The Modigliani Myth


(This review was first published in the Jerusalem Report/Jerusalem Post in 2012, and is being posted here again to coincide with “Modigliani Unmasked”, an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York which opens on September 15.)

JERUSALEM REPORT, January 16, 2012

Modigliani: a life
By Meryle Secrest
A. Knopf
416 pages; $35

The Modigliani Myth

Meryle Secrest fails in her attempt to debunk the myth of Amedeo Modigliani, ‘the cursed artist’

by Yaëlle Azagury

“There is some Myth for every man which, if we but knew it, would make us understand all that he knew and thought.”515oYk78ZNL._AC_UL320_SR226,320_

This quote from Irish poet W. B. Yeats launches the American researcher and biographer Meryle Secrest in her quest for the “myth,” or key, of the Italian Jewish painter Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920). Secrest, the recipient of the 2006 U.S. National Humanities Medal, sets out to debunk the prevailing wisdom that Modigliani “was a brilliant young artist who ruined his health and died prematurely from drugs and drink.”

But though she reinterprets old sources with insight as well as bringing new evidence into focus, and avoids the temptation of fictionalizing her subject, she fails to make her story compelling, or even lively.   Her investigation is serious and her efforts earnest, yet Modigliani never entirely comes alive.

Born in Livorno (Leghorn), Italy, into a cultivated Jewish family, the painter known for his elongated figures with swan-like necks and almond-shaped eyes died in poverty in Paris at age 35 just as his art was starting to earn recognition. His death, followed two days later by the suicide of his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne, then eight-months pregnant, is represented by Secrest as Greek tragedy. Hence Modigliani, “Modi the cursed artist,” as his friends called him (maudit means cursed in French), and the myth that followed.

Secrest starts off with an examination of Modigliani’s family.   His mother came from the Garsins, a genteel family of Sephardi Jews from Marseilles. They were cultured and sophisticated. They had a talent for acting, a strain of superstition, eccentricity, and even madness, with an aristocratic disdain for money: easy come, easy go. The Modiglianis on the other hand were a less sophisticated but more money-savvy Jewish family from Livorno, a thriving center of Sephardi Jewish life. Unfortunately, Secrest’s account of her subject’s family background doesn’t quite captivate our attention.

Her narrative is often tedious, unimaginative, and confusing. Granted, the sources on Modigliani’s family are patchy. But we do know quite a lot about the fascinating Livornese Jewish community.

The Mediterranean port of Livorno, where Jews had enjoyed unprecedented rights and privileges since the 15th century, was a thriving commercial and intellectual center of Jewish life. Because of its strategic geographic position, the Jewish community, mainly Sephardim who had arrived after the Inquisition in the late 1590s, acted as a meeting point for other Jewish communities such as those of Amsterdam, London, Tunis, Fez or Damascus.

But Secrest’s account of Jewish life in Livorno, which probably shaped Modigliani, is sketchy. She is not fluent in Italian and Italian Jewish culture: her sources are old and do not reflect modern scholarship. Worse, she notes that Modigliani was circumcised “eight hours after his birth,” not eight days; and she quotes Leo Rosten, a writer best known for his work “The Joys of Yiddish” (1968), to claim that Sephardim spoke Ladino. In fact, they spoke Judeo-Spanish (Judezmo), Judeo-Italian, or Judeo-Arabic. Ladino, a literal Spanish transcription of Hebrew texts, is properly a term applied only to written literature.

The book fortunately gets more compelling as Secrest follows Modigliani to Paris where he arrived in 1906 to pursue his calling, fresh from his studies in Livorno and Venice’s Scuola Libera del Nudo and Academia delle Belle Arti. He led “la vie de bohème” in nonconformist Montmartre, and then Montparnasse. Secrest does not have anything new to say on bohemian Paris, but she does get our attention.

A dashing young man with the looks of the Roman emperor Hadrian, “Modi” had a great ability to make friends: he quickly attached himself to painters such as Gino Severini, Maria Marevna, Moise Kisling, Chaim Soutine, and Pablo Picasso. Picasso and Modigliani admired each other’s style: both experimented with mask-like stylization and geometric emphasis of the face. But there was also a secret artistic rivalry between the two. He also numbered among his acquaintances the sculptors Constantin Brancusi and Chana Orloff (Modigliani had wanted to be a sculptor early in his career), and writers such as Ilya Ehrenburg, André Salmon, Jean Cocteau, and Anna Akhmatova.

Secrest reports on life at the Bateau Lavoir, a squalid tenement turned artists’ home, where Modigliani lived, and his subsequent moves to even more rudimentary locales as he became increasingly poor. He was a notorious spendthrift, quickly dissipating the stipend sent by his family, and ate on credit-especially at Chez Rosalie, a vermin-ridden restaurant which fed starving artists. Legend has it that he paid the picturesque eponymous Rosalie once by painting a fresco on one of her walls. She covered it with white paint the next day.

Secrest is at her best on Modigliani and the women who loved him. The portrait of Anna Akhmatova is finely sketched; the poet and journalist Beatrice Hastings, a charismatic free-thinker with whom Modigliani fell madly in love in 1914 and had a tempestuous relationship, and the young Jeanne Hébuterne, his last mistress, both complex and enigmatic, are evocatively and convincingly recreated. Even Jeanne Modigliani, Amedeo’s daughter by Hébuterne poignantly comes alive.

