It shouldn’t be possible to write a dull life of Amedeo Modigliani, but Meyers (Impressionist Quartet, 2005) manages the task.
The most cursed of the artists maudit who crowded bohemian Paris in the early-20th century, Modigliani burned his candle at both ends and in the middle to boot, dying in obscure poverty only a few years before collectors discovered his work. Among his peers, Modi’s vast talent was legendary, as was his charismatic personality and his striking physical beauty. But in the age of Cubism and abstraction, he dedicated himself to the sensuous, figurative painting evident in his renowned series of erotic nudes and couldn’t help but be overshadowed by his friend and rival Picasso. Though Modigliani never received the recognition he craved, he lived a brief life of extraordinary abandon. A devotee of Nietzsche and of Lautréamont, and a gifted poet himself, this pampered son from a family of bourgeois Italian Jews became the most terrible of Paris’s enfants terribles. Even in a community notorious for its excesses, Modi stood out for the wretched intensity of his drinking and drug use and for the grand passion of his many unhappy love affairs. By the age of 35, he was dead of tuberculosis. Unfortunately for Meyers, Modigliani left almost no letters or diaries behind, and the only written records that survive come from heavily poeticized tributes written after his death. Lacking the material to construct a distinctive portrait, Meyers seeks to render Modigliani by invoking strained comparisons to other men he may have resembled. (“Though the two artists never met, the tragic career of . . . French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Breszka . . . illuminates Modi’s character.”)
This narrative is taken over by doubtful speculations and by a faithful, but wearying catalogue of an oeuvre renowned for its lack of variety.