account of Modigliani’s short and unhappy life. The essays were printed in small type, adding to their inaccessibility. However, the stunning pictures made the catalog a book to be treasured.

Jeffrey Meyers now offers “Modigliani: A Life,” a well-written and easy-to-read biography of the Jewish artist. Meyers, who lives in Berkeley, appeared Sept. 19 at Berkeley’s Black Oak Books to discuss the book, an event co-sponsored by the Judah L. Magnes Museum and the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay.

In contrast to the Jewish Museum catalog, published by the Yale University Press, Meyers’ book contains no pictures. It is strange to read an entire volume about an artist without a single illustration. One might imagine that Meyers was familiar with Ben Jonson’s poem “On the Portrait of Shakespeare,” which ends “…reader, look not on his picture, but his book.” If so, he would have been better off heeding the admonition that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

To his credit, Meyers tries valiantly to paint with words descriptions of Modigliani’s work, but this laborious effort would have been unnecessary had the book included pictures. In any case, the focus of the book is on the story of the artist’s life. However, since Modigliani painted most of the people with whom he interacted, Meyers is forced to put into words a delineation of the pictures as well as an account of how their subjects related to the artist.

Born in Livorno (Leghorn), Italy, in 1884 to a Sephardic Jewish family, Modigliani was a sickly child who was diagnosed as having tuberculosis at a young age. His dissolute life, filled with alcohol, drugs and poverty, aggravated his illness. After some training in Italy, Modigliani settled in Paris in 1906 and, except for a few trips back to Italy, made Paris his home until he died of tubercular meningitis at the age of 35.

His Jewishness was important to him and he was shocked by the anti-Semitism he saw in Paris, especially since he arrived there the year that Alfred Dreyfus was exonerated. Several of his paintings feature Jewish subjects.

In Paris, Modigliani was friendly with Picasso and many other famous artists such as Brancusi, Derain, Vlaminck and Utrillo. He was a member of the Circle of Montparnasse, a group of Jewish artists who lived in the early part of the 20th century. Included in this circle, also known as the École de Paris, were Chagall, Lipchitz, Pascin and Kisling.

One of Modigliani’s closest friends was a Jew named Max Jacob. A painter, poet and mystic, he believed that drugs heightened his imagination. They shared drugs, alcohol and poverty as Modigliani moved “from dissipation to disaster … to the drunken madman.”

He had one mistress after another, often starting when the women posed for him. His final romance was with a young student who committed suicide two days after Modigliani died.

Modigliani was exposed to many of the “schools” of art that arose in Paris, such as Cubism and Fauvism. He was also influenced by medieval, Byzantine and African art as well as by the work of El Greco. But he developed his own style, featuring elongated necks and angular faces.

His work received no recognition during his lifetime, although he is now considered to be one of the great modern artists and paintings by him sell for millions of dollars.

Meyers, who has written biographies of Katherine Mansfield, Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham, has succeeded brilliantly in capturing the sad and sordid story of Amedeo Modigliani, despite the handicap of having no pictures.

“Modigliani: A Life” by Jeffrey Meyers (288 pages, Harcourt, $27).