But one of the biographer’s central contentions is unconvincing. Secrest attributes Modigliani’s drinking and drug – taking (hashish, opium, absinthe and ether were among his intoxicants of choice) to his ill-health. As opposed to previous biographers who did not find his illness significant, Secrest contends that he succumbed to tubercular meningitis, related to tuberculosis, which can infect the brain. Tuberculosis had affected him for a long time and his drinking was a way of controlling his symptoms. Alcohol, Secrest reminds us, is an efficient, albeit primitive anti-spasmodic. Acting as a kind of anesthetic, it suppresses the urge to spit and cough.

This, however, seems overstretched and unconvincing. Alcohol is addictive, regardless of the intention, and has the same outcome, whether one drinks for pleasure or for medical reasons. Modigliani was often drunk.

Furthermore, Secrest draws the portrait of an artist harrowed by tuberculosis, the disease whose impact on the collective imagination then is comparable to AIDS today. She devotes an entire chapter to consumption, as it was then called, listing artists, writers, and poets who were affected by it. Several studies have explored the link between creative temperaments and tuberculosis, weaving a romantic mythology around it.

In other words, Secrest is reinforcing the myth of Modigliani, the cursed artist, just from a different perspective. She believes this made him obsessed with death (“I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar”). But even an amateur observer can see that Modigliani’s paintings are luminous rather than ominous.

Finally, another of the book’s weaknesses is the lack of discussion on Modigliani’s Jewishness, or rather, the Jewishness of his art.   Secrest deals with this issue in a single paragraph. She notes: “he was casually blunt about his beliefs. “Hello, I’m Jewish,” was the direct approach to anyone who wasn’t.” She also adds that he vigorously attacked anti-Semites, and mentions that Stars of David and other religious symbols featuring in the sephirot of kabbala, and in the teachings of the Livornese 19th century Kabbalist Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh appear in his art.   But overall, Secrest concludes that he should mainly be linked to the “Greco-Roman and Italianate roots of Western art.” For instance, his Caryatids (1911-1913), a series of drawings and watercolors, clearly bear the influence of classical antiquity.

It is true that he was less haunted by his Jewishness than Marc Chagall or Soutine who came from lands where Jews were severely persecuted. Chagall made extensive use of Jewish imagery and myth, as did Soutine, who blended Jewish themes with Fauvism and Cubism. Both are considered Jewish artists.

But what exactly is Jewish Art? Is it merely defined by the artist’s religious identification or by the themes that preoccupy him? There is Christian art, as exemplified in the stained glasses of churches and cathedrals; or a Muslim art in Persian miniatures, or a Buddhist art in the statues and temples of Asia. But ever since the Golden Calf, Judaism has always been wary of visual representation, which may lead to idolatry. This is perhaps why it is an intellectual rather than an esthetic religion.

Esthetics lead to the exaltation of beauty, and exalted beauty is a subtle pathway to the sublime, a concept reserved to God. It may be the reason why Jewish artists – painters and sculptors – are rare, at least until recently. In fact, Jewish artists, limited by their observance in what they could portray, expressed themselves through traditional Judaica, the making of ritual objects, manuscript illumination, textile embroidery, and so on. But apart from Judaica, is there Jewish art as such, or must it be relegated to “arts and crafts?”

If the very notion of Jewish art is problematic, what is Jewish about Modigliani’s paintings? His themes certainly aren’t, save for a portrait called “The Jewess,” which, (I must agree here with Secrest) seems unusual enough in his body of work to be singled out by art historians as a quasi-caricature at a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise in France.

Some critics have suggested that Modigliani’s Jewishness lies in his stand as an outsider in the art world, in his artistic independence: mainly a portraitist, he followed no trends, ignoring Cubism and the avant-garde. The argument is fair, but vague. I have another hypothesis. At a time when painters and writers were focused on the deconstruction of the self, Modigliani’s portraits are preoccupied with its construction, its integrity. His art offers a deep concern for the human and a search for unity and essence. There is something ethical about that project. Perhaps therein lies his Jewishness. Judaism, a humanist religion, puts a strong emphasis on human form and dignity.

Ultimately, Jewish art might not exist, at least not in the same way as a Flemish art of portraiture, or an Italian art of form, or a British art of landscapes, or a French art of color. All four artistic traditions rest on a history, a tradition, a theory, and an established culture. Judaism has none of these things precisely because visual representation has always been frowned on.

So there might not be a specifically Jewish art, but rather great art executed by great Jewish artists who were shaped by their tradition. Although Secrest emphasizes the eccentric side of Modigliani’s family, she also hints at his traditional Jewish upbringing. Isaaco Garsin, his grandfather and a man of enormous erudition, was an important influence on Modigliani’s intellectual development until he was 12. He opened him up to Western history, literature and philosophy, but also saw to his religious education. We also know that Amedeo’s father, Flaminio Modigliani, whose authority over the family was absolute, was a strictly observant Jew.

A final hypothesis: it has been argued that “port Jews” (from port cities such as Livorno, Trieste, Amsterdam and Bordeaux) share a similar outlook on the world: religious practices and beliefs tempered by continuous contacts with the outside world brought in by commerce. Their religious observance is broad-minded rather than fierce or militant.

The kabbalist Eliyahu Benamozegh, mentioned above as a source for Modigliani’s imagery, and a proponent of religious universalism, exemplifies this stance. Drawing from halakhic sources, he emphasized Judaism’s universal and humanistic vocation, at a time when emancipation distanced Jews from their religion.

A corollary of this position may be internal contradictions, and a tireless yet dynamic tension between “Self” and “Others,” self-assertion and self-denial, religious isolation and assimilation. This ambivalence is echoed in Modigliani’s significant words to the sculptor Chana Orloff: “I carry no religion, but if I did, it would be the ancient religion of my ancestors.”

Dr. Yaëlle Azagury writes about French and Sephardi culture.

JERUSALEM REPORT, January 16, 2012